Why we all need to read the people we disagree with

I wrote this last weekend but didn’t get round to making it live – its is a proper research diary post – so look away if you are not in an academic frame of mind…..

Main feature of the weekend has been Cass Sunsteins’ Republic 2.0 as well as some fairly recent journal papers from Stephen Coleman. This all brought on an urge to read some more Manuel Castells on the networked society which is also excellent.

But before the detail, I did rather like this quote from Stephen Coleman: “In the interactive era, government has not proved to be a particularly good conversationalist” – very true!!  See below for more musings on this

The extra Castells’ reading really reflects the fact that I am situating my thesis in a networked society framework and then looking in more detail at political communication and process. Beyond this I am referencing Habermas’ public sphere – and balencing his excessively rational view of the world with some thoughts about evolutionary biology and the ways in which crowds behave. I will also be looking at some ideas around social capital – but this is more in reference to the theoretical framework than the literature review in that I am using it descriptively.

All this really reflects that my literature review is starting to come into focus and I will be able to start writing it up later in the summer (this is of no interest I know to anyone but me and my supervisor but the more times I say it in public the more likely it is to happen!).

I am going to write a proper post on the Sunstein book next weekend but I wanted to focus on one area which drew all the stuff this weekend together:

As you may know what I am primarily interested in is how to build the online civic spaces which we will need in order to provide a connection between citizens and their representatives – assuming that the current trends of online activities continue. As there is absolutely no evidence that we are doing anything other than increasing our online time, and no sign that we will all take against it and start welsh hill farming, then we really have to get building.

There is an often a feeling from the online community that the blogosphere is the thing which going to close this gap between citizen and politician and once again provide us with a vibrant public sphere that knits together and focus’s public opinion in a way which our representatives can then respond to.

However – and this is why you really need to read the Sunstein – the increasingly granular nature of information online, what he calls the ‘Daily Me’, which allows us to select only the content we are interested in means that our opinions are less likely to be challenged and we are likely to have our more extreme views endorsed as we surround ourselves with similar opinions (group polarisation). While this ‘niche-ness’ is, for most of us, one of the most appealing things about the time we spend online it is democratically problematic as we create many silo’d points of view rather than coming together into a consensus.

Previously the media would have provided this ‘critical friend’ role with journalists having the skills and the overt responsibility for making sure that we receive a balanced picture of the world. As we take charge of our news gathering destinies it is increasingly obvious that we don’t seek out this balance and that we tend to read the people and the sources who we already agree with

However as Coleman points out in his article “Blog and the New Politics of listening”: “the problem facing politicians who blog is that they are professionally implicated in the the very culture that blogging seeks to transcend” and “as long as politicians are expected to be never in doubt and ever faithful to catechisic party messages, their blogging efforts are always likely to look more like simulation than authentic self-expression.”  This is an issue if we are trying to redescribe the public sphere online and if we believe we need to involve our representatives in the process.

And we do – “there is little to indicate that citizens want to dispense entirely with representative democracy and initiate a direct democracy, at least in its crudest sense of transcending all representative institutions and passing unmediated power over decision making to all voters. Indeed, when asked directly whether institutions such as parliaments should cede power to a plebiscitary electorate, few are in favor of this” (Coleman, 2003b). Bowler et al. (2003) offer intriguing evidence to show that many citizens do not distinguish between direct and representative democracy; the determining variable is their attitude toward democracy as such. According to this thesis, distrust of representative democracy affects trust of direct democracy; those who have faith in the public’s democratic capacity in representative democracy are more likely to support greater direct democracy than those who do not. (From The Lonely Citizen: Indirect Representation in an Age of Networks).

Instead, Coleman starts to argue for a direct representation where we use reinforce the role of the representative by making it easier for people to feel connected to him or her.  This is an area where the social media excels – providing a feeling and real connection quickly and easily with many people.  It is no substitute for face to face encounters – but is at least achievable for our politicians.

“Governments and other political actors are forced to deal with more spaces of mediation than ever before. Whereas in the relatively recent past, political communication strategists had a limited range of press, television, and radio bases to cover, they are now involved in multidimensional impression management. This leads to an inevitable loosening of their control over the political agenda, forcing politicians into an increasingly responsive mode rather than the proactive, agendasetting role they would prefer to adopt. To cover the broad, dynamic, and often unpredictable media environment in which they now operate, political actors are compelled to adopt elaborate cross-media strategies, which may amount to little more than keeping up with the incessant flow of relevant information and hoping spot embarrassing media content before it damages them.” (Political Communication Old and New Media Relationships)

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