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  The Future of Free Speech — 5  

  Looking Back
  Vol II : issue 2

  Amit Chaudhuri
  Cass Sunstein
  Dibyendu Palit
  Gulzar
  Vinay Lal
  Only in Print

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Cass Sunstein

Fragmentation

I now turn to my central concern. In a system with public forums and general interest intermediaries, people will frequently come across materials that they would not have chosen in advance – and for diverse citizens, this provides something like a common framework for social experience. Let us suppose that the communications market became far more fragmented, in exactly the sense prophesied by those who celebrate “the Daily Me.” What problems would be created by this fragmentation?

E Pluribus Plures

It is obvious that if there is only one flavour of ice cream, and only one kind of toaster, a wide range of people will make the same choice. (Some people will refuse ice cream, and rely on something other than toasters, but that is another matter.) It is also obvious that as choice is increased, different individuals, and different groups, will make increasingly different choices. This has been the growing pattern over time with the proliferation of communications options.

Consider some details. If you take the ten most highly rated television programmes for whites, and then take the ten most highly rated programmes for African-Americans, you will find little overlap between them. Indeed, over half of the ten most highly rated programmes for African-Americans rank among the ten least popular programs for whites. Similar divisions can be found on the Internet. Not surprisingly, people tend to choose like-minded sites and like-minded discussion groups. With respect to politics, for example, those with committed views on one or another topic — gun control, abortion, affirmative action — speak mostly with each other. It is exceedingly rare for a site with an identifiable point of view to provide links to sites with opposing views; but it is very common for such a site to provide links to like-minded sites.

Of course, any system that allows for freedom of choice will create balkanisation of this kind. Long before the advent of the Internet, and in an era of a handful of television stations, people made choices among newspapers and radio stations. Since the early nineteenth century, African-American newspapers have been widely read by African-Americans, and these newspapers offer significantly different coverage of common issues, and also make dramatically different choices among what issues are important.3

What is emerging is a change of degree, not one of kind, But it is no less significant for that. With an increase in options, and a greater power to customise, comes an increase in the range of actual choices, and those choices are likely, in many cases, to match demographic characteristics. Of course this is not all bad; among other things, it will greatly increase variety, the aggregate amount of information, and the entertainment value of actual choices. But there are problems as well. If diverse groups are seeing and hearing quite different points of view, or focusing on quite different topics, mutual understanding might be difficult, and it might turn out to be hard for people to solve problems that society faces together.
We can sharpen our understanding of this problem if we attend to the phenomenon of group polarisation. This phenomenon raises serious questions about any system in which individuals and groups choose extremely diverse communications universes.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4 p. 5 p. 6 p. 7 p. 8 p. 9 p.10 p. 11   
    

 

Cass Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Chicago. This article borrows from his forthcoming book Republic.com, to be published by Princeton University Press