Internet and Democracy: An endless stream of ideas (both good and bad)

A democracy functions best when there’s a free exchange of ideas and sentiments that can easily be accessed and discussed by the public. The two articles we read this week highlight the role of both the media and the citizenry in making sure that exchange takes place.

The Internet has exploded the way that democracy and pluralistic media can be achieved and upended traditional media structures. “In bloggs, chat, news groups, debates and Net activism of different kinds, citizens are primarily not spoken of or spoken for, but speak themselves in public,” notes Mats Ekström on media and democracy (Ekström, 2008).

This upheaval of the media landscape asks us to consider what this means for democracy. One concept that struck me is the destruction of gate-keeping journalists. This leads to a wider discussion in the marketplace of ideas and pushes stories that “traditional gatekeepers” previously might’ve dismissed because they saw them as unimportant, too risque, etc. In a research paper titled “The End of the Traditional Gatekeeper” (Lee, 2012), the author states that online tools like “‘Most Popular’ article” rankings can set new agendas in the media and “lessen the media’s monopoly on selecting, prioritizing and presenting particular news to the audience.”

However, what’s popular is not always what’s important or substantive. Journalists must “strike a delicate balance between what is in the public interest and what the public is interested in” (Barger and Barney, 2004). This places a burden on journalists and citizens to ensure key issues don’t disappear beneath the endless streams of information.

A throwaway remark in Ekström’s article also piqued my interest. He called blogging “an extreme version of what David Riesman, in the ‘Lonely Crowd’ (published in 1950), described as the ‘other directed individual’.”

The “other-directed individual” is a new concept to me that refers to how people seek to conform to external norms in society (this is opposed to “inner-directed individuals”, who are driven by their own inner values). The way it’s used in Ekström’s essay implies that “other-directedness’ is bad for society. But Reisman didn’t necessarily mean it as a negative.

A Pacific Standard Magazine article called “The Lonely Crowd of Social Media” says that Reisman tried to clarify his position on “other-directedness” after his book became a hit. He wrote, “While it certainly has its negatives, it contains positives, too, such as an openness to new friendships, an interest in the unfamiliar, a flexibility to change, and so on.”

Social media might drive people to extremes in conforming, but it can foster healthy environments for change. PSMag contrasts the two: Stealing clothes to look an “approved” way vs. online networks helping people quit smoking.

In an increasingly polarized online media political landscape, it’s easy to succumb to “the danger of only consulting reinforcing sources, collecting information that conforms to predispositions, prejudices, and biases, virtually eliminating pluralistic media consumption” (Barger and Barney, 2004). But “other-directedness” can combat gut-instinct stubbornness and encourage flexibility that allows for re-evaluating belief systems based on evidence and new information. The trick though is getting people to try it.

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8 thoughts on “Internet and Democracy: An endless stream of ideas (both good and bad)

  1. One part of your blog that struck me was your point on how “what’s popular is not always what’s important or substantive”. There are times when I become frustrated with different news outlets because I feel that what they report on isn’t truly newsworthy. One thing I have to constantly remind myself is that what I am interested in, isn’t necessarily what everyone else is interested in. For this reason, we need media outlets to report on a variety of topics. The balance between what we need to know and what we want to know is difficult to navigate and I think it’s hard for stations, websites and journalists to balance all of that and everything in between. Maybe we should be more sensitive to that as recipients.

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    1. “Maybe we should be more sensitive to that as recipients.”
      I like this and do wish readers would be less reactionary toward a publication just because they weren’t interested in a few articles.

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  2. Your idea of “what’s popular is not always what’s important or substantive” strikes me. There are always topics recommended on front pages that are popular among people these days. People are forced to receive what’s others interested in. At present, entertainment news can always catch more people’s eyes. Young people are familiar with what is going on in TV seiries or in amusment world jinstead of what happened in real world and real politics. This can be dangerous in a long term, for once they raise the habit of collecting information from only limited areas, they will know little about other areas that are also of great importance in real life.

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  3. I totally agree with your opinion about the reducing effect of the traditional gatekeeper. As for me, the rise of new media lead to the end of the traditional gatekeeper consequently. That is because on the new media, the role of individuals are more and more important. The new media provided a relatively inclusive space for audience than the traditional media, to express what they want to express. In this way, managers of new media should pay attention to what the audience exactly like. This connection is unique and effective.

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    1. Good comments. About the mainstream media, you said: “then you have to find more obscure (and often less vetted) sources for discussion on those topics.” That’s an interesting point. First, we have to do extra work to find that non-mainstream viewpoint. And then we might be getting muddled or not-well-fact-checked information. So we need to do even more work to check the sources. For most people, that’s just asking too much.

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  4. I find the concept of the decline of the “traditional gatekeeper” and your point that “what’s popular is not always what’s important” really interesting. I agree with Liandra and Yi Liu that the media has to appeal to the interest of the many, and though sometimes I see stuff that I don’t think are newsworthy at all (such as the “clickbait” that even reputable news outlets such as The Washington Post, but also places like Buzzfeed often succumb to), I also understand that outlets are competing for traffic and sometimes what drive traffic is not the most…substantial information.

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