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Business, Society - Written by on Wednesday, September 23, 2009 10:24 - 18 Comments

Tim Bevins
The Dark Side of Political Discourse on the Internet

This article by Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times Week in Review section is the first I’ve seen (there must be others elsewhere) that broaches a topic that has been on my mind for a while. I guess you could call it “the dark side of the Internet.” Giridharadas wonders: Are we, as citizens, really worthy of and ready for the power of the Internet to carry on political discourse?

Giridharadas writes, “President Obama declared during the campaign that ‘we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’ That messianic phrase held the promise of a new style of politics in this time of tweets and pokes. But it was vague, a paradigm slipped casually into our drinks. To date, the taste has proven bittersweet.” He notes that the Citizen’s Briefing Book, a concept created by the Administration to field ideas from the public that can be voted on by their fellow citizens, has had some disappointing results.

“In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.”

Giridharadas continues, “Once in power, the White House crowdsourced again. In March, its Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted an online ‘brainstorm’ about making government more transparent. Good ideas came; but a stunning number had no connection to transparency, with many calls for marijuana legalization and a raging (and groundless) debate about the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate.”

Giridharadas observes, “Because it is so easy to filter one’s reading online, extreme views dominate the discussion. Moderates are underrepresented, so citizens seeking better health care may seem less numerous than poker fans. The Internet’s image of openness and equality belies its inequities of race, geography and age.”

“Perhaps most menacingly, the Internet’s openness allows well-organized groups to simulate support, to ‘capture and impersonate the public voice,’” wrote James Fishkin, political scientist at Stanford University, in an e-mail exchange with Giridharadas.

In a telephone interview, Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, told Giridharadas, “Now that it is so important, [the Internet is] actually too important not to think through the constitutional and governance issues involved.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the many lies, slanders, and, to me, outrageous views expressed on the Internet, I tend to post responses now and then when I just cannot stand silent anymore. I will continue to do so, but I have to wonder whether I am engaging in passionate, well-reasoned discourse, or am helping to chew up, word by word, the potential of the Internet to further thinking and debate? I may be no better than the very people I think are inevitably ruining the power of the Internet to share information, truth, and, I hope, judgment and critical thinking. Whether I like it or not, the Internet is, it seems, becoming a source of propaganda for all kinds of vile and detestable – not just worthy – causes and ideas.

Giridharadas sums the situation up well, in my view: “There is no turning back the clock. We now have more public opinion exerting pressure on politics than ever before. The question is how it may be channeled and filtered to create freer, more successful societies, because simply putting things online is no cure-all.”

Good question, with no good or even so-so answer as yet. This may become the dominant issue for the next few years when it comes to discussions about the value of the Internet for political discourse; it may even come down to the question: Does the Internet have any real value when it comes to political discussion? I certainly hope so, and there are excellent examples, some mentioned in Giridharadas’ column. But I also see something less noble brewing: a stew of misinformation, lies, and rabble-rousing hyperbole that does not engage or ennoble, but rather reduces people to single-issue screamers whose very volume of verbiage overwhelms attempts at cooperation, collaboration, and compromise on political matters. I really hope I am wrong. It’s hard enough to collaborate in person; I hope we don’t squander the potential of the Internet to further collaboration and thoughtful commentary.


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Glyn Moody (glynmoody) 's status on Wednesday, 23-Sep-09 15:17:42 UTC - Identi.ca
Sep 23, 2009 11:17

Luna Flesher
Sep 23, 2009 13:02

David Brin talked about this in his book, “The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?” I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these topics.

Among his many points was one I’d never thought about before, because of how I use the internet. I use the internet to gather information, and then form an opinion. So for me it is freeing, a way to expose myself to more ideas than ever before.

But for those who already have their opinions, they can use the internet to isolate themselves, surround themselves completely with like-minded people.

I’m excited about the prospects of the former. The latter? The latter only empowers extremists and keeps them locked in their extreme world.

suzanne smith
Sep 23, 2009 20:50

I think legalizing marijuana should be done. Why put it down as just something unimportant that the people want? Just do it.

Sep 24, 2009 15:37

Luna, Doesn’t the Internet then reflect the way people really behave? I agree with your conclusion about isolation, but most people are comfortable with people who think like they do, at least when it comes to politics and religion. The net just helps deepen their sense of self-righteousness and superiority: after all, everyone they talk to agrees with them.

Luna Flesher
Sep 24, 2009 15:48

That’s a good point. But through pre-internet media, they couldn’t help but be exposed to other ideas. For instance, if you watched 10 hours of TV per week (far below the average of 40 hours), you would still see news casts or sitcoms or dramas that showed different views. That had a tendency to temper extremism.

Now people are less inclined to watch TV, instead spending that time on the Internet. Additionally, true extremists can easily meet up with like-minded extremists, whereas before, they were physically isolated from communicating with many of their fellows.

In the absence of other voices, the “volume” of their own voices seems much louder in proportion.

links for 2009-09-25 « lugar do conhecimento
Sep 25, 2009 5:03

[...] The Dark Side of Political Discourse on the Internet [...]

Sam Mishra
Sep 25, 2009 11:25

Why is collaboration necessary? Is “team-work” a requirement? What is wrong with “individual” screams? Check my screamy podcasts, they have impact, and they hardly reek of team-work…

What is wrong with individualism? There is power in individualism. And of course, if you want my views on marijuana legalization — yes, let’s do it. Why should the poor Mexicans get slaughtered so that the rich Americans can relax beyond sex. Or for that matter, the rich get their drug-habits massaged, while the poor go to jail for supplying it.

Not every voice need be wiki-fied, team-worked, collaborated…


Sep 25, 2009 12:05

Sam, no problem with your points. Nothing wrong with individual screams and individualism per se. The point I think I was trying to make is that rather than taking advantage of the potential for constructive communications, some people – probably a minority, although that term tends to sound dismissive, as if a minority cannot be right or have legitimate points – have used the Internet to hide from discourse by listening only to people just like them. We are probably all guilty, so to speak, of doing this at times, because it is comforting not to be assaulted with other points of view.
I am also not advocating that everything and everyone needs to the collaborative, team-focused, rah-rah. There are some good pieces and good books out now about the need for withdrawing and the value of silence and stillness to thought. I am all for that.
But if you want to get the most out of a crowd, it pays to let the crowd have a voice; if you want more creativity and innovation, it pays to draw on lots of resources. Collaboration has intrinsic as well as extrinsic value. I appreciate the value of a good scream as much as anybody, but I’ve never had it produce something positive for me, at least in a work or family setting.

Luna Flesher
Sep 25, 2009 12:46

Hi Sam!

You sound like a libertarian. :) I’m libertarian, too, as well as a neo-objectivist. I had some cognitive dissonance when I started hearing about “the wisdom of crowds”, because I believe collectivism has the power to corrupt. I sat down and really thought through why the internet suddenly seems to be bringing out the best of the collective rather than the worst. I’ve written about my thought process in my blog. http://cognitiveresurgence.com/2008/05/27/how-group-dynamics-are-changing/

To summarize, the internet gives us tools that help the cream rise to the top, that help the best of the collective be chosen instead of the worst. In the past, collectivism was about power dynamics, which ended in choosing the lowest common denominator so as not to offend the least-minded of the group. Lack of accountability gave the lazy or stupid or malicious a crowd to hide behind.

These systems appear to be working well in systems from consumer entertainment (YouTube, Flickr) as well as software development (open source software). The best gets rated up. The worst, rated down. And while producers and choosers can hide behind a pseudonym online, there is still a lot of motive to keep that identity pristine, to increase the karma or points or ratings of your online identity. The records of your chosen identity are tracked, recorded forever. This keeps most people accountable.

Here’s another twist. If you make systems that are standardized enough, individuals are free to create addons for those systems without having to waste time on starting a whole new infrastructure. I’m thinking of how difficult (impossible) it is to get in on the ground floor as a new automaker in the American car industry. But how easy it is for one person, or a small group, to write a whole new, innovative software application, because computers themselves are fairly standard and use standardized protocols.

While ultimately individuals are the creators of great things, in the end even the best of us are building on someone else’s work. Howard Roark in The Fountainhead wasn’t designing buildings in a vacuum. He had thousands of years of basic architectural wisdom behind him. He had to know the rules first before he could break them.

Sep 25, 2009 13:09

Luna, thanks for the post. Very interesting and provocative stuff. I will check out your blog.
One thought: Accountability isn’t really the issue, IMO. Most of the people blogging and posting are at least honest and up front about their identities – our increasingly uncivil culture makes them unafraid to say anything in public. And the commenters don’t really matter, as far as I am concerned: they can stay hidden.
What’s problematic is the ability to say almost anything and let it stand as fact unless someone decides to take it on and that’s just harder and harder to do. Truth on the Internet has become truthiness (bow to Colbert): things seem to be true more often than are. The Internet affords the chance to sustain “truthy” statements and spread them rapidly; any chance of correcting lies or misinformation come so late that they seem petty or invalid. It is the “Stop beating your dog” days, when accusations carry more weight than denials.
What we are able to do now with the Internet is hide in lies, if we choose, and force others to disprove our statements, which is tedious and demanding work, not fit for everyone.

Luna Flesher
Sep 25, 2009 14:15

That’s true too. It depends I guess on the website, project, etc., on how much accountability there is. Certainly on forums where people discuss politics and so on, many sites tend to involve a lot of people hiding behind masks of anonymity. They aren’t accountable. They don’t care what people think of their fake personas. These places house a lot of trolls and flame wars.

Other sites, however, make your identity very important. Think of Slashdot, YouTube, Amazon reviews, open source projects, Digg and Reddit, Facebook, Wikipedia, and so on. Sure, there are a few bad apples in those bunches. But for the most part, people do their best because they want to maintain their (or their fake identity’s) reputation.

So bringing it back to the point (and David Brin’s point in his book), there is room for both on the internet, and people have gone to the places they most enjoy.

This study backs up what you’re saying. They found that people who are told a lie will continue to believe it, or at least retain the negative feelings generated by the lie, long after the lie is disproven. Newsweek has a good post about it:


I for one hope truth (rather than truthiness) wins the day. In this I am optimistic, if for no other reason than history shows a tendency for this to occur.

Dwayne Phillips
Sep 27, 2009 7:30

The silent majority remains silent. They have a lot to do in their day to day lives to spend time on some new president’s new great idea for citizen participation.

Sep 27, 2009 15:22

Then they are making conscious decision to remain silent. The ubiquity and 24/7/365 nature of the Internet makes it incredibly easy to participate.
I don’t think the silent majority really exists anymore, at least not from the protests across the country in the last few months and from the way they are organized, with the Internet being a key channel.
You cannot fault the president – no matter who he or she might be – for opening up the channels to listen and participate if people then choose not to.

Sep 28, 2009 13:35

You are not certainly afraid of driving people away from reading your blogs for good. You said: “I appreciate the value of a good scream as much as anybody, but I’ve never had it produce something positive for me, at least in a work or family setting.” Why appreciate if it did nothing positive? BTW, if someone in your family is screaming, you better listen to her, ha-ha.

I am trained not to react, but since your original blog made a good read, I am back… People who have listened to my rants and raves (my podcasts on http://www.franconomics.com) have certainly found value in it; in any case I use my education in Economics at MIT to drive home some points there. Collaboration is harder, sometimes Individual work has merit. And in any case, individual leadership drives crowds…

I guess I was trying to drive a point against wikinomics, but I will rest in peace now.


Sep 28, 2009 13:49

Well, I am not intending to drive people away. Re: my appreciation for screaming. It does release something – tension, stress, frustration, anxiety – so I can appreciate its immediate, personal benefit but as for long-term value, I have not experienced it and usually have felt kind of embarrassed at screaming, even if alone. Ranting and raving on the other hand, well, if they are purposeful, I guess I consider them different from screaming.
I will check out your blog.

El voto electrónico de los representantes electos y la democracia asamblearia « Apuntes electrónicos
Oct 1, 2009 20:54

[...] Curioso como la conciliación laboral de sus señorías conduce a la democracia asamblearía, con los riesgos que eso implica. [...]

The Launch of Amazing Stuff « Censemaking
Oct 2, 2009 21:44

[...] The Dark Side of Political Discourse on the Internet. Tim Bevins from Wikinomics shows us what happens when democracy meets the unbridled opportunity of [...]

Oct 18, 2009 12:58

“In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.”

Given those responses it almost seems to me that our people have no sense of priorities. If you read the above excerpt you’ll notice that self-centered wants were much more popular that things that would actually help society as a whole. This does indeed make me question the ability of people to make choices for the betterment of our country. If people care more about getting stoned, than cutting taxes to people that run our businesses that can create jobs that can end this recession and the sense of desperation that goes with it, something is definitely wrong here.

Are these people just short sighted or selfish, or perhaps is there more under the surface this study doesn’t show? We all know about groups like Acorn hijacking the supposed public opinion, is that not possible here? Or perhaps people are so focuses on themselves they can’t see that the long term benefits of national wi-fi and their economic applications far outweigh the importance of legalized online gambling.

How pathetic is it though when people care more about pulling the Church of Scientology’s tax exempt status than helping children with cancer fight for their lives. Where are our heads? Where are our priorities? If we can no longer see what is truly important, we are in more trouble than we know.

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