Perils of the World Wide Web

22nd October 2003, Comments 0 comments

Is the internet a threat to democracy and can surfing the web lead to extremism and intolerance, asks Andy Clark.

Experts in the US are warning that as the internet becomes increasingly sophisticated people are using it to create their own worlds. Using filtering techniques they can block out everything they dislike and hear only what they want to hear and see only what they want to see.

"Our communications market is rapidly moving in the direction of this apparently utopian picture," says Professor Cass Sunstein from Chicago University's Law School.

"Many newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, allow readers to create personalisedelectronic editions, containing exactly what they want, excluding what they don't," says the professor who has examined the threats posed to democracy by the internet in his book Republic.com.

This advanced filtering of information – or personalisation - can lead to what the experts call the creation of a “Daily Me”, an environment where people create a virtual world mirroring their own ideas and prejudices.

In this world, opposing views do not exist and attitudes can easily harden.

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The concept of the Daily Me was first brought to light by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Negroponte.

 He outlined it in his best-selling book Being Digital, a homage to the world of the media technology, which has been translated into more than 40 languages.

Those who celebrate the rise of the Daily Me say it increases personal freedom and saves time – but others are less enthusiastic.

Professor Sunstein: “Democracy requires at least two things: that people have common spaces where they can share experiences some of the time, and that people have unanticipated, un-chosen exposures to ideas of other people.’’

In his book Sunstein stresses the need for “public forums” in which citizens mix and exchange ideas and learn to see things from different points of view.

“General interest publications like newspapers, national magazines and television news programmes, expose far-flung viewers to a relatively broad spectrum of viewpoints and social conditions.”

“The problem is with the rise of the Daily Me, the democratising effects of general interest publications are at risk of being overwhelmed by passive consumers who live in Internet filtered information cocoons,” he adds.

Professor Sunstein is an expert on the US constitution and turned his attention to studying the Internet after he co-authored a report on jury behaviour which revealed that people serving on mock juries composed of like-minded people tended to come up with more extreme decisions.

He decided to try and find out if people who exclusively talked to like-minded people on the internet also became more extreme. He studied hate sites and found that people in these enclosed areas did indeed spur each other on to even more exaggerated positions.

He looked at sites of the Ku Klux Klan, skinhead groups and an organization called God Hates Fags.

He also looked at the National Rifle Association (NRA).

"A group whose members lean against gun control will, in discussion, provide a wide range of arguments against gun control, and the arguments made for gun control will be both fewer and weaker. The group's members, to the extent that they shift, will shift toward a more extreme position against gun control,” says the professor.

It is in this vein that Sunstein sees the advent of the personalisation of information via the Internet as such a threat.

“The imagined world of innumerable, diverse editions of the “Daily Me” is the furthest thing from a utopian dream, and it would create serious problems from the democratic point of view,” he argues.

Critics like the Dutch Internet expert Vincent Everts have little time for the arguments put forward by Professor Sunstein – saying that the America professor has it the wrong way round and that the Internet far from limiting people’s horizons brings them into contact with a myriad of new experiences.

“If there is a danger with Internet then it’s that

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