Facebook vs democracy? – Full interview with Cass Sunstein | VIEWPOINT
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Facebook vs democracy? – Full interview with Cass Sunstein | VIEWPOINT

Cass: You could imagine a company thinking, “Maximizing shareholder value is basically what we want to do, and the best way to do that is to create an information cocoon.” Michael: I’m Michael Barone, resident fellow
at American Enterprise Institute, and I’m here today with Prof. Cass Sunstein, University
professor at Harvard Law School, formerly professor at the University of Chicago Law
School for many years, director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the
Office of Management and Budget in the White House from 2009 to 2012 during the Obama administration. Prof. Sunstein has written more than a dozen
books, or at least they’ve been published, and his latest is “#Republic: Divided Democracy
in the Age of Social Media.” So Cass Sunstein has been at AEI and spoken
and participated in a number of programs over many years. We welcome him here once again as a friend
of AEI and a person from whom we learn, and what’s the message in your book sir? Cass: Well, the basic message is that echo
chambers and information cocoons are a real problem for democracy. It’s very important for people to step outside
a kind of hall of mirrors which they can construct with the aid of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram,
and encounter both topics that are unfamiliar and maybe not especially interesting to them,
and certainly points of view that aren’t congenial and that may be disruptive to what they already
think that is central to, let’s say, the American project. Michael: Where you talk in the book about
Bill Gates’s vision in his, I believe, 1995 book, you can have a “Me” environment, I don’t
know if Mr. Gates pointed out to what some of the downsides of that are that you’re talking
about. Was this foreseen 20 years ago? Cass: I bet, by some of the visionaries, of
which Mr. Gates is certainly one. So some people saw it 20 years ago and they
basically celebrated it. They thought that you’re not gonna have a
“Network” or the “Wall Street Journal” anymore, that they were wrong in thinking we wouldn’t
have those things, but they were right in saying that their role would be very different. So what they foresaw was, instead of picking
up the “Wall Street Journal” or instead of looking at “The network,” you would be able
to construct what some people called “The Daily Me” which meant a completely personalized
encounter with the screen or with your computer or tablet. And that would mean that if you celebrated,
let’s say, Sen. Sanders, you could just have a Sanders world and see everything that reflected
views that were congenial to him. Or if the only issue that interested you really
was, let’s say, what’s happening with the budget? You know, that would be a pretty unusual person
whose only interest is the budget. But if that was your interest, you could just
sort yourself into a world where it’s budget, budget, budget, budget. And the early view in 20 years ago, 15 years
ago was, “Whoa, that’s phenomenal. People can get exactly what they want.” Michael: Do we have metrics, numbers that
tell us to what extent the world has changed from that period in the mid-1990s when people
were celebrating the Me world? Cass: We do. And they suggest, the most dramatic I think,
is the numbers showing what percentage of people get a lot of their news from their
Facebook newsfeed, and it turns out that number is quite substantial. It’s over 20%. It changes of course every month and it’s
demographically inflected in the sense that young people tend to get a very significant
proportion of their news from their Facebook newsfeed. We also have numbers about whether people
on Twitter are following points of view that are basically theirs and whether they are
cross-posting or interested in stuff that’s different. We also get a sense from Facebook of the extent
to which people are clicking on stuff that is consistent with their current views or
whether they are being ‘algorithmed,’ I just invented a new word, ‘algorithmed.’ Michael: A verb. You made it into a verb. Cass: Yes. I’m not so proud of that invention. Nonetheless, it is an invention. People who’ve been algorithmed into material
that is creating an echo chamber. And the data is supportive of the view that
there is some algorithmisation. Michael: Is there any movement back in the
other direction? Cass: Not empirically. I think what could be said to challenge the
echo chamber hypothesis is that there are a lot of people who…first, there are a lot
of people who are curious and who are not sorting themselves into “The Daily Me.” A lot of people, you know, they may be Republicans
but they’re kind of interested in what the Democrats are saying, either because they
wanna see what foolishness there is or because they think they may have something helpful
to say or informative to say. And Republicans and Democrats, there are a
lot who are doing both of those things. So the existence of human curiosity is vindicated
by the data that we see, and it’s also the case that it’s challenging to defend the proposition
that people are self-sorting more on the internet than they do with respect to, say, television
or ordinary face to face. Michael: You get very different politically
conflicted audiences for Fox News on the one hand, MSNBC on the other. That’s been a phenomenon that’s been apparent
for at least a dozen years or more. Am I right? Cass: Completely. And in the old days where people got their
information from their newspaper, it might be that in the town, you’d have one newspaper
that had an identifiable perspective and another had a different one. So while the problem of echo chamber creation
is really serious online, it isn’t clearly wrong to say that it’s historically just been
with us and it’s not worse than it was. I believe in certain ways it is worse than
it was and the data supports that, but it’s more important on one view to say that it’s
a problem than to say that it’s worse now than it was six years ago. Michael: Let me suggest that we to put something
in historic perspective. We’ve been talking about the last 20 years,
the last 30 years, a dozen years, but if we look at the longer run in American history,
what you might say is that we had a period where we had sort of universal media because
of technological development, and it was often, in the case of broadcast media, regulated
media, in the movies, it was regulated by the Hays Code for a long period of time, internal
regulation. So from, let’s say the Radio Act of 1930 which
started federal regulation of radio and then television, to the abolition by the FCC, of
the Fairness Act, something you argue was on balance a good thing in 1987. Cass: Actually not. I’m opposed to the Fairness Doctrine. Michael: No, that you said the abolition was
a good thing. Cass: Yeah. Michael: That you had this sort of universal
medium that appealed to everybody, you know, a couple of radio networks, three television
networks, a few movie studios. It coincides with the period of the career
of Ronald Reagan who made his living in the universal media of radio and movies and television. And that’s the exception. You go back to Jacksonian America, the George
Washington administration, the Civil War. You have a much more partisan media. You have people seeking their partisan media. There is a book a Smithsonian curator, John
Grinspan, called “The Virgin Vote.” It’s about people may have big celebrations
of young men going to cast their first vote and they’ve reached age 21, and they would
remain partisans of their party, almost like Steelers’ fans or Cowboys’ fans, remain partisans
of their teams. We lived for that for a long time, not without
some problems. Do you think there are some similarities that
might be instructive between that period and this? Cass: You’re making a great point. I think it is true that the period where the,
as it’s sometimes called, the general interest intermediaries, kind of a road high, whether
it’s a network or the daily newspaper, is relatively narrow in the arc of American history
and that the current age has more similarities to what preceded it than we’d normally think. Michael: And we got a civil war out of that,
among other things. Cass: Yeah. I hope we’re gonna get that with this. What I’d say is different about this age than
that age is the extreme ease with which you can find a zillion like-minded people who
will fortify the view that you’re inclined toward. And in the pre-internet era, as in the pre-TV-radio
era, you could find a community of people, but the community either would be not that
big or would just have, by virtue of how geography works, a degree of diversity. Now, along some issues, you know, the what
produced the civil war, you might not find a whole lot of diversity in some areas in
the south or in the north on who’s right. But on many questions that confronted the
nation, to find yourself communicating with a huge number of people who think exactly
like you do, that’s hard. With our current technology, you can do that
basically in less than a second. Michael: Less than a second. I mean, I’m thinking back to the period of
the 1850s, very confusing to us election freaks because you get new parties, old parties disappearing,
big changes. You get the agitation of the Kansas-Nebraska
Act, the issue of slavery in the territories, the formation and response thereto of the
Republican Party all within about six months. That happened. You have Horace Greeley’s “New York Tribune”
being circulated around the northern parts of the country being suppressed by postmasters
in the South. That moved faster than we think of it. They didn’t wait for mules to make their way
across the country. Cass: I’ll tell you kind of the beating heart
of the concern of the book. In 2016, over 40,000 people died on America’s
roads. That’s an increase over 2015 and that’s an
increase over 2014. Now, what are we gonna do about that? Our infrastructure in the United States for
a country of this capacity is, and President Trump is completely right on that, it’s highly
problematic. Whenever you think about the immigration situation,
it’s not ideal, and there are a number of things that could be done to improve it that
in principle are just the right things to do. We have a number of poor people in the United
States, it’s a lot lower than it could be, but who are struggling with a terrible educational
system that give their kids weak prospects. We don’t have the level of intergenerational
mobility that we would like and that fits our official and completely admirable creed,
which is, in America anyone can make it, whoever your parents are. The data doesn’t suggest that’s true. Now, those are concrete problems each of which
has a potential solution, and the solution to each of them has been rendered much more
difficult by virtue of the kinds of polarization that social media are feeding. So if you think that the word “regulation”
is like the word what, “bet.” We’re bet. It’s alphabet. It’s not bet. If you think the word regulation is short
for job killing regulation, then the idea of doing something about some of these issues
would seem preposterous because a regulation is a job killing regulation. Or if you think the system is rigged so anything
that hurts people who are wealthy is like a good idea, then you’re not gonna be making
much progress. So the problem that I’m focused on is premature
death, poor life prospects, basic public goods that aren’t being improved. Now, don’t get me wrong, the United States
is on balance doing fantastically by world standards and historical standards, but the
echo chamber and information cocoon problem is a contributor to our inability to… Michael: It’s impeding rather than facilitating. Cass: Absolutely. Michael: Here, what are the solutions? I mean, “#Republic,” you advanced some modest
proposals, I think it’s fair to say. Describe what, if anything, we can do. You don’t talk about actual government regulation
of the internet as how we should do it. Cass: No, I don’t want that. This is not a cheerful book. So I did, before this, a book on “Star Wars”
that’s a really happy book. This is a more downbeat book and, to identify
the problem is the goal of the book, not to press on, hurray, we have solutions. And it’s important to think that…to know
that some problems just don’t have solutions, or they don’t have solutions that the identifier
of the problem can see yet. Having said that, there are a few things that
we can do. So the providers of information, whether they
are MSNBC or Fox News or Facebook, can work in a way that counteracts rather than promotes
the problems we’re describing now. And Facebook, to its credit from its public
pronouncements, and they are immensely important in terms of Democratic governance now, they’ve
become that, they are clearly rethinking the core values described in their newsfeed in
2016, where in 2016, the idea was, “We’re gonna give you what exactly interests you.” Which seems beautiful, but it’s “The Daily
Me.” It’s the…that you’re going to be algorithmed
basically. They are now rethinking that. Now, two ideas that would be on the list of
proposals are, why not give Facebook users an Opposing Viewpoints button where they can
just click and then their newsfeed is gonna show them stuff that they don’t agree with. Or why not give Facebook users a Serendipity
button where they can just click and if they click, then they’re gonna get stuff that is
just coming to them through an algorithm which provides people with a range of stuff. So if you’re someone who is just focused on
one set of issues, you’re gonna get the “Wall Street Journal” and “New York Times” also. And Facebook, to its credit, doesn’t wanna
pick winners and losers, so they shouldn’t promote one particular newspaper, but they
could have a random draw of things, maybe it could be geographical. So those are two ideas that Facebook could
use and you could see analogies that any provider of information to a large group of people
provides. You know, you’re right to say that I have
had an involvement with AEI over the years, and one thing that AEI does is, there’s a
range of views at AEI and provided by AEI. And you can think of many organizations that
have a commitment to doing that. Even if, in the case of Fox News or MSNBC,
they kind of know who their people are. Michael: One of the proposals that you advance
as a voluntary proposal is that people who are attacking or criticizing or taking opposite
position for mothers on the internet might start off by saying, “What’s right about your
opponent?” You’re sort of asking for manners. But isn’t there a danger that even if you
give them a nudge, they won’t budge? Cass: Yeah, definitely. So you could imagine a company thinking, you
know, now that we’re talking about private sector entities, that our first obligations
is to our shareholders and maximizing shareholder value is basically what we’re gonna do, and
the best way to do that is to create an information cocoon which makes people cozy or inflamed
or whatever, and it maximizes your…I taught at the University of Chicago, as you mentioned,
maximizing shareholder value is something that companies legitimately focus on. But the hope is that many providers of information,
A, think that there are more than one way to maximize shareholder value or maybe get
close to that, and also think that, well, maximizing shareholder value is a priority. There are a few other things that we’re interested
in. And if you’re Facebook, which is doing great,
you might think maximizing shareholder value, yes, being part of a self-governing society,
also yes, and we’re gonna try to accomplish those. We’re gonna try to walk and chew gum at the
same time. Michael: Well, I wanna thank you Cass Sunstein
for sharing time with us here at AEI and give another plug for your book “#Republic.” It is, what, your 13th, 14th, 15th book that
you’ve published? Cass: There are too many. I can’t count that high. I was an English major. Michael: Okay. Well, thanks very much for being with us today. Cass: Thank you so much.

4 thoughts on “Facebook vs democracy? – Full interview with Cass Sunstein | VIEWPOINT

  1. I'v noticed that Leftists are the ones who unfriend me on Facebook. More and more the Left are intolerant of opposing views.

  2. Interesting interview, that confirms a lot of what I have noticed. There was a blog post I was reading on Reason.com. The title of the post: "Study: You Literally Can’t Even Pay People to Read Opinions They Disagree With", suggesting that when confronted with an opportunity to make more money to read a different opinion , people would choose to make less to read something they agreed with: that is startling to say the least.

    I have also noticed on twitter when I introduce a topic that may be unfamiliar to my followers, no matter how excellent the source is and the quality of its content, impressions are lower than if I introduced another topic that they are familiar with that has an extremely weak source and low quality content. However, I suppose quality is somewhat subjective.

    I should say that overall engagement with the post drops, many people will not even try to examine the content unless it is already familiar.

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