Among my Facebook friends’ travel pictures; a recent picture of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s daughter; shared Pinterest pages and a few annoying statuses from people selling goods or services, I came across a couple of political posts.
One, a NewsOne update on the government shutdown; two, a BuzzFeed story about President Barack Obama and Vice President walking to grab some lunch at a nearby restaurant; and three, A Talking Points Memo blog story relaying comments U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., made to the Omaha World-Herald about
proudly collecting his paycheck during the government shutdown.
I found both stories interesting in different ways.
From NewsOne, I learned exactly what happens when the government shuts down and how it may affect me, aside from my inability to log onto to the Library of Congress’ website earlier this week for research.
While I would not categorize it as hard political news, from BuzzFeed, I did learn the president and vice president chose Taylor Gourmet because the restaurant gave 10 percent discounts to furloughed government workers.
Lastly, from Talking Points Memo, I learned Terry would not only happily accept his check without, in my opinion, any remorse for the thousands of federal workers not receiving paychecks, but also there were many others
doing the same.
An informed electorate is essential to a successful democracy.
Today, the Internet provided information to me, an active member of society; thus contributing to our U.S. Democracy’s success.
This brings me to this week’s #mc7019 topic, (Internet/Media) Effects on Politics and Democracy.
This week, we read Cass Sunstein’s “Is the Internet Really a Blessing for Democracy;” Henry Farrell’s “The Consequences of the Internet for Politics;” Diana Mutz’s “Cross-cutting Social Networks: Testing
Democratic Theory in Practice;” and Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey M. Berry’s “From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio, and Cable News.”
Sunstein, who wrote the article discussed today in 2001, poses the question: Is the Internet a wonderful development for democracy?
His response—“In many ways it certainly is… But in the midst of the celebration, I want to raise a note of
I agree with Sunstein’s answer.
Today, we can learn far more information in faster time than ever before.
In particular, interested parties can access political information via government websites, social media or even group discussions taking place online or organized online and held offline.
The Internet is a melting pot of political information, which in theory would serve as an assetto a democracy.
However, Sunstein warns of “one of the most striking powers provided by emerging technologies: the growing power of consumers to “filter” what they see” (Sunstein, 2001).
This is a real problem, particularly in the age of social media, micro-targeting and big data.
Many people develop their social media accounts with others who share their worldview, even going so far as to unfriend/unfollow or block posts from dissenters.
News outlets and advertisers suggest stories and products that planted tracking cookies and algorithms tell them we might like based on our past online activity.
Even Google has hopped onboard, voluntarily customizing what information comes up in our online searches based on past searches.
While these actions may be convenient and appreciated at times, they can also limit our exposure to diverse thoughts, leaving a potentially negative impact on a democracy and the public sphere.
According to Sunstein, the public forum doctrine serves three important functions:
1. It ensures speakers can have access to a wide array of people.
2. Allows speakers not only to have general access to heterogeneous people, but also to specific people, and specific institutions, with whom they have a complaint.
3. Increases the likelihood that people generally will be exposed to a wide variety of people and views.
The closer we move toward personalization, the more likely it is that these democratic ideals could be
1. The need to promote exposure to materials, topics, and positions that people would not have chosen in advance,
or at least enough exposure to produce a degree of understanding and curiosity;
2. The value of a range of common experiences;
3. The need for exposure to substantive questions of policy and principle,
combined with a range of positions on such
In her article, Mutz tests this theory, analyzing whether exposure to dissenting political viewpoints
impacts personal political beliefs.
She found exposure to significantly different views “does not appear to play a significant role in deepening people’s knowledge of their own issue positions, but it does have an important impact by familiarizing them with
legitimate rationales for opposing viewpoints” (Mutz, 2002).
Her results statistically confirmed common thoughts on the topic.
While public discourse on political topics can be beneficial, this openness can bring along a host of
other issues, namely incivility among contributors.
Sobieraj and Berry explored this incivility in their study, in which they measure “outrage.” They defined “outrage discourse” as efforts that “provoke a visceral response from the audience, usually in the form of anger, fear, or moral righteousness through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and partial truths about opponents” (Sobieraj and Berry,2011).
They found “outrage discourse is extensive, takes many different forms and spans media formats” as well as “outrage tactics are largely the same for liberal and conservative media, conservative media use significantly more outrage speech than liberal media” (Sobieraj and Berry,2011).
Online incivility is a subject I’m all too familiar with.
While working as a journalist, I encountered more than my fair share of online incivility, particularly over political or racial stories.
If you know me personally or know of my career as a journalist, you may know of one such story--the in-depth look into candidates for county judge in Victoria County, Texas.
You can read the story here.
The story was unique because the Republican candidate was running amid accusations of domestic abuse, assault and aggression in general. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidate had
a record of arrests for driving while intoxicated.
Ultimately, I received an honorable mention from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors Association.
Locally, I received mixed feedback.
While many people praised my work for its objectivity and good reporting, others accused me of having an agenda against this man (even though I was new to the area, did not know the man and this was one of the first articles
I did on my new job) and blamed my article as the reason why the candidate lost the election and
One man in particular started an email, in-person and online campaign in which he attempted to smear my name and start a war against me, my boss and my paper.
It was a long battle, but ultimately I won.
I am purposely not saying his name because I don’t want you to give his smear campaign website any more page hits.
Although there were negative reactions to the article, it did its job in sharing new information to the masses regardless of political ideology.
This example demonstrates incivility against objective sharers of information.
One wonders how those who clearly post biased political information are treated.
In many cases, they do not fare any better.
I agree with Farrell’s prediction that “over the next decade, the relationship between the Internet and politics will become increasingly important.”
The Internet, by design, made political participation easier.
A total of 122 million Americans voted in the 2004 Presidential Election, the greatest turnout since 1968 and the single largest jump since 1952 (Faler, 2005).Studies showed the Internet could have played a part in the
increase of political participation since the 2000 election. "Online information seeking and interactive civic messaging-uses of the Web promote higher civic engagement, even more so than traditional print and broadcast media and face-to-face communication (Pecorino et.al, 2009). Many levels of government
have adapted to the presence of the Internet in one way or another, whether they create a central website or a social media account. In some cases, some government entities incorporate three main features: a high-speed network
offered free of charge or at a subsidized rate to households; some form of community technology center, often based in a community building; and an emphasis on creating content specific to the local community” (Chadwick
However, the downside of the Internet and the formation of a democratic citizen include websites advocating for authoritarian government systems as well as those sites promoting acts of terrorism as a means of
protest against democratic governance; government censure of ideas based on libel and slander laws or those falling under the purview of the Homeland Security Act; and in a potentially extreme situation, the shutdown of the
Internet. Additionally, the Internet creates a knowledge gap between those who have Internet access and those who don’t. Those who have Internet access at home have opportunities to become more politically engaged, while those who do not have access to it period or only through libraries or school are at a disadvantage.
Regardless of the negatives and positives, politics have moved online. We just have to figure out how best to maneuver it.
I pose these questions for group
1. There is a fine line between freedom of speech and slander, one which many media companies have not yet learned to successfully maneuver in terms of managing online comments on political stories. In recent years, many journalists have lost their jobs while defending themselves against slanderous comments that go beyond
criticizing just the story. What are your thoughts on this situation? What can be done to better protect journalists without infringing on the rights of commenters?
2. What are your predictions of how the Internet will affect politics in the future (new Internet capabilities, etc.)?
3. If news outlets suggested stories that are opposite of stories you have already read, would you actually take the
time to read them?
As always, I welcome a healthy debate and feedback. If you’re interested in either one, feel free to comment.
Chadwick, Andrew. Internet Politics: States, Citizens, and New
Technologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Faler, B. (2005, January 15). Election Turnout in 2004 Was
Highest Since 1968 (washingtonpost.com). Retrieved April 3, 2013, from
Hall, E. (2012, October 4). Obama And Biden Go Out For Lunch.
Retrieved October 4, 2013, from
Manuel-Logan, R. (2013, October 2). What Is A Government
Shutdown, How Does It Affect You? | News One. Retrieved from
Pecorino, P., Thompson, K., LaRocca, D., Gallagher, P.,&
Cintron, J. (2006, August). Study: Impact of Internet on Democracy. Retrieved
April 3, 2013, from
Sunstein, C. (2001, June 6). The Daily We | Boston Review.
Thompson, C. (2013, October 4). GOP Rep Says 'Dang Straight' He'll
Collect His Paycheck During Shutdown. Retrieved from http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/gop-rep-says-dang-straight-he-ll-collect-his-paycheck-during-shutdown