#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, by Cass R. Sunstein

Book of the week: Americans have to reach out to fight the political division fed by social media, says Angelia Wilson

March 9, 2017
Anti-Trump protesters
Source: Alamy

Apparently US President Donald Trump has a problem with the media, or, more precisely, according to him, with “fake news”. For some, his attack on news reporters who make use of anonymous sources and the barring of The New York Times, CNN, Politico, BuzzFeed, the BBC, The Guardian and the Daily Mail from a recent White House press briefing, combined with Twitter pronouncements such as those above, all call into question his commitment to free speech and may indicate his desire to censor stories that paint him, his Cabinet and his actions as questionable, unlawful or even treasonable. In the view of others, however, Trump is entirely justified in calling out his enemies who actively and consistently frame the reporting of his presidency negatively.

But is all this just another storm created by Trump and “the media” to entertain us? Moreover, isn’t politics always just a game of us versus them? Why does this matter? According to legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who held a senior role in the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during the Obama administration, it matters – a lot. In fact, he argues that the American republic, and all it stands for, is in danger.

In #Republic, his third instalment on the theme of the dangers that the internet poses for politics, Sunstein focuses on the role that social media play in polarising constituents. For example, in curating our “likes” and “dislikes”, the friendship connections we have, the articles we read and those we repost without reading, Facebook’s algorithms construct a picture of who we are, and thereby predict everything from our potential purchases to the news articles that might interest us.

Facebook creates a sort of Daily Me of “news” headlines designed to reflect my consumer interests and political preferences. That, taken together with the news-related posts of my friends who are “like me”, constructs an echo chamber that both gives me comfort (people who I like think this too) and solidifies my views (if all my friends believe this, it must be true). Similarly, hashtag entrepreneurs direct me to others in my “market niche” of social outrage, celebrity gossip or political commentary.

Sunstein recognises that to consumers, algorithms and hashtags are very helpful. If I’m feeling isolated, I can find others like me. If I’m hunting for that special gift, algorithms might just suggest the perfect thing. As a citizen, they can point me towards activism or worthy causes that I support. Hashtag activism has changed the world – literally – from #ArabSpring to #BlackLivesMatter to #MAGA. Nevertheless, argues Sunstein, therein lurks a danger of cyberpolarisation.

Throughout #Republic, Sunstein draws our attention to research in the fields of psychology, sociology and political science that explains the dynamics of polarisation and what I would call the sharp rise in “us”/“other” politics. For example, cyberpolarisation mimics intragroup dynamics where members stoke each other’s passions, entertain only a limited number of arguments, confirm their individual reputations and gain confidence from group membership by agreeing with accepted opinions. Hashtags create communities of interest where, says Sunstein, “replies between like-minded individuals strengthen group identity”.

Of course, just because I am part of one group and very proud of it – bought the T‑shirt, drank the Kool-Aid – does not mean that I necessarily hate the “other” group. However, Marilyn Brewer, in her work on the psychology of prejudice, finds that those loyalty attachments can serve as a “psychological primer” for hate. Sunstein is similarly concerned and warns that as consumers our digital divide may build niche communities; and while our Daily Me may be a fantastic shopper’s friend, the resultant cyberpolarisation has the potential to undermine our ability to be engaged citizens.

Taking as a touchstone for his argument the American founding fathers’ vision for the republic, Sunstein argues convincingly that for deliberative democracy to work, citizens must be in a position to consider a range of options. Choice is valuable only if we are choosing among different possibilities. The entirety of the US political system – checks and balances, judicial review, the electoral college, Congressional debate – depends on the careful consideration of possibilities, and on reasoned argument by those with different perspectives, different experiences and different information. The framers of the US Constitution were unique in interpreting a republic that celebrates the potential of democratic debate as a creative force. The life of that republic relies on the deliberation of diverse perspectives.

Deliberation is our duty as citizens. “Insofar as people are acting in their capacity as citizens,” Sunstein proposes, “their duty is to meet others and consult, sometimes through face-to-face discussions and if not, through other routes.” The consumer choice that gently nudges us towards our Daily Me gives us an insufficient understanding of public problems and of the authentic experiences of others, and undermines our collective need for a deliberative culture.

If we value freedom, we must value the free exchange of ideas. We must fight against what Allan Bloom advocated three decades ago in his doublespeak-titled book The Closing of the American Mind: the acceptance of traditional hegemonic readings of politics. If we care about freedom, we must fight against the closing-down of our minds to critical thinking, and work towards constructive engagement with the other. If we value freedom, we must not let our fear of the other limit our reasoning, our deliberative culture or our republic.

Occasionally, #Republic hints at a nostalgia worthy of sociologist Robert Putnam’s influential 2000 study Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Those of us who grew up in a pre-cable news America served by just three television stations recall fondly how news anchors such as Walter Cronkite not only kept us informed but parented us through the anxiety of political crisis. Sunstein’s recognition of the need for “general interest intermediaries” hints at a similar longing for shared experiences. But he is unwilling to sacrifice diversity for a monolithic experience of “us”. Just the opposite: Sunstein challenges each of us to seek out that diversity in order to fulfil the promise of “e pluribus unum”– out of the many, one.

Interestingly, and unlike Trump, Sunstein does not blame the media. Instead, he sets a challenge for citizens. In a free republic, “citizens aspire to a system that provides for a wide range of experiences…that they would not have selected in advance”. Each of us must go in search of the other, to read across the democratic divide, to participate in deliberative enclaves with those unlike ourselves. A healthy, deliberative democracy needs shared experiences to build an “us” and encounters with the “other”.

The alternative – a deeply divided democracy with a limited media abetting the construction of polarised echo chambers, and fuelled by hate – seems to be the desired goal of the incoming Trump administration. Of course, I could be wrong: it’s only the second month.

Angelia R. Wilson is professor of politics, University of Manchester.


#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
By Cass R. Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691175515 and 9781400884711 (e-book)
Published 22 March 2017


The author

Cass Sunstein

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who is Robert Walmsley university professor at Harvard University, was “raised mostly in Newton, Massachusetts, and I think the major characteristic that I can attribute to the town is a love for three things: suburbs, sports and dogs. Sports in particular were big in my childhood, including baseball and tennis. Labrador retrievers were plentiful (praise the Lord).”

He was, he recalls, “was anything but a studious child, and the idea of the life of the mind would have made me nauseated (now as well as then, I confess). In terms of reading, I was more a comic book child (Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and of course Thor) and a baseball card child. My mother did love books, and when I hit 12 or 13, I started to enjoy novels – but I wasn’t at all studious until sophomore year in high school at the very earliest.”

While an undergraduate at Harvard, Sunstein “played on the varsity squash team – we were national champions – and that was my favourite activity. I was also an enthusiastic English major, and I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Samuel Beckett. So you could say literary, in that sense, though I was hardly a literary type. In sports and studies, I confess to having been a pretty hard worker, though both seemed more fun than work.”

#Republic was “preponed”, meaning it appeared earlier than originally planned. “The reason is that it was more timely than we originally thought. I love love love (love) the monograph format and don’t think it is outdated at all. There’s something soul-crushing as well as brain-crushing about social media, at least by comparison to real books. “Fast takes” tend to be horrible. The good news is that publishers can get books out pretty quickly these days.”

Sunstein has been on Twitter since 2012 and follows just 186 feeds. If being exposed to a broader range of opinions is important for social media users, would he encourage Twitter users to be judicious in who they follow, or to follow as many (different) people as possible? “I would have thought that 186 is a lot!” he protests, laughing. “Oh well. Also, I get the vast majority of my information from sources other than Twitter. I would encourage people to expand their horizons in terms of both topics and perspectives – especially, to avoid anything like an echo chamber. It’s important to be able to give a sympathetic, credible account of the views of the people with whom you intensely disagree.”

Is he more pessimistic about Twitter’s and Facebook’s potential as forces for good than he was in 2012? And does he believe that owners of social media platforms can be encouraged to broaden the diet of opinions their users encounter? “As the great psychologist Amos Tversky one said, ‘I am an optimist – because if you’re a pessimist, you suffer twice.’ Sure, Facebook and Twitter can do a much better, and from public reports, Facebook is working on that. I expect to see big improvements from Facebook in particular.”

What disappoints him, if anything, about Barack Obama’s eight years in office? “President Obama has been a friend of mine for decades, and he was my boss for four years; I am a great admirer of his. His presidency is full of extraordinary achievements, perhaps above all helping to prevent a depression. In the domain of regulation, which I know best, he produced well over $200 billion [£161 billion] in net benefits – and that figure includes many thousands of lives saved annually. An answer to the ‘what disappoints you most’ question would be a big distraction from the many achievements. (Ok, I am most disappointed that he didn’t manage to change the Constitution so that he could run for a third term.)”

In 2010, the UK’s coalition government set up a Behavioural Insights Team which was known as the “Nudge Unit”, owing to the influence of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Wealth, Health and Happiness, a 2008 book written by Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler. Does Sunstein believe it used his work responsibly? “Yes, it did, and it also went in multiple directions that reflected the originality and creativity of the people who worked and work there. They’ve done many great things to help the citizens of the UK – some of it quietly, but very effectively.” 

If he could change one thing about Harvard Law School, what would it be? “The temperature would be a bit warmer (but that seems to be happening anyhow).”

What gives Sunstein hope? “The human heart, which is full of mischief, joy, curiosity, perspective, a capacity to connect, a keen interest in being surprised, and kindness. Also, the novel Possession by A.S. Byatt. Also, stories about time travel; Bob Dylan’s Buckets of Rain; Drake’s Started from the Bottom; and Taylor Swift’s 22.”

karen.shook@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: Hey neighbour, we have to talk

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