This article was inspired by many conversations and experiences over the past several months, but I owe particularly emphatic thanks to Cass Sunstein’s #Republic. #Republic is the rare book that transcends categorization to appeal equally to theory-minded folks, practitioners, and general readers. The book is so jam-packed with great information that I won’t attempt to summarize it in full. Rather, I’ll tell you what I found most interesting and will urge you to pick it up and read it yourself.
Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley Professor at Harvard Law School, unpacks the intersection of democracy and information in his new book, #Republic, which is a follow-up to his books Republic.com and Republic.com 2.0. He explores by social media, information echo chambers and cocoons, polarization, and free speech, and their impact on our ability to govern ourselves in a democratic republic. He makes the case that serendipity and unexpected encounters are a cornerstone of the democratic experience, that that our information consumption should allow for more serendipity than our specialized social media feeds allow.
Sunstein is careful to point out that social networks and the expanded access to information that the Internet facilitates are a net good, but that there are pitfalls of which we should be aware. The “power of personalization,” long-touted as a benefit by Mark Zuckerberg and others, can create echo chambers and information cocoons that remove serendipity from our information consumption, which is turn squashes individual freedom, of which access to free information is a crucial element.
Of particular interest to our work at Healthy Democracy is the chapter on polarization. Sunstein breaks down the cognitive phenomena that lead to polarization, including group polarization, the backfire effect, biased assimilation, corrections backfires, etc. The behavioral psychology research he presents is deep and thorough, and other groups that do work to reduce polarization would be well advised to be familiar with this body of knowledge. In particular, there are important lessons to be learned about how people can be depolarized with appropriately designed deliberation.
Another chapter on social glue digs into the values of trust and reciprocity, the benefits of share experiences, and information as a public good. Practitioners in the social capital and community spheres may find this chapter of particular interest.
Finally, Sunstein makes the case in his chapter on citizens that the recent characterization of people as consumers (see Facebook’s desire to only what we already like in front of our eyeballs) is flawed and that our evaluation of communications technologies should be based on their effect on us as citizens. This is because our goals and values as citizens are different from the goals and values we have as consumers, and we will make different choices for the public good depending on our orientation to the technology.
The book contains much more on free speech and regulation of speech, specific proposals to address divided democracy, and a particularly fascinating exploration of terrorism, radicalization, and social media – too much to explore here, but well worth reading.