The internet, with a touch of the finger, brings us the great libraries of the world, its newspapers, its magazines. It provides search engines and other tools that allow us quickly to locate whatever we want to read.
Indeed, the internet is the greatest reservoir of instantly available information and ideas the world has ever seen.
It should make each of us wiser — better equipped to be thoughtful members of a democratic community.
But one human weakness makes the internet, instead, perhaps the greatest threat democracy has ever faced.
The human weakness causing me, a lifelong optimist, to despair is our universal desire to see ratified our own opinions and biases. Psychologists call it the “confirmation bias.”
Because of confirmation bias, we are tempted, when tapping into the internet, to visit only sites that reaffirm our pre-existing views, that share our biases, that confirm our beliefs. It means we ignore sites that might give us reasons to question our assumptions, to rethink and perhaps to moderate the political and social attitudes we embrace.
The internet allows each of us easily, effortlessly, to find reassurance for even our most ill-founded and destructive misunderstandings.
Compounding the problem, anyone who wants to exploit confirmation bias can create an internet site to inflame the biases that infect a given community and make that site easy for the target audience to visit.
The bitter irony is that, even though the internet makes available all the facts and wisdom we could ever hope for, its actual effect instead is a narrowing of political, social and religious attitudes.
The internet has brought a profound change in how we get our news. In the pre-internet past, when looking for information about our community, state, nation and world, we used to turn to general-circulation newspapers and to a small number of radio and television stations and networks. We listened to, watched and read “the news.”
Now, too many of us turn to destructively edited parts of the internet for our news.
What the internet lacks are the kind of editors who in past decades took responsibility for providing us with news. Those editors by and large sought to give us impartial, fact-based information that would be credible with a broad, mass-market audience.
Now, many “editors” on the internet look not for truth but rather for versions and interpretations of the facts that will satisfy the biases of a small piece of the population they each hope to capture — and inflame.
For many internet sites, that target audience is not the 40% of the market that Fox News is designed to attract — nor the portion of the market that MSNBC and CNN compete for. The narrow, distorting, polarizing design of those cable news networks is destructive enough. But the target audience of many internet editors is a tiny fraction of the internet market.
When the motivation of an internet editor is to inflame ideology, and when the cost of maintaining an internet site is trivial, an audience of any size is enough to keep a poisonous ideologue at the keyboard.
Simply put, the economics, the business model, of news has changed. Before the internet — in the days of carefully edited broadcasts, newspapers, and magazines — information came to the community through business institutions that depended for economic survival on the trust of a large community that included many points of view.
That meant that newspapers had to be edited to maintain a reputation for fairness and accuracy.
Starting in the 1920s, there appeared broadcast media that also, to survive economically, depended on their news operations earning the trust of a “broad” community. There was, in addition, for many decades, “the fairness doctrine,” since repealed. It imposed by law a requirement of partisan balance on the business entities that held one of the limited number of broadcast licenses.
Most of the information available to us in the past was edited, however imperfectly, for evenhanded truth. It was not — like the internet — free, voluminous, at our fingertips, and often deliberately edited to exploit some prejudice.
General circulation newspapers now have to compete with internet sites that cater to the desire of each individual to be provided with affirmation of his or her own attitudes. That, I believe, is one reason for the decline in circulation that is weakening all newspapers and magazines and — tragically — putting many out of business.
One of the nearly universal concerns about politics these days is polarization. It’s less about divisiveness among officeholders than a concern about the absence of moderate, tolerant, open-minded attitudes in the public at large. That’s what allows — perhaps forces — officeholders to embrace the biases of whatever political cohort sent them to office.
So, what is to be done?
One might think I want to equip the internet with editors. But it does have editors. The mission of internet editors is to edit their sites to satisfy a selected audience with red meat. And, with the end of the fairness doctrine, a significant portion of the broadcast media is edited to capture an audience that hungers for “news” that feeds its biases.
Efforts are underway to impose on Facebook and other internet platforms an editing obligation. That gives me little comfort. Imposing a censorship power on those companies seems only slightly more acceptable than giving the task to government itself.
I cannot help but think back nostalgically to when the news I received each day largely came from John Cowles’ Minneapolis Tribune (advertised with the slogan “What Makes a Newspaper Great?”) and from CBS’ Walter Cronkite (“The most trusted man in America”).
The Fox News Channel was created with the idea of capturing 40% of the audience by delivering what 40% of the market wanted. That was a successful business strategy, because 40% is an economically rewarding share of the cable audience. Now that strategy also is followed (though less rigidly, in my biased view) by MSNBC and CNN.
But the real lesson is this: This is the way the audience wants the news to be shaped and delivered. Truth is out there — including on the internet. But the audience wants its news to be emotionally reassuring. It wants that reassurance more than it wants its news to be truthful and enlightening and occasionally disturbing of the audience’s biases.
Can democracy survive the internet?
Jack Davies is a former member of the Minnesota Senate, appellate judge and law professor.