Conventional wisdom says that the Internet has democratized politics by giving a direct voice to citizens. And while the bar for publishing - via blogs, podcasts and YouTube videos - has never been lower, there’s a difference between speaking and being heard. The Myth of Digital Democracy author Matthew Hindman explains.
The Killing Floor
Artist: The Accidental
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The old saying, freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one, has been adjusted in recent years to reflect the digital age and the fact that, at least theoretically, nearly everyone does own the equivalent of a printing press. Here’s former FCC Chairman Michael Powell in 2002, using the accessibility of the Internet to justify looser regulation of the broadcast media.
MICHAEL POWELL: Information technology also has this democratizing effect for consumers. With a low-cost computer and an Internet connection, everyone has a chance to get the skinny, to get the real deal, to see the wizard behind the curtain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The U.S. Supreme Court even chimed in, in a 1997 decision. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, quote, “Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.” But there’s a significant difference between speaking and being heard. So says Matthew Hindman, author of the book, The Myth of Digital Democracy. Hindman argues against the conventional wisdom that says the Internet gives any Jane Doe an avenue into the public sphere.
MATTHEW HINDMAN: It may seem like that’s the case, but if we look at the top thirty blog sites, for example, they're dominated by those who have advanced degrees from elite educational institutions, even more so than was true a decade ago. So if we compare, for example, opinion journalism, if we compare Op-Ed columnists to the top bloggers, only about a third of Op-Ed columnists have an advanced degree, whereas 75 percent of the top thirty bloggers have an advanced degree.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You make this sound like a bad thing. It strikes me that what you’re saying is that a [HINDMAN LAUGHS] meritocracy has been set up online, not that necessarily having an advanced degree [LAUGHS] makes you meritorious, [HINDMAN LAUGHS], but the fact is, is that perhaps better communicators gather larger audiences.
MATTHEW HINDMAN: In many ways, I think that it’s true, that we have a more meritocratic public sphere. I think that the blogosphere, in general, and online media more broadly, do a great job of finding expertise. But, at the same time, that’s not necessarily good news for folks who take their lunch pails to work and still want to be heard in public debates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You didn't see that much of Joe Lunch Pail on the CBS News.
MATTHEW HINDMAN: [LAUGHS] No, that’s certainly true. But one of the things that has happened in online news and in online political commentary is that there was a period in 2004, 2005 and earlier where the sphere was relatively open. I think the concern moving forward is that there’s a lot of evidence that that window has closed. Certainly the assumption, which you heard very often in the '90s and even today, that the Internet is going to give voice to people who are voiceless - I think you have to believe that that’s false.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You talk a lot about the gatekeepers of information in your book. Could you explain what you mean when you say that the infrastructure of the Internet shifts the bar from the production to the filtering of political information?
MATTHEW HINDMAN: There are basically two ways that people can find online content. They can either follow links from sites that they already know, or they can go to a search engine and type in a keyword or two, and it’s the most heavily linked sites that are going to receive most of the traffic and most of the attention. Overall, what this leads to is a winners-take-all phenomenon, where sites that already get a lot of attention continue to get a lot of attention. And if you look at the patterns of links over time, they've become more and more concentrated on the top sites as the ecosystem as a whole has solidified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You cited a study that found that the Internet increased the knowledge of those who are already engaged in politics but had the opposite effect on people who were already [LAUGHS] apathetic.
MATTHEW HINDMAN: What seems to be happening, if we look at the survey data, the people who are already interested and already engaged in politics, they know a lot more and they're able to consume far more political content than even existed a decade or a decade and a half ago. At the same time, if what you really want to do online is to hang out on Facebook or email your friends, there’s a lot of people who choose to disengage completely. So before, in the broadcast era, we had a - lots of Americans knew pretty much exactly the same thing about politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now when people are left more to their own devices, you can lead them to water but you can't get them to drink.
MATTHEW HINDMAN: [LAUGHS] The Internet allows people to be far better citizens and far worse citizens, if they want to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s freedom, right?
MATTHEW HINDMAN: Yes, but it’s not always good for democracy. And I think we should be very careful when bright, smart, articulate, highly-educated people talk about how the Internet is “empowering,” quote, unquote, ordinary citizens. An awful lot of the time, what they mean by, quote, unquote, “ordinary citizens” is people who look an awful lot like then. But that doesn't necessarily [LAUGHING] mean that that’s going to be a perfect representation of the public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that’s what we need the Internet to be?
MATTHEW HINDMAN: It’s very easy for this somewhat insular group, and socially quite homogenous group, to miss things that are relatively important to millions of other Americans. On the left, for example, I think you find less pro-nion sentiment, and certainly less sentiment by union activists. It certainly receives less attention online than it does in other parts of our public sphere. On the right, I think it’s pretty clear that religious conservatives, even though they do have important online niches, overall they get less attention than they do in other media and probably less attention than they deserve as a portion of the population as a whole. I think that if you compare the public as a whole to the views that get expressed most prominently in the blogosphere, I think it’s a distorted picture. I think it is important to try and find mechanisms to make sure that the voices of ordinary citizens have at least some role in shaping public agenda and some role in public debates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew, thank you very much.
MATTHEW HINDMAN: Thank you so much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew Hindman is an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University and author of the book, The Myth of Digital Democracy.