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Does the Internet Help or Hurt Democracy?

June 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Does the pervading presence of the Web make people better citizens or does it propagate misinformation and threaten democracy? Paul Solman has a look at the unfolding debate as staged by the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the Internet and democracy.

Does the Web help people to be better informed and to be better citizens, or can an online free-for-all actually be a threat to democracy? Those questions were at the heart of a recent debate presented by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Arguing that the Internet promotes democracy were Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and Micah Sifry, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum Internet site. Arguing that the Internet poses a threat to democracy were Farhad Manjoo, a “Slate” magazine columnist and author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” and Andrew Keen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of “The Cult of the Amateur.”

“NewsHour” economics correspondent Paul Solman was the moderator.

PAUL SOLMAN: Does the Internet encourage people who wouldn’t otherwise find each other, no matter how kooky their ideas might be, to do so, to be reinforced in those ideas, and make them more, as opposed to less, narrow-minded?

ANDREW KEEN, Entrepreneur and Writer: The mistake is to separate the Internet from the general culture. There’s clearly a general cultural problem with the echo chamber.

There’s clearly more and more of a failure in America of people of different political persuasions to respectfully and creatively talk about issues. That’s both in mainstream media and on the Internet. I think the Internet is a reflection of an increasingly fragmented world, an increasingly — ironically, given that we’re supposed to be living in this social media age, an increasingly lonely, fragmented, isolated age, in which we sit in front of our computers, we have less and less physical contact with everybody else, and we are more and more convinced of our own ideas.

MICAH SIFRY, Personal Democracy Forum: I really want to point, folks, to a new study that was done by the University of Chicago that actually looked at about 1500 news sites and the traffic to those sites based on data that — that various tracking agencies like comScore pulled for these researchers.

And what they found is that visitors to extreme conservatives sites like RushLimbaugh.com are more likely to have visited a liberal mainstream news site like The New York Times than a typical online news reader. And visitors to extreme liberal sites like ThinkProgress or MoveOn.org are more likely to have visited FOX News than a typical online news reader, and that, in fact, there are two types of things going on here.

The low news user online, the grazer, the person who just checks the news, they mainly go to a few big, fairly centrist sites, like CNN.com, USA Today, Yahoo! News that are more or less in the middle, and they’re just for people who are just checking whatever the top headlines are for the day.

And then the political junkies, who everybody thinks are in these horrible silos, where they only talk to themselves and reinforce the worst extremes, are actually all over the place. They’re not just at FOX News. They’re at FOX, they’re at The New York Times, and everywhere else.

JIMMY WALES, founder, Wikipedia: Certainly you can silo yourself, but I don’t think that’s ever been untrue. And so, you know, what effect is it having overall? I don’t think we really know yet.

I believe that it’s really more, you know, as Micah was saying, that people go to certain sites. And maybe you’re right. They go to the opposing site just to see what those idiots are saying.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, and to say things to those idiots. That’s my experience.

JIMMY WALES: But then that’s actually not siloing anymore. That’s not siloing, right? It may be a different problem, but it’s not siloing.

FARHAD MANJOO, “Slate”: You’re right. So, this — this Chicago study is one study that suggested that perhaps people aren’t siloing themselves. There have been others that suggested that maybe the blog — that maybe people who read blogs are siloing themselves.

There was a study about four years ago, three or four years ago, that suggested that blogs on the right were linking mainly to other right-wing blogs, left-wing blogs were linking mainly to other left-wing blogs.

Even if people aren’t siloing themselves online, what we’re seeing more and more is that the — the extreme points of views that we’re getting from — that — that couldn’t have been introduced into national discussion in the past are being introduced now by this sort of entry mechanism, that — and people put it on blogs, and then it gets picked up by cable news, and then it becomes a national discussion.

JIMMY WALES: One of the reasons they’re coming together online is precisely they turn on the television and they see, wow, there’s an idiot screaming at another idiot. I don’t care. It’s time to go actually understand the issue.

So, I think all of these things are really important. And, of course, I think we can’t neglect that there are bad things on the Internet. There’s bad information. There’s misinformation. There’s a lot of noise.

But we have to always remember to look at the net effect. We can’t just look at one bad thing or another bad thing. We have to say, summed up, altogether, in total, is this phenomenon as a whole good or bad for democracy?

I say having people talking to each other about real issues is always good for democracy.

GWEN IFILL: To watch the full debate, check your local public television listings.