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  The Future of Free Speech — 8  

  Looking Back
  Vol II : issue 2

  Amit Chaudhuri
  Cass Sunstein
  Dibyendu Palit
  Vinay Lal
  Only in Print

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Cass Sunstein

Social Cascades

The phenomenon of group polarisation is closely related to the widespread phenomenon of ‘social cascades’. No discussion of social fragmentation and emerging communications technologies would be complete without a discussion of that phenomenon.

It is obvious that many social groups, both large and small, seem to move both rapidly and dramatically in the direction of one or another set of beliefs or actions.10 These sorts of “cascades” often involve the spread of information; in fact they are driven by information. A key point here is that if you lack a great deal of private information, you may well rely on information provided by the statements or actions of others. A stylised example: if Joan doesn’t know whether abandoned toxic waste dumps are in fact hazardous, she may be moved in the direction of fear if Mary seems to think that fear is justified. If Joan and Mary both believe that fear is justified, Carl may end up thinking so too, at least if he lacks reliable independent information to the contrary. If Joan, Mary, and Carl believe that abandoned waste dumps are hazardous, Don will have to have a good deal of confidence to reject their shared conclusion.

The example shows how information travels, and often becomes quite entrenched, even if it is entirely wrong. The view — widespread in many African-American communities — that white doctors are responsible for the spread of AIDS among African-Americans, is a recent illustration. Often, cascades of this kind are quite local, and take different forms in different communities. Hence, one group may end up believing something and another the exact opposite, because of rapid transmission of information within one group but not the other. In a balkanised speech market, this danger takes on a particular form: different groups may be led to dramatically different perspectives, depending on varying local cascades.

I hope this is enough to demonstrate that for citizens of a heterogeneous democracy, a fragmented communications market creates considerable dangers. There are dangers for each of us as individuals; constant exposure to one set of views is likely to lead to errors and confusions. And to the extent that the process makes people less able to work cooperatively on shared problems, there are dangers for society as a whole.

Social Glue

In a heterogeneous society, it is extremely important for diverse people to have a set of common experiences. Most people understand this fact, and many of our practices reflect a judgment to this effect. National holidays, for example, help constitute a nation, by encouraging citizens to think, all at once, about events of shared importance. And they do much more than this. They enable people, in all their diversity, to have certain memories and attitudes. At least this is true in nations where national holidays have a vivid and concrete meaning. In the United States, many national holidays have become mere days-off-from-work, and the precipitating occasion — President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labour Day — has come to be nearly invisible. This is a serious loss. With the possible exception of July 4th, Martin Luther King Day is probably the closest thing to a genuinely substantive national holiday, largely because that celebration involves something that can be treated as concrete and meaningful. In other words, it is about something.

Communications and the media are of course exceptionally important here. Sometimes, millions of people follow the presidential election, or the Superbowl, or the coronation of a new monarch; and many of them do so because of the simultaneous actions of others. In this sense, some of the experiences made possible by modern technologies are solidarity goods, in the sense that their value goes up when and because many other people are enjoying or consuming them. The point very much bears on the historic role of both public forums and general interest intermediaries. Public parks are of course places where diverse people can congregate and see one another. General interest intermediaries, if they are operating properly, give a simultaneous sense of problems and tasks.

The Value of Shared Experiences

Why might these shared experiences be so desirable? There are three principal reasons:

1. Simple enjoyment is probably the least of it, but it is far from irrelevant. People like many experiences more simply because they are being shared. Consider a popular movie, the Superbowl, or a presidential debate. For many of us, these are goods that are worth less, and possibly worthless, if many others are not enjoying or purchasing them too. Hence a presidential debate may be worthy of individual attention, for many people, simply because so many other people consider it worthy of individual attention.

2. Sometimes, shared experiences ease social interactions, permitting people to speak with one another, and to congregate around a common issue, task, or concern, whether or not they have much in common with one another. In this sense, they provide a form of social glue. They help make it possible for diverse people to believe that they live in the same culture. Indeed, they help constitute that shared culture, simply by creating common memories and experiences, and a sense of common tasks.

3. A fortunate consequence of shared experiences — many of them produced by the media — is that people who would otherwise see one another as quite unfamiliar, in the extreme case as belonging to a different species, can come instead to regard one another as fellow citizens with shared hopes, goals and concerns. This is a subjective good for those directly involved. But it can be an objective good as well, especially if it leads to cooperative projects of various kinds. When people learn about a disaster faced by fellow citizens, for example, they may respond with financial and other help. The point applies internationally as well as domestically; massive relief efforts are often made possible by virtue of the fact that millions of people learn, all at once, about the relevant need.

Even in a nation of unlimited communications options, some events will inevitably attract widespread attention. But an obvious risk of an increasingly fragmented communications universe is that it will reduce the level of shared experiences, having salience to diverse people. This is a simple matter of numbers. When there were three television networks, much of what appeared would have the quality of a genuinely common experience. The lead story on the evening news, for example, would provide a common reference point for many millions of people. To the extent that choices proliferate, it is inevitable that diverse individuals, and diverse groups will have fewer shared experiences and fewer common reference points. It is possible, for example, that some events that are highly salient to some people will barely register on others’ viewscreens. And it is possible that some views and perspectives that will seem obvious to many people will, to others, seem barely intelligible.

This is hardly a suggestion that everyone should be required to participate in the same thing. We are not speaking of requirements at all. In any case a degree of plurality, with respect to both topics and points of view, is also highly desirable. My only claim is that a common set of frameworks and experiences is valuable for a heterogeneous society, and that a system with limitless options, making for diverse choices, will compromise the underlying values.

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