Go to current issue
Go to current issue
Go to current issue
  The Future of Free Speech — 7  

  Looking Back
  Vol II : issue 2

  Amit Chaudhuri
  Cass Sunstein
  Dibyendu Palit
  Vinay Lal
  Only in Print

Subscribe to The Little Magazine
Order the print edition of this issue
Browse our bookstore
Browse back issues

   Mail this page link
   Enter recipient's e-mail:

Cass Sunstein

Group Polarisation and the Internet

Group polarisation is highly likely to occur on the Internet. Indeed, it is clear that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding ground for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with one another, without hearing contrary views.

Consider in this regard a revealing study not of extremism, but of serious errors within working groups, face-to-face but more importantly online.6 The purpose of the study was to see how groups might collaborate to make personnel decisions. Resumes for three candidates, applying for a marketing manager position, were placed before the groups; the attributes of the candidates were rigged by the experimenters so that one applicant was clearly best matched for the job described. Packets of information were given to subjects, each containing only a subset of information from the resumes, so that each group member had only part of the relevant information. The groups consisted of three people, some operating face-to-face, some operating online. Two results were especially striking: group polarisation was common; and almost none(!) of the deliberating groups made what was conspicuously the right choice. The reason is that they failed to share information in a way that would permit the group to make an objective decision.

In online groups, the level of error was especially high, for the simple reason that members tended to share positive information about the winning candidate and negative information about the losers, while also suppressing negative information about the winner and positive information about the losers. These contributions served to “reinforce the march toward group consensus rather than add complications and fuel debate,”7 In fact, this tendency was twice as large within the online groups.

What has been said thus far should be sufficient to show that group polarisation can be especially pronounced under conditions of discussion via computer, in a way that magnifies mistakes and biases. Though the study just described did not involve political or moral issues, the results show that one-sidedness, and consequently extremeness, can be heightened when people are communicating over the Internet. We have seen a great deal of real-world evidence in the same direction.

Fragmentation, Polarisation, Radio and TV

An understanding of group polarisation casts light on radio and television more generally. Recall that mere exposure to the views of others creates group polarisation; it follows that this effect will be at work for non-deliberating groups, in the form of collections of individuals whose communications choices go in a particular direction, and who do not expose themselves to alternative positions. Indeed, the same process is likely to occur for newspaper choices.

Group polarisation also raises more general issues about communications policy. Consider the “fairness doctrine,” now largely abandoned but once requiring radio and television broadcasters (a) to devote time to public issues and (b) to allow an opportunity for opposing views to be heard. Prong (b) of the doctrine was designed to ensure that listeners would not be exposed to any single view. When the Federal Communications Commission abandoned the fairness doctrine, it did so on the ground that this second prong led broadcasters, much of the time, to avoid controversial issues entirely, and to present views in a way that suggested a bland uniformity.8 Subsequent research has suggested that the elimination of the fairness doctrine has indeed produced a flowering of controversial, substantive programming, frequently with an extreme view of one kind or another: consider talk radio.

Typically, this is regarded as a story of wonderfully successful deregulation, because the effects of eliminating the fairness doctrine were precisely what was sought and intended. But from the standpoint of group polarisation, the picture is far more complicated. The growth of issues-oriented programming with strong, often extreme views creates group polarisation. All too many people are now exposed to louder echoes of their own voices, resulting, on occasion, in social fragmentation, misunderstanding, and sometimes even enmity. Perhaps it is better for people to hear fewer controversial views than for them to hear a single such view, stated over and over again. I now turn to this issue.

Is Group Polarisation Bad?

Of course we cannot say, from the mere fact of polarisation, that there has been a movement in the wrong direction. Perhaps the more extreme tendency is better: indeed, group polarisation is likely to have fuelled many movements of great value, including, for example, the movement for civil rights, the antislavery movement, the movement for sex equality. All of these movements were extreme in their time, and within-group discussion bred greater extremism; but extremism need not be a word of opprobrium. If greater communications choices produce greater extremism, society may, in many cases, be better off as a result. But when group discussion tends to lead people to more strongly held versions of the same view with which they began, and if social influences and limited argument pools are responsible, there is legitimate reason for concern. Consider discussions among hate groups on the Internet and elsewhere. If the underlying views are unreasonable, it makes sense to fear that these discussions may fuel increasing hatred and a socially corrosive form of extremism. This does not mean that the discussions can or should be regulated in a system dedicated to freedom of speech. But it does raise questions about the idea that “more speech” is necessarily an adequate remedy – especially if people are increasingly able to wall themselves off from competing views.

The basic issue here is whether something like a “public sphere,” with a wide range of voices, might not have significant advantages over a system in which isolated consumer choices produce a highly fragmented speech market. The most reasonable conclusion is that it is extremely important to ensure that people are exposed to views other than those with which they currently agree, in order to protect against the harmful effects of group polarisation on individual thinking and on social cohesion. This does not mean that the government should jail or fine people who refuse to listen to others. Nor is what I have said inconsistent with approval of deliberating “enclaves,” on the Internet or elsewhere, designed to ensure that positions that would otherwise be silenced or squelched have a chance to develop. But the benefit of such enclaves is that positions may emerge that otherwise would not, and that deserve to play a large role in the heterogeneous public. Properly understood, the case of “enclaves,” or more simply discussion groups of like-minded people, is that they will improve social deliberation, democratic and otherwise. For these improvements to occur, members must not insulate themselves from competing positions, or at least any such attempts at insulation must not be a prolonged affair.

The adverse effects of group polarisation thus show that with respect to communications, consumer sovereignty is likely to produce serious problems for individuals and society at large — and these problems will occur by a kind of iron logic of social interactions

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