BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about the echo chambers that you specialize in. These are the chambers that exist, both small and large, in cyberspace.
CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. The internet has many great advantages from the standpoint of democracy, ’cause people can expand their horizons, but one thing that’s happened is that many people use the internet to narrow themselves, so that they end up speaking mostly to people who already agree with them. So one just fact about the operation of the internet is you get these Dean supporters, for example, speaking most of the time to fellow Dean supporters, and the same can happen for Bush supporters who hear only what other Bush supporters say about the Democrats or about France. And the internet really facilitates a situation in which people are in a way living in echo chambers that they themselves have created.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this phenomenon you’ve applied a new term to called “cyber cascade.” Does that relate to incestuous amplification only it’s on the web?
CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. Cyber cascades are specifically a web phenomenon in which one fact or something that’s supposed to be a fact is stated to another person who then tells maybe another dozen people who then tell maybe another 10,000 others, and pretty soon people all over the world are hearing and potentially believing something that just isn’t so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the risk of being obvious, state for the record what you think the long term impact of the proliferation of these echo chambers would be.
CASS SUNSTEIN: The greatest danger of the echo chambers is unjustified extremism. So it’s a well-known fact that if you get a group of people who tend to think something, after they talk to each other, they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before, and the danger of that is you can make a situation where mutual understanding is, is difficult, and people don’t appreciate but instead demonize those who disagree with them. And that’s an ongoing threat to our democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So beware the echo chamber?
CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. If it turns out that we’re talking mostly to people we agree with, something’s gone wrong, and there’s a kind of obligation for citizens to leave their echo chambers at least some of the time and seek out dissenting opinions.
Assuming Prof. Sunstein isn’t actually advocating regulation of the internet to discourage these echo chambers, I find a lot to agree with in what he says. It is a human trait to seek out supporting opinions, or only listen to those whose views we already agree with. I myself am guilty of reading mostly blogs that I agree with ideologically. But the internet is a vast, vast place and there is some excellent stuff out there written by people whose philosophy differs substantially from ours. It would be a shame to shut them out completely, don’t you think?