Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What's really going on out there????

David Brooks' column yesterday in The New York Times riffed on a new study just published by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro (both of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business) that measured ideological segregation on the Internet. Brooks called his column "Riders on the Storm," I assume co-opting the title of a 1971 Doors song that begins . . .
Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown

I guess the meaning of Mr. Brooks' title to be that, as far as life out there on the information highway goes, we're all just -- duh -- riders on the storm.

Mr. Brooks began yesterday's column by referring to a 2001 essay by Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who now administers the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein's essay echoed concerns he'd voiced in his 2001 book,; which makes, as Publishers Weekly puts it, "the counter-intuitive claim that the Internet causes us to become more extremist and close-minded, rather than exposing us to a haphazardly unbiased array of unexpected viewpoints."

In his column, David Brooks had this to say about Mr. Sunstein's essay (and of  his writings in general):
[Cass] Sunstein was particularly concerned about this because he has done very important work over the years about our cognitive biases. We like hearing evidence that confirms our suppositions. We filter out evidence that challenges them. . . .
. . .Sunstein’s fear was that the Internet might lead to a more ghettoized, polarized and insular electorate. Those fears were supported by some other studies, and they certainly matched my own experience. Every day I seem to meet people who live in partisan ghettos, ignorant about the other side.
The Gentzkow-Shapiro study seems to show that use of the Internet is not the path most traveled to the information ghetto. As Mr.Brooks put it,
. . . People who spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck’s Web site are more likely to visit The New York Times’s Web site than average Internet users. People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to than average Internet users. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis travel far and wide across the Web.
It is so easy to click over to another site that people travel widely. And they’re not even following links most of the time; they have their own traveling patterns.
Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association — like meeting people at work, at church or through community groups. You’re more likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own neighborhood.
This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests. . .
That sounds so optimistic, don't you think?

Lachlan Markay, writer for NewsBusters, an online site that exists to expose alleged liberal media bias also wrote about the Gentzkow-Shapirostudy yesterday.
One of the gripes about online journalism often aired by the Helen Thomases and the Chuck Todds of the world is that online news consumers will only consume news that reinforces their worldview or political beliefs. A new scholarly study challenges that assumption . . .
The study found that the Internet exposes people to ideas that they do not normally encounter in face-to-face interactions during their daily lives. Though this should come as little surprise -- with the wealth of information the web provides, how could it not regularly challenge worldviews and preconceptions? -- it is perhaps worth reminding the skeptics.
Also optimistic, right?

But what the Gentzkow-Shapirostudy study doesn't address is why we, the polarized American electorate, visit the sites we visit. And how we behave while we are on them. And whether we ever actually consider the arguments made on these sights.

Sadly, it seems to me, if the comments we leave are any indication, we are not visiting sites with which we have ideological differences in order to engage in information gathering and civil discourse.

For example, this morning I clicked on the first article I could find on the front page of The Washington Post that had "Obama" in its headline. It was about nominating our next Supreme Court justice.

I then read the comments, which were largely rude and illogical. It made me wonder if a lot of people posting responses had even read the articles.

I wondered the same when I scanned the comments attached to a similar article posted on Fox News.

So, I'd like to ask Drs. Gentzkow and Shapiro, Mr. Brooks and Mr Markay, what good they think comes of all the time folks are spending on-line, riding around in the information storm.

Maybe Mr. Sunstein is right to worry.

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