Group Polarization on the Blogosphere

In the December 2004 issue of Communications of the ACM, there is an article by Cass R. Sunstein titled "Democracy and Filtering."  Sunstein is a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and this article is part of a special CACM collection of articles about the blogosphere.

My interest in this article can be divided into two parts.  The first part deals with the notion of complete individuation, which applies not just to "Favorite Pages", bookmarks or blogrolls, but also to other technologies such as TiVo.  Here is what Sunstein has to say.

Imagine a system of communications in which each person has unlimited power of individual design.  If people want to watch news all the time, they are entirely free to do so.  If they dislike news and want to watch football in the morning and situation comedies at night, that is fine, too.  If they care only about America and want to avoid international issues entirely, it is simple indeed; so too if they care only about New York or Chicago or California.  If they want to restrict themselves to cretain points of view, say, conservaive, moderate, liberal, vegetarian, or Nazi, it is entirely feasible with a simple point and click.  If they want to isolate themselves and speak only with like-minded others, that is feasible, too.  If they seek to read only those authors who agree with them and support the political candidates they favor, they are perfectly able to do so.

At least as a matter of technological feasiblitiy, and with the rise of countless options, the U.S. communications market is moving quickly toward this apparently utopian picture.  It is not entirely different from what has come before.  People who read newspapers do not read the same newspaper, and some people do not read any newspaper at all.  But in the emerging environment, there is a difference of degree if not of kind.  What is different is a dramatic increase in indvidual control over content, along with a corresponding decrease in the power of general-interest intermediaries, including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters.  For all their propblems, and their unmistakable limitations and biases, these intermediaries have performed some important democratic functions.

People who rely on such intermediaries experience a range of chance encounters with diverse others, as well as exposure to material they did not specifically choose.  You might, for example, read a city newspaper and in the process come across stories you would not have selected if you had the power to control what you see.  You might watch a television channel, and when your favorite program ends, you might see the beginning of another show, one you would not have chosen in advance.

In fact, a risk with a system of perfect individual control is that it can reduce the importance of the "public sphere" and of common spaces in general.  One of the important features of these spaces is that they tend to ensure that people will encounter materials on important issues, whether or not they have specifically chosen the encounter.  And when people see material they have not chosen, their interests and even their views might changes as a result.  At the very least, they will know a bit more about what their fellows are thinking.

The reason that I like individuation is unrelated to the practice of democracy.  I don't like the 4-12 minutes per hour that I lose to commercials on television, and that is why I want to zip through them; I don't like pop-up and pop-under ads on the WorldWide Web because I have to waste my time closing them, and that is why I use pop-up stoppers.  I don't value all opinions equally (for example, read Eric Alterman about the Boston Globe opinion column).  The point is that I would be more receptive if there was less garbage out there, and perhaps this was exactly Sunstein's point.

Sunstein's more interesting point is about the phenomenon of group polarization.  Here is what Sunstein has to say:

Found in many settings, it involves like-minded people going to extremes.  Group polarization means that after deliberating with one another, people are likely to move towards a more extreme position in the direction to which they were already inclined.  With respect to the Internet, the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing they thought before -- but in more extreme form, and sometimes in a much more extreme form.


The phenomenon of group polarization has conspicuous importance to the U.S. communications market, where groups with distinctive identities increasingly engage in within-group discussion  Customization makes this possible; specialized Web sites and blogs compound this problem.  If the public is balkanized, and if different groups design their own preferred communications packages, the consequences will be further balkanization, as group members move one another toward more extreme points of view in line with their initial tendencies.  At the same time, different deliberating groups, each consisting of like-minded people, will be driven increasingly far apart, simply because most of their discussions will be with one another.  Extremist groups will often become even more extreme.

We cannot say, from the mere fact of polarization, that there has been a movement in the wrong direction.  Perhaps the more extreme tendency is better; indeed, group polarization is likely to have fueled many movements of great value, including, for example, the ones for civil rights, abolishing slavery, and gender equality. All went extreme in their time, and within-group discussion bred greater extremism.  Still, extremism need not be a word of opprobrium.  If greater communications choices produce greater extremism, society may, in many cases, be better off as a result.  But when group discussion tends to lead people to more strongly held versions of the same view with which they began, and if social influences and limited argument pools are responsible, there is legitimate reason for concern about sensible self-government.

Sunstein's point is that the benefits, if any, of group polarization must be situationally defined.  In the following, I will offer three examples:

Example 1

This comes from a post by Kevin Drum about a study done by Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance.  Here is Drum's summary of a graph:  "The authors collected a sample of 40 political blogs, 20 from the right and 20 from the left, and then plotted the links between them over a period of time. The top diagram shows all connections, the middle diagram includes only connections that have at least five reciprocal links, and the bottom diagram includes only connections that have at least 25 reciprocal links."

This is a pretty clear illustration of the bipartite nature of the political blogosphere in the United States, a country which has been divided by politics for decades already. The political landscape of blogosphere in the United States may indeed mirror that of the population as a whole -- two passionately polarized sub-populations each accounting for about 25% of the population and another 50% who couldn't care less!

Example 2

The second example is for Hong Kong, and there are no pretty graphs here.  It may be conventional wisdom that Hong Kong is divided into two camps.  On one side, there is the pan-democratic camp whose major issue is direct elections for the Chief Executive and the other legislative representatives via universal suffrage, with auxiliary issues such as autonomous self-rule, the end of one-party rule in China and vindication of the 6/4 Tienanmen incident.  On the other side, their opponents are variously characterized as pro-China, pro-government and/or pro-business.

However, this is not the usual picture that is seen in Latin America, where the advocates of democracy are often intellectuals and union activists who are fighting on behalf of the dispossessed masses against a numerically small but disproportionately powerful clique of military officers and business oligarchs.  Here is what Daisann McLane said about Hong Kong in her article on the loner known as "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung:

As a Marxist, his natural allies on Hong Kong's social and economic issues would be in the Beijing-backed DAB, which enjoys strong grassroots support in Hong Kong because of its opposition to the British during the colonial era.  But Long Hair's opposition to the Chinese Communists and support for democratic reform in China make him a DAB pariah.  As a solid supporter of universal suffrage and human rights, he's a natural member of the pro-democracy caucus, and usually votes along with it. Legco's pro-democracy caucus, however, consists mainly of well-off lawyers and professionals, whom Long Hair derides as ''pro-capitalist.''

So this is rather bewildering commingling of various attitudes towards China, the local government, business, capitalist and democratic systems.  It is not my intention here to sort this out.  Rather, I am interested in whether the blogosphere reflects this political landscape out there.  My short answer is NO.  None of the major actors have any significance presence or influence in the blogosphere of Hong Kong.  DAB people don't blog, government officials don't blog, business leaders don't blog and the barristers in the pan-democratic camp don't blog.  Perhaps they do, but there is no observable impact on public opinion.  Rather, the actors still use traditional mass media (such as radio and newspapers) to push their positions in public.  But the problem is that the newspapers are clearly aligned along the political continuum and a particular reader's choice may result in restricted facts and viewpoints (see previous post for an obvious instance).  

At this time, all that exists in the political blogosphere of Hong Kong is a bunch of commentators (including the person who is typing these words) who are marginalized and have no meaningful impact on the flow of events.  And they don't even represent the distribution of political power either, as there is an obvious bias for certain positions that match the typical blogger profile (namely, a marginalized intellectual).  Neither the government officials, the business elite nor the grassroots elements are represented in any meaningful way in the blogosphere (for example, see previous post).  If the blogosphere consists solely of such opinions, then is group polarization a good thing?  Especially when one considers that the silent ones own the administrative control, the economic power as well as considerable numerical strength.  "Talk among yourselves.  I'm feeling a little bit verklempt" -- where did this famous saying come from?

Example 3

The third example of group polarization was treated in this previous post.  The subject was 'irrational' (as distinguished from legitimate and reasoned) anti-Japanese sentiments in China, which is being fueled by within-group discussions on the Internet without any dissent for the reasons stated in the post. 

Here is the dilemma: Would you like the state to step in and interfere with the free (and so far completely one-sided) discussion that is driving people towards evermore extreme positions, or not?  On one hand, if the state steps back, then irrational anti-Japanese sentiments are liable to get even more extreme.  On the other hand, if the state steps in to exert control, it would be set a precedent for interference in other areas of discussion.  My personal preference is for the state to step back and for dissenting opinions to articulate themselves as a matter of conscience.

The antidote to all this is simple enough: maintain a blog presence that is interesting while being neither partisan nor doctrinaire.  After all, what is the point if one's response to any development is automatically and totally predictable?