Cass Sunstein on the echo chamber and his new book, #Republic

SunsteinSocial media gives us ways to nurture ever more elaborate online communities, but is it friendly to the kind of democracy diverse societies need? In #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein, the New York Times bestselling author of Nudge and The World According to Star Wars, shows exactly how today’s Internet is driving political fragmentation, polarization, and even extremism—and what can be done about it. Recently, Sunstein answered a few questions about his timely new book.

Why did you write this book, and how does it relate to your previous work?

Well, we are obviously in a time of national division. The splits between Americans across political lines are striking and disturbing, and there’s a lot of division and mutual misunderstanding out there. There is distrust and anger as well. Social media contributes to those splits. So I wanted to get hold of what is a really serious problem in a nation that aspires to E Pluribus Unum. The book grows out of my previous books on the general subject—but the media environment has changed so rapidly that some of the central arguments, e.g. about Twitter and Facebook, are entirely new.

What new threats to democracy does the internet pose now that it didn’t pose, say, five years ago? Haven’t people always sorted themselves into like-minded groups?

We used to have a much larger role for general interest intermediaries, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. That’s diminished, and with it, trust in them has diminished too. The use of niches—especially for people who are politically engaged—is pretty dramatic. Hashtag Nation (#Nation) isn’t really something we’ve seen before. I wouldn’t want to say that things are getting worse, but they’re getting differently bad.

We’ve all heard the term “echo chamber,” perhaps particularly in the recent election cycle. Can you talk a bit about this idea and the implicit dangers?

Echo chambers breed extremism. If you hang out with like-minded people, you’ll get more confident and more extreme—and the group will get more unified. Pretty soon, people in different echo chambers live in different political universes. That makes problem-solving really hard, and it makes enmity really easy. My own work in the White House showed me the importance of focusing on objective truths and of not insulating oneself—echo chambers are destructive to those endeavors.

How can the internet be made friendlier to democratic deliberation?

A big question. Let’s start with Facebook: It should redo its News Feed so as to ensure that there’s less in the way of informational cocoons. Let’s end with each of us: We should make choices so that we hear lots of points of view, including from people we think we disagree with. If you can’t learn something from someone with a very different political orientation, you’re missing a lot. You’re not an ideal citizen, or close to it.

What kind of democracy is needed in diverse societies, and how can your book help us to get there?

We need deliberative democracy—one in which people deliberate with people who are unlike themselves, and learn from them. We need to put a premium on science and facts. We need serendipitous encounters with people and ideas that we would not choose to engage. We need a lot more technocracy, not less. The book might have a few ideas on those subjects.

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler), The World According to Star Wars, and #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.