The Daily We
Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?
Cass R. Sunstein
Is the Internet a wonderful development for democracy? In many
ways it certainly is. As a result of the Internet, people can
learn far more than they could before, and they can learn it much
faster. If you are interested in issues that bear on public policy—environmental
quality, wages over time, motor vehicle safety—you can find
what you need to know in a matter of seconds. If you are suspicious
of the mass media, and want to discuss issues with like-minded
people, you can do that, transcending the limitations of geography
in ways that could barely be imagined even a decade ago. And if
you want to get information to a wide range of people, you can
do that via email and websites; this is another sense in which
the Internet is a great boon for democracy.
But in the midst of the celebration, I want
to raise a note of caution. I do so by emphasizing one of the
most striking powers provided by emerging technologies: the growing
power of consumers to "filter" what they see. As a result of the
Internet and other technological developments, many people are
increasingly engaged in a process of "personalization" that limits
their exposure to topics and points of view of their own choosing.
They filter in, and they also filter out, with unprecedented powers
of precision. Consider just a few examples:
1. Broadcast.com has "compiled hundreds
of thousands of programs so you can find the one that suits your
fancy…. For example, if you want to see all the latest fashions
from France 24 hours of the day you can get them. If you're from
Baltimore living in Dallas and you want to listen to WBAL, your
hometown station, you can hear it."
2. Sonicnet.com allows you to create your
own musical universe, consisting of what it calls "Me Music."
Me Music is "A place where you can listen to the music you love
on the radio station YOU create…. A place where you can
watch videos of your favorite artists and new artists."
3. Zatso.net allows users to produce "a
personal newscast." Its intention is to create a place "where
you decide what's news." Your task is to tell "what TV news stories
you're interested in," and Zatso.net turns that information into
a specifically designed newscast. From the main "This is the News
I Want" menu, you can choose stories with particular words and
phrases, or you can select topics, such as sports, weather, crime,
health, government/politics, and much more.
4. Info Xtra offers "news and entertainment
that's important to you," and it allows you to find this "without
hunting through newspapers, radio and websites." Personalized
news, local weather, and "even your daily horoscope or winning
lottery number" will be delivered to you once you specify what
you want and when you want it.
5. TiVo, a television recording system,
is designed, in the words of its website, to give "you the ultimate
control over your TV viewing." It does this by putting "you at
the center of your own TV network, so you'll always have access
to whatever you want, whenever you want." TiVo "will automatically
find and digitally record your favorite programs every time they
air" and will help you create "your personal TV line-up." It will
also learn your tastes, so that it can "suggest other shows that
you may want to record and watch based on your preferences."
6. Intertainer, Inc. provides "home entertainment
services on demand," including television, music, movies, and
shopping. Intertainer is intended for people who want "total control"
and "personalized experiences." It is "a new way to get whatever
movies, music, and television you want anytime you want on your
PC or TV."
7. George Bell, the chief executive officer
of the search engine Excite, exclaims, "We are looking for ways
to be able to lift chunks of content off other areas of our service
and paste them onto your personal page so you can constantly refresh
and update that 'newspaper of me.' About 43 percent of our entire
user data base has personalized their experience on Excite."
Of course, these developments make life
much more convenient and in some ways much better: we all seek
to reduce our exposure to uninvited noise. But from the standpoint
of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding
of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes
for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous
society, such a system requires something other than free, or
publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it
imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be
exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance.
Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of
view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating,
are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many
or most citizens should have a range of common experiences.
Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have
a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding
Consider a thought experiment—an apparently utopian dream,
that of complete individuation, in which consumers can entirely
personalize (or "customize") their communications universe.
Imagine, that is, a system of communications
in which each person has unlimited power of individual design.
If some people want to watch news all the time, they would be
entirely free to do exactly that. If they dislike news, and want
to watch football in the morning and situation comedies at night,
that would be fine too. If people care only about America, and
want to avoid international issues entirely, that would be very
simple; so too if they care only about New York or Chicago or
California. If people want to restrict themselves to certain points
of view, by limiting themselves to conservatives, moderates, liberals,
vegetarians, or Nazis, that would be entirely feasible with a
simple point-and-click. If people want to isolate themselves,
and speak only with like-minded others, that is feasible too.
At least as a matter of technological feasibility,
our communications market is moving rapidly toward this apparently
utopian picture. A number of newspapers' websites allow readers
to create filtered versions, containing exactly what they want,
and no more. If you are interested in getting help with the design
of an entirely individual paper, you can consult a number of sites,
including Individual.com and Crayon.net. To be sure, the Internet
greatly increases people's ability to expand their horizons, as
millions of people are now doing; but many people are using it
to produce narrowness, not breadth. Thus MIT professor Nicholas
Negroponte refers to the emergence of the "Daily Me"—a communications
package that is personally designed, with components fully chosen
Of course, this is not entirely different
from what has come before. People who read newspapers do not read
the same newspaper; some people do not read any newspaper at all.
People make choices among magazines based on their tastes and
their points of view. But in the emerging situation, there is
a difference of degree if not of kind. What is different
is a dramatic increase in individual control over content, and
a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries,
including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. For all their
problems, and their unmistakable limitations and biases, these
intermediaries have performed some important democratic functions.
People who rely on such intermediaries have
a range of chance encounters, involving shared experience with
diverse others and exposure to material that they did not specifically
choose. You might, for example, read the city newspaper and in
the process come across a range of stories that you would not
have selected if you had the power to control what you see. Your
eyes may come across a story about Germany, or crime in Los Angeles,
or innovative business practices in Tokyo, and you may read those
stories although you would hardly have placed them in your "Daily
Me." You might watch a particular television channel—perhaps
you prefer Channel 4—and when your favorite program ends,
you might see the beginning of another show, one that you would
not have chosen in advance. Reading Time magazine, you
might come across a discussion of endangered species in Madagascar,
and this discussion might interest you, even affect your behavior,
although you would not have sought it out in the first instance.
A system in which you lack control over the particular content
that you see has a great deal in common with a public street,
where you might encounter not only friends, but a heterogeneous
variety of people engaged in a wide array of activities (including,
perhaps, political protests and begging).
In fact, a risk with a system of perfect
individual control is that it can reduce the importance of the
"public sphere" and of common spaces in general. One of the important
features of such spaces is that they tend to ensure that people
will encounter materials on important issues, whether or not they
have specifically chosen the encounter. When people see materials
that they have not chosen, their interests and their views might
change as a result. At the very least, they will know a bit more
about what their fellow citizens are thinking. As it happens,
this point is closely connected with an important, and somewhat
exotic, constitutional principle.
Public (and Private) Forums
In the popular understanding, the free speech principle forbids
government from "censoring" speech of which it disapproves. In
the standard cases, the government attempts to impose penalties,
whether civil or criminal, on political dissent, and on speech
that it considers dangerous, libelous, or sexually explicit. The
question is whether the government has a legitimate and sufficiently
weighty basis for restricting the speech that it seeks to control.
But a central part of free speech
law, with large implications for thinking about the Internet,
takes a quite different form. The Supreme Court has also held
that streets and parks must be kept open to the public for expressive
activity.1 Governments are obliged to
allow speech to occur freely on public streets and in public parks—even
if many citizens would prefer to have peace and quiet, and even
if it seems irritating to come across protesters and dissidents
whom one would like to avoid. To be sure, the government is allowed
to impose restrictions on the "time, place, and manner" of speech
in public places. No one has a right to use fireworks and loudspeakers
on the public streets at midnight. But time, place, and manner
restrictions must be both reasonable and limited, and government
is essentially obliged to allow speakers, whatever their views,
to use public property to convey messages of their choosing.
The public forum doctrine serves three important
functions.2 First, it ensures that speakers
can have access to a wide array of people. If you want to claim
that taxes are too high, or that police brutality against African
Americans is common, you can press this argument on many people
who might otherwise fail to hear the message. Those who use the
streets and parks are likely to learn something about your argument;
they might also learn the nature and intensity of views held by
one of their fellow citizens. Perhaps their views will be changed;
perhaps they will become curious, enough to investigate the question
on their own.
Second, the public forum doctrine 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. Suppose, for example, that you believe
that the state legislature has behaved irresponsibly with respect
to crime or health care for children. The public forum ensures
that you can make your views heard by legislators simply by protesting
in front of the state legislature building.
Third, the public forum doctrine increases
the likelihood that people generally will be exposed to a wide
variety of people and views. When you go to work, or visit a park,
it is possible that you will have a range of unexpected encounters,
however fleeting or seemingly inconsequential. You cannot easily
wall yourself off from contentions or conditions that you would
not have sought out in advance, or that you would have chosen
to avoid if you could. Here, too, the public forum doctrine tends
to ensure a range of experiences that are widely shared—streets
and parks are public property—and also a set of exposures
to diverse circumstances. In a pluralistic democracy, an important
shared experience is in fact the very experience of society's
diversity. These exposures help promote understanding and perhaps,
in that sense, freedom. And all of these points are closely connected
to democratic ideals.
Of course, there is a limit to how much
can be done on streets and in parks. Even in the largest cities,
streets and parks are insistently local. But many of the
social functions of streets and parks as public forums are performed
by other institutions, too. In fact, society's general interest
intermediaries—newspapers, magazines, television broadcasters—can
be understood as public forums of an especially important sort,
perhaps above all because they expose people to new, unanticipated
topics and points of view.
When you read a city newspaper or a national
magazine, your eyes will come across a number of articles that
you might not have selected in advance, and if you are like most
people, you will read some of those articles. Perhaps you did
not know that you might have an interest in minimum wage legislation,
or Somalia, or the latest developments in the Middle East. But
a story might catch your attention. And what is true for topics
of interest is also true for points of view. You might think that
you have nothing to learn from someone whose view you abhor; but
once you come across the editorial pages, you might read what
they have to say, and you might benefit from the experience. Perhaps
you will be persuaded on one point or another. At the same time,
the front-page headline or the cover story in Newsweek
is likely to have a high degree of salience for a wide range of
Television broadcasters have similar functions.
Most important in this regard is what has become an institution:
the evening news. If you tune into the evening news, you will
learn about a number of topics that you would not have chosen
in advance. Because of their speech and immediacy, television
broadcasts perform these public forum-type functions more than
general interest intermediaries in the print media. The "lead
story" on the networks is likely to have a great deal of public
salience; it helps to define central issues and creates a kind
of shared focus of attention for millions of people. And what
happens after the lead story—dealing with a menu of topics
both domestically and internationally—creates something
like a speakers' corner beyond anything imagined in Hyde Park.
As a result, people's interest is sometimes piqued, and they might
well become curious and follow up, perhaps changing their perspective
in the process.
None of these claims depends on a judgment
that general interest intermediaries are unbiased, or always do
an excellent job, or deserve a monopoly over the world of communications.
The Internet is a boon partly because it breaks that monopoly.
So too for the proliferation of television and radio shows, and
even channels, that have some specialized identity. (Consider
the rise of Fox News, which appeals to a more conservative audience.)
All that I am claiming is that general interest intermediaries
expose people to a wide range of topics and views and at the same
time provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public. Indeed,
intermediaries of this sort have large advantages over streets
and parks precisely because they tend to be national, even international.
Typically they expose people to questions and problems in other
areas, even other countries.
Specialization and Fragmentation
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 in a diverse society, this provides
something like a common framework for social experience. A fragmented
communications market will change things significantly.
Consider some simple facts. If you take
the ten most highly rated television programs for whites, and
then take the ten most highly rated programs for African Americans,
you will find little overlap between them. Indeed, more than half
of the ten most highly rated programs for African Americans rank
among the ten least popular programs for whites. With respect
to race, similar divisions can be found on the Internet. Not surprisingly,
many people tend to choose like-minded sites and like-minded discussion
groups. Many of those with committed views on a 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
With a dramatic increase in options, and
a greater power to customize, comes an increase in the range of
actual choices. Those choices are likely, in many cases, to mean
that people will try to find material that makes them feel comfortable,
or that is created by and for people like themselves. This is
what the Daily Me is all about. Of course, many people seek out
new topics and ideas. And to the extent that people do, the increase
in options is hardly bad on balance; it will, among other things,
increase variety, the aggregate amount of information, and the
entertainment value of actual choices. But there are serious risks
as well. If diverse groups are seeing and hearing different points
of view, or focusing on different topics, mutual understanding
might be difficult, and it might be hard for people to solve problems
that society faces together. If millions of people are mostly
listening to Rush Limbaugh and others are listening to Fox News,
problems will arise if millions of other people are mostly or
only listening to people and stations with an altogether different
point of view.
We can sharpen our understanding of this
problem if we attend to the phenomenon of group polarization.
The idea is that after deliberating with one another, people are
likely to move toward a more extreme point in the direction to
which they were previously inclined, as indicated by the median
of their predeliberation judgments. With respect to the Internet,
the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are
like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing that they thought
before—but in more extreme form.
Consider some examples of this basic phenomenon,
which has been found in over a dozen nations.3
(a) After discussion, citizens of France become more critical
of the United States and its intentions with respect to economic
aid. (b) After discussion, whites predisposed to show racial prejudice
offer more negative responses to questions about whether white
racism is responsible for conditions faced by African Americans
in American cities. (c) After discussion, whites predisposed not
to show racial prejudice offer more positive responses to the
same question. (d) A group of moderately profeminist women will
become more strongly profeminist after discussion. It follows
that, for example, after discussion with one another, those inclined
to think that President Clinton was a crook will be quite convinced
of this point; that those inclined to favor more aggressive affirmative
action programs will become more extreme on the issue if they
talk among one another; that those who believe that tax rates
are too high will, after talking together, come to think that
large, immediate tax reductions are an extremely good idea.
The phenomenon of group polarization has
conspicuous importance to the current communications market, where
groups with distinctive identities increasingly engage in within-group
discussion. If the public is balkanized, and if different groups
design their own preferred communications packages, the consequence
will be further balkanization, as group members move one another
toward more extreme points in line with their initial tendencies.
At the same time, different deliberating groups, each consisting
of like-minded people, will be driven increasingly far apart,
simply because most of their discussions are with one another.
Why does group polarization occur? There
have been two main explanations, both of which have been extensively
investigated and are strongly supported by the data.
The first explanation emphasizes the role
of persuasive arguments, and of what is and is not heard within
a group of like-minded people. It is based on a common sense intuition:
any individual's position on any issue is (fortunately!) a function,
at least in part, of which arguments seem convincing. If your
position is going to move as a result of group discussion, it
is likely to move in the direction of the most persuasive position
defended within the group, taken as a collectivity. Of course—and
this is the key point—a group whose members are already
inclined in a certain direction will offer a disproportionately
large number of arguments supporting that same direction, and
a disproportionately small number of arguments going the other
way. The result of discussion will therefore be to move the group,
taken as a collectivity, further in the direction of their initial
inclinations. To be sure, individuals with the most extreme views
will sometimes move toward a more moderate position. But the group
as a whole moves, as a statistical regularity, to a more extreme
position consistent with its predeliberation leanings.
The second mechanism, which involves social
comparison, begins with the claim that people want to be perceived
favorably by other group members (and to perceive themselves favorably).
Once they hear what others believe, they adjust their positions
in the direction of the dominant position. People may wish, for
example, not to seem too enthusiastic, or too restrained, in their
enthusiasm for affirmative action, feminism, or an increase in
national defense. Hence their views may shift when they see what
other people and in particular what other group members think.
Group polarization is a human regularity,
but social context can decrease, increase, or even eliminate it.
For present purposes, the most important point is that group polarization
will significantly increase if people think of themselves, antecedently
or otherwise, as part of a group having a shared identity and
a degree of solidarity. If, for example, a group of people in
an Internet discussion group think of themselves as opponents
of high taxes, or advocates of animal rights, their discussions
are likely to move toward extreme positions. As this happens to
many different groups, polarization is both more likely and more
extreme. Hence significant movements should be expected for those
who listen to a radio show known to be conservative, or a television
program dedicated to traditional religious values or to exposing
This should not be surprising. If ordinary
findings of group polarization are a product of limited argument
pools and social influences, it stands to reason that when group
members think of one another as similar along a salient dimension,
or if some external factor (politics, geography, race, sex) unites
them, group polarization will be heightened.
Group polarization is occurring every day
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. Hate groups are the most obvious example.
Consider one extremist group, the so-called Unorganized Militia,
the armed wing of the Patriot movement, "which believes that the
federal government is becoming increasingly dictatorial with its
regulatory power over taxes, guns and land use." A crucial factor
behind the growth of the Unorganized Militia "has been the use
of computer networks," allowing members "to make contact quickly
and easily with like-minded individuals to trade information,
discuss current conspiracy theories, and organize events."4
The Unorganized Militia has a large number of websites, and those
sites frequently offer links to related sites. It is clear that
websites are being used to recruit new members and to allow like-minded
people to speak with one another and to reinforce or strengthen
existing convictions. It is also clear that the Internet is playing
a crucial role in permitting people who would otherwise feel isolated
and move on to something else to band together and spread rumors,
many of them paranoid and hateful.
There are numerous other examples along
similar lines. A group calling itself the "White Racial Loyalists"
calls on all "White Racial Loyalists to go to chat rooms and debate
and recruit with NEW people, post our URL everywhere, as soon
as possible." Another site announces that "Our multi-ethnic United
States is run by Jews, a 2% minority, who were run out of every
country in Europe…. Jews control the U.S. media, they hold
top positions in the Clinton administration … and now these
Jews are in control—they used lies spread by the media they
run and committed genocide in our name." To the extent that people
are drawn together because they think of each other as like-minded,
and as having a shared identity, group polarization is all the
Of course we cannot say, from the mere fact
of polarization, that there has been a movement in the wrong
direction. Perhaps the more extreme tendency is better; indeed,
group polarization is likely to have fueled many movements of
great value, including 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. 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
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, that doing so protects against the harmful effects of group
polarization 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. Readers will be able to
think of their own preferred illustrations. Consider, perhaps,
the views of people with disabilities. The great 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.
Consider in this light the ideal of "consumer
sovereignty," which underlies much of contemporary enthusiasm
for the Internet. Consumer sovereignty means that people can choose
to purchase, or to obtain, whatever they want. For many purposes
this is a worthy ideal. But the adverse effects of group polarization
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.
The phenomenon of group polarization is
closely related to the widespread phenomenon of "social cascades."
Cascade effects are common on the Internet, and we cannot understand
the relationship between democracy and the Internet without having
a sense of how cascades work.
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.5
These sorts of "cascades" often involve the spread of information;
in fact they are driven by information. If you lack a great deal
of private information, you may well rely on information provided
by the statements or actions of others. A stylized example: If
Joan is unaware 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 toxic 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 some 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 local, and take different form in different communities. Hence
one group may end up believing something and another group the
exact opposite, and the reason is the rapid transmission of one
piece of information within one group and a different piece of
information in the other. In a balkanized speech market, this
danger takes a particular form: different groups may be lead to
quite different perspectives, as local cascades lead people in
dramatically different directions. The Internet dramatically increases
the likelihood of rapid cascades, based on false information.
Of course, low-cost Internet communication also makes it possible
for truth, and corrections, to spread quickly as well. But sometimes
this happens much too late. In that event, balkanization is extremely
likely. As a result of the Internet, cascade effects are more
common than they have ever been before.
As an especially troublesome example, consider
widespread doubts in South Africa, where about 20 percent of the
adult population is infected by the AIDS virus, about the connection
between HIV and AIDS. South African President Thabo Mbeki is a
well-known Internet surfer, and he learned the views of the "denialists"
after stumbling across one of their websites. The views of the
"denialists" are not scientifically respectable—but to a
nonspecialist, many of the claims on their (many) sites seem quite
plausible. At least for a period, Mbeki both fell victim to a
cybercascade and through his public statements, helped to accelerate
one, to the point where many South Africans at serious risk are
not convinced by an association between HIV and AIDS. It seems
clear that this cascade effect has turned out to be deadly.
I hope that I have shown 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, or to unthinking conformity
(emphasized by John Stuart Mill). And to the extent that the process
makes people less able to work cooperatively on shared problems,
by turning collections of people into non-communicating confessional
groups, there are dangers for society as a whole.
In a heterogeneous society, it is extremely important for diverse
people to have a set of common experiences.6
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 in common. 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, Labor Day—has come to be nearly invisible.
This is a serious loss. With the possible exception of the Fourth
of July, 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 Super Bowl, or the coronation
of a new monarch; many of them do so because of the simultaneous
actions of others. The point very much bears on the historic role
of both public forums and general interest intermediaries. Public
parks are 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.
Why are these shared experiences 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 Super Bowl, 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
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 unfamiliar can come 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
objectively 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
How does this bear on the Internet? An increasingly
fragmented communications universe will reduce the level of shared
experiences having salience to a diverse group of Americans. 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 seem obvious for
many people will, for others, seem barely intelligible.
This is hardly a suggestion that everyone
should be required to watch the same thing. A degree of plurality,
with respect to both topics and points of view, is highly desirable.
Moreover, talk about "requirements" misses the point. 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, could compromise the underlying
My goal here has been to understand what makes for a well-functioning
system of free expression, and to show how consumer sovereignty,
in a world of limitless options, could undermine that system.
The point is that a well-functioning system includes a kind of
public sphere, one that fosters common experiences, in which people
hear messages that challenge their prior convictions, and in which
citizens can present their views to a broad audience. I do not
intend to offer a comprehensive set of policy reforms or any kind
of blueprint for the future. In fact, this may be one domain in
which a problem exists for which there is no useful cure: the
genie might simply be out of the bottle. But it will be useful
to offer a few ideas, if only by way of introduction to questions
that are likely to engage public attention in coming years.
In thinking about reforms, it is important
to have a sense of the problems we aim to address, and some possible
ways of addressing them. If the discussion thus far is correct,
there are three fundamental concerns from the democratic point
of view. These include:
(a) 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
(b) the value of a range of common experiences;
(c) the need for exposure to substantive
questions of policy and principle, combined with a range of positions
on such questions.
Of course it would be ideal if citizens
were demanding, and private information providers were creating,
a range of initiatives designed to alleviate the underlying concerns.
Perhaps they will; there is some evidence to this effect. New
technology can expose people to diverse points of view and creates
opportunities for shared experiences. People may, through private
choices, take advantage of these possibilities. But, to the extent
that they fail to do so, it is worthwhile to consider private
and public initiatives designed to pick up the slack.
Drawing on recent developments in regulation
generally, we can see the potential appeal of five simple alternatives.
Of course, different proposals would work better for some communications
outlets than others. I will speak here of both private and public
responses, but the former should be favored: they are less intrusive,
and in general they are likely to be more effective as well.
Disclosure: Producers of communications
might disclose important information on their own, about the extent
to which they are promoting democratic goals. To the extent that
they do not, they might be subject to disclosure requirements
(though not to regulation). In the environmental area, this strategy
has produced excellent results. The mere fact that polluters have
been asked to disclose toxic releases has produced voluntary,
low-cost reductions. Apparently fearful of public opprobrium,
companies have been spurred to reduce toxic emissions on their
own. The same strategy has been used in the context of both movies
and television, with ratings systems designed partly to increase
parental control over what children see. On the Internet, many
sites disclose that their site is inappropriate for children.
The same idea could be used far more broadly.
Television broadcasters might, for example, be asked to disclose
their public interest activities. On a quarterly basis, they might
say whether and to what extent they have provided educational
programming for children, free air time for candidates, and closed
captioning for the hearing impaired. They might also be asked
whether they have covered issues of concern to the local community
and allowed opposing views a chance to speak. The Federal Communications
Commission has already taken steps in this direction; it could
do a lot more. Of course, disclosure is unlikely to be a full
solution to the problems that I have discussed here. But modest
steps in this direction are likely to do little harm and at least
Self-Regulation: Producers of communications
might engage in voluntary self-regulation. Some of the
difficulties in the current speech market stem from relentless
competition for viewers and listeners, competition that leads
to a situation that many broadcast journalists abhor about their
profession, and from which society does not benefit. The competition
might be reduced via a "code" of appropriate conduct, agreed upon
by various companies, and encouraged but not imposed by government.
In fact, the National Association of Broadcasters maintained such
a code for several decades, and there is growing interest in voluntary
self-regulation for both television and the Internet. The case
for this approach is that it avoids government regulation while
at the same time reducing some of the harmful effects of market
pressures. Any such code could, for example, call for an opportunity
for opposing views to speak, or for avoiding unnecessary sensationalism,
or for offering arguments rather than quick soundbites whenever
feasible. On television, as distinct from the Internet, the idea
seems quite feasible. But perhaps Internet sites could also enter
into informal, voluntary arrangements, agreeing to create links,
an idea to which I will shortly turn.
Subsidy: The government
might subsidize speech, as, for example, through publicly
subsidized programming or publicly subsidized websites. This is,
of course, the idea that motivates the Public Broadcasting System.
But it is reasonable to ask whether the PBS model is not outmoded.
Other approaches, similarly designed to promote educational, cultural,
and democratic goals, might well be ventured. Perhaps government
could subsidize a "Public.net" designed to promote debate on public
issues among diverse citizens—and to create a right of access
to speakers of various sorts.7
Links: Websites might
use links and hyperlinks to ensure that viewers learn about sites
containing opposing views. A liberal magazine's website might,
for example, provide a link to a conservative magazine's website,
and the conservative magazine might do the same. The idea would
be to decrease the likelihood that people will simply hear echoes
of their own voices. Of course many people would not click on
the icons of sites whose views seem objectionable; but some people
would, and in that sense the system would not operate so differently
from general interest intermediaries and public forums. Here,
too, the ideal situation would be voluntary action. But if this
proves impossible, it is worth considering both subsidies and
Public Sidewalk: If the problem consists
in the failure to attend to public issues, the most popular websites
in any given period might offer links and hyperlinks, designed
to ensure more exposure to substantive questions. Under such a
system, viewers of especially popular sites would see an icon
for sites that deal with substantive issues in a serious way.
It is well established that whenever there is a link to a particular
webpage from a major site, such as MSNBC, the traffic is huge.
Nothing here imposes any requirements on viewers. People would
not be required to click on links and hyperlinks. But it is reasonable
to expect that many viewers would do so, if only to satisfy their
curiosity. The result would be to create a kind of Internet "sidewalk"
that promotes some of the purposes of the public forum doctrine.
Ideally, those who create websites might move in this direction
on their own. To those who believe that this step would do no
good, it is worth recalling that advertisers are willing to spend
a great deal of money to obtain brief access to people's eyeballs.
This strategy might be used to create something like a public
sphere as well.
These are brief thoughts on some complex
subjects. My goal has not been to evaluate any proposal in detail,
but to give a flavor of some possibilities for those concerned
to promote democratic goals in a dramatically changed media environment.8
The basic question is whether it might be possible to create spaces
that have some of the functions of public forums and general interest
intermediaries in the age of the Internet. It seems clear that
government's power to regulate effectively is diminished as the
number of options expands. I am not sure that any response would
be worthwhile, all things considered. But I am sure that if new
technologies diminish the number of common spaces, and reduce,
for many, the number of unanticipated, unchosen exposures, something
important will have been lost. The most important point is to
have a sense of what a well-functioning democratic order requires.
My principal claim here has been that a well-functioning democracy
depends on far more than restraints on official censorship of
controversial ideas and opinions. It also depends on some kind
of public sphere, in which a wide range of speakers have access
to a diverse public—and also to particular institutions,
and practices, against which they seek to launch objections.
Emerging technologies, including
the Internet, are hardly an enemy here. They hold out far more
promise than risk, especially because they allow people to widen
their horizons. But to the extent that they weaken the power of
general interest intermediaries and increase people's ability
to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would
prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers. And if we believe
that a system of free expression calls for unrestricted choices
by individual consumers, we will not even understand the dangers
as such. Whether such dangers will materialize will ultimately
depend on the aspirations, for freedom and democracy alike, by
whose light we evaluate our practices. What I have sought to establish
here is that in a free republic, citizens aspire to a system that
provides a wide range of experiences—with people, topics,
and ideas—that would not have been selected in advance.
Cass R. Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished
Service Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago.
His most recent book is
Return to the forum on democracy
and the internet, with Cass Sunstein and responses.
This article borrows from Cass R. Sunstein, Republic.com (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2001). The excerpts used here are reprinted
1 Hague v. CIO, 307 US 496 (1939).
2 I draw here on the excellent treatment in Noah D. Zatz,
"Sidewalks in Cyberspace: Making Space for Public Forums in the
Electronic Environment," Harvard Journal of Law and Technology
12 (1998): 149.
3 For a general discussion, see Cass R. Sunstein, "Deliberative
Trouble? Why Groups Go To Extremes," Yale Law Journal (2000).
4 See Matthew Zook, "The Unorganized Militia Network: Conspiracies,
Computers, and Community," Berkeley Planning Journal 11 (1996),
available at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/-zook/pubs/Militia_paper.html.
5 See, e.g., Sushil Bikhchandani et al., "Learning from
the Behavior of Others," Journal of Economic Perspectives (Summer
6 I draw here on Cass R. Sunstein and Edna Ullmann-Margalit,
"Solidarity Goods," Journal of Political Philosophy (forthcoming
7 See Andrew Shapiro, The Control Revolution (New
York: Basic Books, 1999).
8 See Sunstein, Republic.com, for more detail.
Originally published in the Summer
2001 issue of Boston Review