the internet could save democracy. but it probably won’t.

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Last week, The Hill reported that Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) had called Chris Coons, the Democratic nominee for the Senate in Delaware, “my pet”. This statement was made in the context of touting Coons’ credentials for Senate, but those specific words were used twice in Harry Reid’s two-paragraph statement on Coons. Unsurprisingly, that quote (which can’t be described as anything but a boneheaded move by Reid) quickly propagated through the right-wing news and opinion blogs, getting attention at Hot Air, Fox News, Instapundit, etc. Currently, a search for “reid coons” on Google will return pages of results highlighting that quote.

Now this talking point seems to have failed to gain a lot of traction in the last week, which I think is just fine. It was a stupid thing for Harry Reid to say, but would only have an impact on the election through playing on people’s fears about the increasing influence of the “Reid-Pelosi cabal.”

But looking a little closer, despite the fact that the quote itself has been replicated and disseminated throughout the online community, I could not find a single article that had independently verified Reid’s statement. Every time I clicked through the links to the source material for a post mentioning that quote, it ended at that same article by The Hill. There is no video, no audio, and no corroboration from another news source that I can find to confirm the fact that Harry Reid actually made that quote.

I am not accusing The Hill of manufacturing quotes (though the uniqueness of their scoop has me suspicious), but rather using this as an example to make a larger point. Had this quote been captured in the days of traditional media, this quote probably would have gotten some airtime on Fox News, mentioned by a number of different personalities as a strike against Coons, and each additional mention would have lent additional credibility to the quote without allowing someone to track the origins of that statement. In contrast, the hyperlinking that has become a major part of online writing these days allowed me to “follow the trail”, so to speak, from every mention of that quote that I could find to that one article on The Hill. So despite the fact that it appears in a number of different places, I know that I can only trust that quote as far as I can trust The Hill.

So what? The Hill got a scoop that no one else did. Good for them. But I think that this example highlights both the potential benefits and downfalls of the internet as a source of news. According to Rasmussen, 67% of people think that they are better informed now than they were 10 years ago, while in the same group, 44% think that the internet is the best way to get news (36% said TV, 11% newspapers and only 9% said radio). But what we must ask ourselves is this: are we getting better quality news from the internet, or are we just getting more news, and mistaking that increase in quantity for an increase in quality?

Which brings me back to the title of this post. News consumption on the internet is a fundamentally different way of consuming information than we’ve ever seen before. The problem is no longer one of access, but rather of time. No matter how much you’ve read/seen/listened to, there’s more content out there waiting to be consumed. So as consumers, there are two decisions to make: which content to ingest, and how to synthesize that content into a worldview. In opening up the possibilities for the former, the internet makes the latter that much more difficult. But it also provides the solution.

More so than ever before, we have the tools available to us to make informed decisions about the relative worth of different viewpoints. YouTube and other streaming video, online radio, access to documents online: all of these things serve to increase our access to primary sources. All of the analysis that we read, from the news article that strives to be as objective as possible (though even “balanced reporting” can go awry, as the NewsHour recently found) to the most biased of opinion journalism, presents primary sources through a filter (an idea I’ve talked about before, here and here). Reading news online allows us to peel back those layers, should we choose to.

That, in my view, is how the internet could save democracy. I don’t mean “save” here in the context of “make everyone think like I do,” but rather “save” in the context of shifting us away from the lies and half-truths that have come to dominate the political discourse and are being employed by politicians to divide the country along partisan lies.

In the last 10 years, generation of news and opinion content has decentralized to an extent previously unimaginable. Anybody can write about anything, and easily broadcast it to the world. However, that decentralization comes with a decoupling of fact-checking from the content generation process. Where traditional media sources have traditionally been tasked with the verification of their data before publishing (though the extent to which they’ve achieved that task is questionable), bloggers are subject to no code of ethics but their own. This complete lack of oversight allows people to make whatever claims they wish, and the ruthless competition for pageviews encourages others to replicate the claim first and check it later (see Sherrod, Shirley).

This leaves the task of fact-checking up to the consumer, who may not be prepared for that kind of responsibility. But the only other alternative is hoping that the voices that make these baseless claims (whether they be politicians, bloggers, talking heads, etc.) will shoulder the responsibility themselves. While William Voegeli asks for precisely that, I’m skeptical of that approach. Politicians are in the business of telling people what they want to hear, and as long as people keep rewarding them for their divisive and misleading statements, they’ll keep doing that. We need to change the incentive structure if we want the behavior to change, and that’s going to take some effort on our part.

The end goal here is not a system in which all people share the same views, because they have read the same data and interpreted it the same way. That’s impossible. Each of us brings a different background to every piece of information we take in, and incorporates that information into our worldview in different ways. But at the very least, we would move toward a situation where we dispense with the outright mistruths and move closer to a situation where we all agree on the underlying data though maybe not on what that data means for public policy.

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One Response to the internet could save democracy. but it probably won’t.

  1. Jeremy Barton says:

    Fantastic post. I’m intrigued by your point about changing the incentive structure. I agree with you, but just curious, do you have any specific thoughts on how to do this? I’d love to hear ’em 🙂

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