Internet and Democracy: Questions and Comments on Barger & Barney and Ekstrom

This week’s readings certainly provided an intriguing introduction to some of the issues and topics we will be grappling with in this semester’s studies. Although both articles certainly provided food for thought, I was particularly gripped by some of the emergent issues in the Barger & Barney piece, so I’d like to address their article, “Media-Citizen Reciprocity as a Moral Mandate.” 

I was particularly intrigued by some of the emergent dilemmas of Barger & Barney’s attempts to explain just what democracy IS, particularly in a contemporary American context.  For example, Barger & Barney argue that the inverse of democracy is a society based on immutable, hierarchical systems.  The authors pose that,

“Lifetime roles are determined by circumstances of birth and family affiliation. Questions of power and behavior are predetermined by decisions made generations earlier that sought to eliminate divisive influences of power seeking…these citizens…are gripped by a strongly rule-oriented (an unthinkingly deontological) existence that raises principle to the level of absolute, enshrining mostly communal values” (p.192).

Really, I’ve been wondering if this paradigm is really antithetical to “democracy” as it is perceived today, at least within the United States.  Specifically, if one were to transpose the word “family” with “political party” wouldn’t the rest of the quote fit fairly accurately with contemporary American politics?  In some ways, don’t the quadrennial struggles for the presidency in the United States, hotly contested between two hegemonic parties, mimic a slightly more predictable rendition of the monarchical “Wars of the Roses” in British politics?

It was also intriguing to me that in order to provide the readers with an example of individual initiative as a potential driver of institutional change, the authors had to leave the realm of politics altogether, and enter into the world of private business with the story of Bill Gates.  While Gates’ story is certainly one of individual achievement and institutional change, it isn’t a story of political action, but one of corporatism.  In some ways, this interweaving of the political with the economic predicts the difficulty of the authors in differentiating the two realms writ large, a difficulty with significant bearing on the political issues of today.

Barger and Barney write, “An individualistic culture will find it difficult to survive unless a critical mass of rational people accept moral obligations to make thoughtful, informed buying decisions” (p 194).  To me this seems to evoke one of the fundamental flaws with the partisanship in the United States today.  While we certainly talk a good game, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that partisanship (or political party affiliation) largely dictates the voting behavior of a significant proportion of Americans today.  This is to say that rather than making informed decisions based on a candidates policies, many voters simply check the box next to the party (Republican or Democrat) that they perceive themselves as belonging to.  Do such behaviors in the political sector constitute a threat to the survival of American democracy? 

In many ways, the Ekstrom reading for this week evoked similar questions regarding the role of social media in these processes.  In particular, while Ekstrom unequivocally empowered the role of non-traditional media sources as founts of information for users, less time was dedicated to the implications of such preferences on user perceptions.  Specifically, while engaging with internet users certainly can provide an opportunity for exposure to alternate opinions on a given subject, theoretically and practically, users tend to avoid these alternate opinions in favor of those voices which agree with their own.  This is to say that rather than providing platforms for dialogue and debate, does an over reliance on social media type sources simply serve to reinforce what Barger & Barney called “unthinkingly deontological” (p 192) perceptions? There are myriad theoretical drivers for these sorts of trends, how do we try to address the capacity of social media to stymy dialogue and quality debate?

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4 thoughts on “Internet and Democracy: Questions and Comments on Barger & Barney and Ekstrom

  1. yanqunlou says:

    Hi, Jon! I truly enjoy reading your blog post! I thought you brought up two rather thought-provoking points in this post. First, a traditional society may not be an antithesis to a democratic society. Indeed, I do not see a clear-cut boundary between “traditional” and “democratic.” The author might misgeneralize “being traditional” as “rule-oriented (an unthinking deontological) existence that raises principle to the level of absolute, enshrining mostly communal values”. I concede that individuals from a traditional society are more likely to defer to authority and follow the will of established interests, yet these are cultural orientations rather than institutional ailments. There are examples of traditional societies founded on democratic governmental, social and corporate institutions like Japan and South Korea where culturally collectivistic and rule-obeying citizens are also hot-headed participants in public debates. You also touched upon the issue of social media dilemma. Is it the case that social media drive further splits among public opinions and encourage users to take information for granted without productive introspection? Such are also the problems found with traditional media: audience only tune in to channels that they think live up to their own values, for instance, conservatives choose to watch FOX News most of the time. But being optimistic about the future of social media, I foresee that social media may become a substitute or upgraded information source for traditional media where individuals are able to source information outside the mainstream and thus have more opportunities for real contemplation.

  2. lutingji says:

    You pointed out a really good point that Internet users tend to be in favor of those opinions that agree with their own and aovid other alternative opinions. What you illustrated is right if the users have complete control of media use. However, at a lot of times, users do not have full control of what information they are exposed to. When you are browsing a website, for example, you are exposed to so much information. Unintentionally you will at least glance at some information that you do not “care” or “like”. But it’s too late for you to turn your eyes away from it. So you still can have some idea of what’s going on. I believe that new media make it more difficult for us to avoid the information that we do not want. On the other hand, if you cannot avoid the information that you do not agree, will the avoidance turn into refutation and new dialogues? I do not know the answer but I still believe social media play a positive role in providing platforms for dialogues and debates.

  3. Your post is too long (646 words) and could use some editing (I suggest that gently). On the Required Work page, you’ll see the word count for blog posts — it’s intended to keep everyone within a boundary where you’ve said enough, but can’t really go off on a rambling tangent. 🙂

    Also, you neglected to include two links in your post, as the assignment specified.

    As for your first point: There’s sense in it, but I wonder if by focusing on the two-party system, you’re traveling too far away from Barger & Barney’s point, which seems to me to center on individuals, not political systems. That is, can an individual develop freely and creatively and independently within a given “cultural system”? They say in one kind of system, the individual can, and in the other, he or she cannot. Focusing on the individual, the authors lay the foundation for their central discussion of moral obligations.

    Your second point is fine — “users tend to avoid … [alternative] opinions in favor of those voices which agree with their own.” This is a central issue when consumers have access to innumerable information sources!

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