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Benkler-Sunstein debate on “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” in the Digital Future

MIT’s Communication’s Forum hosted a debate between Professor Benkler and Professor Sunstein on how the Internet has affected and will affect democratic participation. Although I can’t claim to represent the feelings of other attendees, I found myself leaving largely unsatiated (even assuming that their factual assertions were correct): on the one hand it was quite difficult to discern how they represented competing positions and on the other hand, to the extent that there were disagreements, the “so what?” question seemed largely unanswered.

The moderator, Henry Jenkins, began with a good attempt to establish metrics for judging how democratic participation might be judged. And within the first 10 minutes it was clear that Professor Sunstein was much less satisfied than Professor Benkler with the affect of the Internet. But insofar as they described their particular views on how the advent of the Internet has reshaped democratic participation, their views did not seem to be inconsistent.

Professor Sunstein posits that the Internet diminishes the likelihood that people will come into contact with ideas they are biased against, but will restrict their contact to those who agree with them, creating an echo chamber effect. At the same time, the increase in sources of information and competing narratives for events diminishes the likelihood that there will be a common narrative for the participants in the democracy. But, at least as a descriptive matter, this does not seem inconsistent with Professor Benkler’s position that the Internet has enabled more democratic participation by breaking down the concentration and hierarchy of power and dispersing the power to set the agenda.

The differences might have been salient if they were presented as competing metrics for judging democratic participation. But it seems highly unlikely, at least from the discussion, that either advocated a metric that excluded the values that the other metric incorporated. Professor Sunstein did not advocate a state of affairs where a small set of individuals within a strict hierarchy of power set the agenda; Professor Benkler did not suggest that echo chamber effect was a benefit proffered by the Internet.

There seemed to be a glimmer of a normative argument when Professor Sunstein suggested that the development of norms that would push back against the echo chamber effect. But the argument was not developed enough to counter for me Professor Benkler’s point strongest point: that systems should be judged against practically available alternatives.

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