Can Digital Technologies Threaten Democracy by Creating Information Cocoons?

Can Digital Technologies Threaten Democracy by Creating Information Cocoons?

Cédric Gossart (Institut Mines-Télécom, France)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 10
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6038-0.ch010
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Abstract

This chapter examines the extent to which digital technologies can threaten democracy by creating “information cocoons,” within which information is filtered and tailored to our tastes and prevailing opinions. Digital technologies allow us to filter information and contacts in a very efficient way, thereby creating a risk that we end up exchanging information only with like-minded people. Since humans' bounded rationality cannot cope with the amount of information available on the Internet, we are confronted with problems of cognitive dissonance that we attempt to solve by ignoring opinions and arguments that differ too much from our own. Recent political events in the Arab world suggest that digital technologies support democratisation. But there is also a risk that these technologies might impoverish democratic debates and reduce exchanges amongst the stakeholders of a given political arena while radicalising their points of views. This threat is serious and needs to be investigated. To do so, this chapter suggests a methodology to evaluate that risk, as well as ways to mitigate it. Various methods have been used to analyse the polarisation of opinions in human societies, such as the ones analysing the traces left by Internet users in blogs or hypertext links. The authors provide a review of these methods after having explained the main factor conducive to the creation of information closure.
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Background

Human societies have always used some form of communication, even long before the development of language. Today, communicating involves the use of digital technologies, which are often equated with stronger and more transparent democracies. Indeed, they allow politicians to communicate in real time and to engage in more participatory policy-making. However, ICTs also have negative effects on democracies, which tend to be underestimated. Before examining one of them, this next section underlines the key role of the first stage of the construction of public policies.

Many sociologists of public problems such as Emerson and Messinger (1977), W. Felstiner et al. (1980 - 1981), Dewey (1991), or Cefaï (1996) have sought to understand the processes by which private issues are transformed into public problems (Chateauraynaud, 2011). For example, the carrying capacity of public arenas as well as the “degree of dramatisation” reached to capture public attention have a strong influence on the selection of public problems (Hilgartner & Bosk, 1988). In L’État au concret, J.G. Padioleau argued that a problem emerges when social actors perceive gaps between what could happen and what should happen. ICTs can indeed be used to widen this gap, e.g. by placing a greater emphasis on public problems, even if they are not a major concern for citizens.

The histories, trajectories, owners and places of emergence of public problems can be traced through the three stages of naming (identification of the public problem), Blaming (identification of who can be held responsible for it), and Claiming (what can be asked for compensation) (W. L. F. Felstiner et al., 1991). If one stage is missing or is too weak, the problem may not emerge as a public one. And some actors which are more powerful than others, such as the “moral entrepreneurs” (Becker, 1997), have a stronger capacity to alter the development of these phases; starting with the first one during which public problems emerge. Nowadays, they are even more powerful if they master the art of communicating, which is making an increasing use of ICTs. Indeed, power consists in the capacity to match one’s own definition of a problem with the definition of what needs to be done (Etzioni, 1976).

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