Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thought of the Day: The Web of Impassioned Minorities


One often hears that the internet has made it harder for society as a whole to share a common political discourse, because it enables everyone to go to their own favored news and informations sources where they have their pre-conceptions and prejudices confirmed by like-minded people.  And there’s something to that, but the problem is not only that the web divides us up into little sub-communities of confirmation bias.  It is also an environment where small, passionate, zealous groups can flourish even when they represent a minority view on an issue, or who may be biased, wrong, or have a vested interest.  Such groups also tend to be full of conviction and highly motivated, especially compared to a majority of thinkers on a subject whose opinions may be more correct but who aren’t as passionate or vested in their interest.  

Political scientists have long known how interest groups can distort a policy-making process based on lobbying: if the question is ranching subsidies that only cost the millions average taxpayer a few cents each, but provide an aggregate financial windfall to a handful of ranchers, who do you think is going to advocate hardest on the issue?  The ranching lobby, of course -- who will in fact probably take over public ranching policy while the disinterested majority ignores it.  The same applies to identity issues like abortion and gun control, even when money isn’t involved: the small minority who shouts the loudest wins.  Ultimately, this leads to the kind of factionalization in that has dropped Congress to its lowest approval ratings ever.

Just as lobbying in Congress is mainly done by small, concentrated, vested interests, so is lobbying on the Internet.  Who says the most on comment threads and chat boards?  The impassioned few.  Who makes the most vile and irrational comments?  The zealous minority.  Both Congress and the internet are environments where division and factionalization flourish, because they are battlefields that favor impassioned, vested interests rather than widespread deliberation.

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