Digital Democracy or Increasing Returns?

Thomas Slee reviews The Myth of Digital Democracy by ASU political scientist Matthew Hindman.  Slee is the author of the popular economics book No One Makes You Shop at Walmart, which shows how game theory and increasing returns can eliminate much of the choice that some argue is found in markets.  Hindman finds that the internet can amplify similar dynamics in politics.

The last sentence of Matthew Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy is “It may be easier to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard”. The book is about collecting and analyzing the following large data sets on the way to this conclusion:

  • The links among 3 million American political web pages together with data showing how Google leads its users to political sites. Hindman concludes that “link structure is an effective proxy for audience share” and that “communities of Web sites on different political topics are each dominated by a small set of highly successful sites”. The scale of online concentration is so profound, he argues, that claims the Internet “democratizes” politics are misleading. For example, when it comes to blogs, “the top blogs are now the most widely read sources of political commentary in the United States”, but these widely-read bloggers are very few in number (a few dozen) and they are “overwhelmingly.. well-educated white male professionals”. The kind of voices that get heard in political discussion are the same kind that were heard through offline media, only perhaps more so. “The vigorous online debate that blogs provide may be, on balance, a good thing for US democracy. But as many continue to celebrate the democratic nature of blogs, it is important to acknowledge that many voices are left out.”
  • Data from Hitwise of search-engine-directed traffic show that online politics is a tiny sliver of Internet traffic, and that “Scholars, public officials, and journalists have paid a great deal of attention to online politics. Citizens themselves, though, have directed their attention elsewhere.” Not too surprising perhaps.
  • Data from Hitwise and other sources, of patterns of concentration in [American] online and traditional news media. He concludes that online media is much more concentrated (a few outlets get a larger share of the traffic) than many offline industries, particularly radio. The biggest story is what he calls “the missing middle”:

From the beginning, the Internet has been portrayed as a media Robin Hood – robbing audience from the big print and broadcast outlets and giving it to the little guys. But the data in this chapter suggest that audiences are moving in both directions. On the one hand, the news market in cyberspace seems even more concentrated on the top ten or twenty outlets than print media is. On the other, the tiniest outlets have indeed earned a substantial portion of the total eyeballs… It is the middle-class outlets that have seen relative decline in the online world. Moreover, it is overwhelmingly smaller, local media organizations that have lost out to national sources. [p100]

It is a refreshing change to read a book about the cultural and political impact of the Internet that actually looks closely at Internet traffic (what people read) rather than at the number of sites (what people write), and it’s this perspective that leads Hindman to his myth-busting conclusions. The main flaw of the book is that it falls between two stools: it’s clearly an academic work that started as a set of papers or a thesis, but it is looking for a wider, popular audience. To reach that audience, Hindman should have got rid of many technical details and written a book with more narrative, but if you don’t mind reading technical studies, this is a good one, and I recommend it.

The book was also reviewed in Nature:

Most of Hindman’s book is directed towards the second, more significant, question of whether digital technologies change the balance of powerful political voices. There is much interest in whether the Internet can empower groups, such as younger people, who are seen as disengaged from the traditional political process. Hindman’s answer is in line with the ‘myth’ of his book title: political voices remain heavily filtered and concentrated on the Internet.

Using data from automated tools that analyse links between websites, Hindman demonstrates that search engines have a powerful effect in concentrating the sites that people visit to find political information. This is because a small number of sites consistently rise to the top of search lists because they have many links from other sites, and incoming links are used to assign priority by search algorithms. Political influence will be strongest in this handful of heavily linked websites, many of which belong to traditional media organizations. These will therefore continue to be of most interest to politicians.

…Political parties everywhere have great interest in digital campaigns, especially on the back of Obama’s success; it is now recognized that online activity has moved from an optional extra to an essential element of campaigning. These campaigns may bring different supporters, donors and activists into the political process. We would be right, however, to follow the considered approach of this book in not assuming that enhanced automation of campaigns will effect significant changes in political power. Based on current evidence, any claims that we are reaching a digitally powered democratic Utopia are indeed more myth than reality.

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