Do Digital News Feeds Threaten or Enhance Deliberative Democracy?

An expression of concern about the algorithms that shape what Americans read before they vote.

Asked what proposition Americans ought to be debating, UC Irvine Professor Gloria Mark mused on the way technology affects the health of deliberative democracy.

She wrote:

The Internet has been in widespread popular use for just over two decades and serves as a major source for political news and commentary: over 60% of Facebook and Twitter users get their news from these sites with the proportion steadily increasing. At the same time, a recent Pew report reveals that Americans are more polarized in their ideological viewpoints than at any time in the last twenty years. Further, not surprisingly, political animosity has also increased. Does the Internet serve to reinforce and further polarize opinions? Or rather does the availability of opposing online viewpoints and the ability to connect with others break down ideological barriers, and lead to more balanced perspectives?

These are important questions: the ability to freely access information for opinion-making is fundamental to a deliberative democracy. However, is polarization due merely to people's preference to seek information that confirms their views? Known as selective exposure, recent research suggests that while people do read alternative accounts of news, they tend to seek content that is consistent with, and that reinforces, their own views. A detailed research examination of web usage (blogs and Twitter) supports this: liberals tend to read and follow liberal content on the web while conservatives tend to focus on conservative content.

So while the tendency to confirm views might be attributed to human nature, there is a deeper, more concerning issue: to what extent might polarization be influenced by institutional forces? Online content is sorted, categorized, and presented based on algorithms. When we use a search engine or browse our Facebook news feeds, what we see is influenced by algorithms. Algorithms can classify, shape, regulate, and even govern information that we receive and thus can serve as brokers for information flow.

Information may be political in content––but how it is presented may also be political.

The nature of how online news is accessed needs to be openly debated, especially since the Internet has become so pervasive as an information portal in our lives. How does the Internet influence our political choices?  What and whose values are embedded in algorithms? Do algorithms help us make better choices? Could institutions influence public opinion based on algorithms? These are critical questions in our digital age.

Professor Mark will speak on the power of connectivity in our day-to-day lives this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

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