Does the Internet Lead to a Narrowing Views?

Slashdot’s Jon Katz wrote an article about the long term social and historical implications of the Internet. Katz seems to agree with University of Chicago Law Professor Carl Sunstein’s this in his book, republic.com, which Katz summarizes as claiming,

In his new book republic.com University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein warns that the emerging Net culture — busy creating personalized “me” media — threatens to undermine one of the basic tenets of democracy — the willingness of people with diverse viewpoints to speak to and hear one another.

The Net is beginning to endanger a democratic society, Sunstein fears, with its fragmentation, advanced moderation and filtering systems. What makes free expression work, Sunstein asks? His answer: exposure to materials that people might not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unprogrammed encounters are central to democracy. A culture that offers increasingly customized speech control preferences enables people to eliminate from their screens and minds anything they might not want to see or hear or might disagree with.

This is a pretty generic claim that academics in communications have been making for years about the effect of technology on media, but it is correct? I don’t see any evidence for it.

In fact, web media is far more diverse than anything the traditional media has ever produced. This is especially the case for international events. Neither the local newspaper nor the national television broadcasts have said anything, for example, about the ongoing controversy in Senegal about whether to try former president of Chad, Hissene Habre, for war crimes (which is especially odd since he had the support of the U.S. government while he was ordering kidnappings, murders and torture in Chad).

Yet on the Internet not only can you find plenty of coverage of such an event, but you usually find coverage from numerous viewpoints. You’re not stuck with the bland Associated Press or Reuters version of events.

If people choose to stick with homogenized, narrow reporting, I suspect it’s because they’re so used to having the traditional media deliver news in that manner rather than something inherent in the web.

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