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.