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Interconnected, but divided

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on January 09, 2018

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media; Cass R Sunstein; Princeton University Press; Non-fiction; ₹1,927

Polarisation fostered by social media not only undermines individual freedom but has implications for democracy at large

Has the internet more power than people to undermine or divide democracy? The way in which media has gone ‘social’, creating echo-chambers of like-minded voices, chances for such an upturn may not be remote. Conversely, the world of algorithm is fuelling efficiency in the way we make choices and connect only with those we like. Why would, then, like-mindedness be such a threat when in effect it strengthens identity and solidifies views? Cass Sunstein, the celebrated author who proposed Nudge hypothesis for fresh thinking on managing health, wealth and happiness, lets the pigeon out of his thinking hat to suggest that hidden behind purported consumer comfort is a psychological primer for nurturing hate towards others.

As social media increases people’s ability to hear echoes of their voices, and social media technologies help them conform to their limited choices, people are pushed into excessive self-insulation, leading them to believe in falsehoods. Self-insulation, though, offers a degree of comfort, and possibly a way of life too. But creation of a limited argument pool based on constricted viewpoints ends up undermining the ability to be engaged citizens. As these self-insulated groups churn out limited ideas, falsehoods become inevitable output, which eventually contributes to a politics of suspicion, distrust, and even hatred. A vote in favour of ‘Brexit’ could not have been possible any other way, opines Sunstein.

Social media has come handy for politicians to create political polarisation; Donald Trump used it effectively and so did Narendra Modi. Curiously, it is now clear that the ‘likes’ on Facebook and the ‘followers’ on Twitter are not the best measure of popularity. The numbers don’t really add up, but show the use of social media in engineering political polarisation among the electorate. However, the bottom line is that followers create a virtual constituency, adding a wide range of arguments in their leader’s favour, and often shift to a more extreme position against those opposing it. Trolling is the logical next step, built over the cesspool of guarded opinions.

Drawing from research in the fields of behavioural science and social psychology, Sunstein highlights the implications of the subtle but powerful phenomenon of polarisation. The trouble is that much before people get to know it, they are sucked into the prison of their ‘like’ group. Little do they realise that such group identity not only undermines individual freedom, but has implications for democracy at large. After all, democracy needs proactive voices and not ‘inert’ citizens who have been silenced into submission for holding divergent views. One of the most pressing obligations of a citizenry, according to Sunstein, is to ensure that ‘deliberative forces prevail over the arbitrary.’ In dissent lies the strength of democracy.

Sunstein’s experience of working in the Obama administration, however, was to the contrary, as his Facebook page was filled with views that fitted with the interests of the administration. This was bound to be so, as Facebook’s algorithms construct a picture of who you are, and what interests you. With social media becoming central to peoples’ search for news, their worldview is becoming restricted as a liberal dose of fake news finds legitimacy. It continues to be a threat in the networked sphere. It is this change, over the past 10 years, that prompted Sunstein to address the dangers the internet poses for politics.

Invoking Amartya Sen’s remarkable finding that there has never been a famine when a system had a democratic press and free elections, #Republic suggests that freedom of expression is central to social well-being precisely because of the pressure it places on governments. If we value freedom, we must value the free exchange of ideas. It not only demands a law of free expression but also a culture that enables it, wherein people listen to what their fellow citizens have to say. Sunstein doesn’t brand social media an enemy, but provokes readers to seek out diversity in order to fulfil the promise of e pluribus unum — out of the many, one.

To doubt if the danger of polarisation will ever materialise is to ignore the writing on the wall. At a time when false news is guiding the predominant media discourse, and when outrage by cyber-polarised communities against dissent has taken a toll on unsuspecting lives, there could be nothing closer to the truth than what Sunstein has propounded. If we do not fight the closing-down of our minds to critical thinking, a deeply-divided democracy fuelled by hate will be our destiny. The risks of the ongoing evolution of social media are too difficult to ignore.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic

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Published on December 01, 2017
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