Oct. 18, 2017
Chayenne Polimedio reviewed Cass R. Sunstein's book, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, for Washington Monthly.
Sunstein wants policymakers to create online tools that mimic the chance encounters that he believes happen in real life to expose people to opposing viewpoints. He wants the digital equivalent of walking down the street and bumping into a neighbor, or attending a community council meeting where residents discuss and debate plans for a new playground. Yet, it’s hard to say to what extent these chance encounters really happen, as like-minded Americans increasingly tend to cluster together. These kinds of interactions foster deliberative democracy, a process through which people with divergent views speak and listen to one another—and, as consequence of that, tend to reach a compromise. For Sunstein, democratic freedom “requires certain background conditions, enabling people to expand their own horizons and to learn what is true. It entails not merely satisfaction of whatever preferences and values people happen to have but also circumstances that are conducive to the free formation of preferences and values.” That is, chance encounters. But these interactions have become increasingly rare, making intervention, in the form of serendipitous encounters, necessary.
In practice, designing “nudges” that create deliberative domains is no easy task. Ensuring that the online equivalent of parks and public square are open to everyone and are easily accessible is not the same as actually getting people there. But, the challenges posed by social media and echo chambers shouldn’t be a deterrent to thinking about how novel incentives, or even adaptations of existing structures and policies, can help mitigate corrosive echo chambers that serve to undermine American democracy.