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Guest commentary

Are new media polarizing American politics?

Web, cable technologies can pull us apart, or form new bonds

By Dan Schnur
Posted Aug. 2, 2004

The best thing about the Internet is that it empowers the individual. It gives each of us the opportunity to talk about things that interest us, to learn and listen to those topics that are most important to our lives, and to seek out others with whom we share that common ground.

But the flip side of pick-and-choose communications is that it has the potential to isolate us. If we talk only to those with whom we agree, it becomes that much less likely that we will hear opinions that differ from ours. And if we no longer hear opposing viewpoints, it becomes almost impossible for different elements in a community to resolve their disagreements.

So what happens when the “town square” of the nightly news and the morning paper fragments into thousands of individual communications networks? What happens when each of us only accesses the news we want, at the expense of a common source of information?

I am not a druid, and I believe that the Internet, cable television, and other forms of what were once called “new media” offer huge benefits for society. But the individualization of mass communications offers some cause for concern as well. As a practitioner of campaign politics, I see three significant areas of impact for on-line communication on our political process.

Stoking biases

First, it is already clear that the individualization of mass communications has led to ideological isolation and reinforcement. Because Internet sites, cable television networks, and radio stations can tailor their messages toward increasingly specific audiences, the need for evenhanded dialogue quickly disappears.

Two voters watching the same network newscast or reading the same morning newspaper might come to different conclusions about what they learn. But at least they are drawing from the same pool of information. But a man who watches Fox News and a woman who listens to National Public Radio have been delivered two entirely different views of the world around them. (And Fox and NPR are positively restrained compared to some of the more extreme Web sites that populate the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum.) Because their respective realities have little in common, the possibility for reasoned discussion between them disappears.

In other words, the Internet makes it easier for us to talk to people who want to be talked to. This makes it an extremely effective mechanism for organizing, motivating and mobilizing those who already agree on a common goal. But it’s been much less effective as a medium for persuading those with differing opinions, or even engaging those people in discussion.

A profusion of distractions

Second, and even more disturbing, is another self-imposed division within the electorate. But rather than an ideological divide, this is a split between the information haves and have-nots. Internet and cable television have certainly made it easier than ever before for many of us to access information about government, politics and public policy. But that same array of viewing and listening alternatives has made it easier than ever before for many of our fellow citizens to avoid those same topics altogether.

For every person who turns to CNN or Fox, or logs on to a news or political Web site, there are dozens who instead turn to ESPN or MTV, or who visit eBay or Web sites for their favorite television or movie actor. There’s nothing wrong with this: Normal people don’t need to devote their entire lives to discussions of public policy reform. But the limitless number of entertainment venues available to us makes it much less difficult for an individual intentionally to isolate himself from those discussions.

Political face time

If electronic communication becomes a less effective means of reaching voters, other forms of message delivery must be implemented. So the good news is that both major political parties are turning back to a form of communication that has been largely overlooked in recent years: genuine person-to-person contact.

Both Republicans and Democrats have spent the last few years developing neighborhood-based voter outreach programs of unprecedented reach. Technology has given voters the ability to ignore television commercials, to bypass mainstream media and to avoid most forms of mass communication. But the Internet’s organizational capability provides candidates and their advocates with the resources to engage in personal communications to a much more targeted and effective level than ever before.

So it appears that technology’s greatest impact on political campaigns has been to restore the importance of the most low-tech version of political messaging: individual citizens actually talking to one another. Which isn’t such a bad thing at all.

Dan Schnur is one of California's leading political and media strategists, having worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns. For five years he was the spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson and in 2000 for John McCain's presidential bid.

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