How the Web Polarized Politics

Gerry McGovern spends the majority of his time focused on what he calls “the impact of the content revolution.” As one of the world’s leading thinkers on the development and management of Web content, McGovern is the author of several books, including The Caring Economy, Content Critical, and The Web Content Style Guide. But lately, he’s narrowed his focus, looking at how the Internet shapes government interaction with its citizens—and vice versa. He has consulted many government agencies in the U.S. and abroad on how to improve digital communications, and his latest book, Killer Web Content (A&C Black), is due out this December. On the cusp of the mid-term elections, McGovern sat down with Online Editor Debra D’Agostino about Web 2.0, government transparency and why the “Wisdom of Crowds” concept doesn’t work in politics. What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks.

CIO INSIGHT: With all this talk about Web 2.0 and shared, open networks, why isn’t the government more transparent and open to opinions of its people? Shouldn’t new technology make it easier to gauge overall consensus on important issues?

Of course it should. And it is happening, to an extent—though not in government. Look at the way Amazon taps into the buying habits of customers, or how eBay uses voting and rating. It’s the “Wisdom of Crowds” concept that James Surowiecki wrote about in his book, and it works—under certain circumstances. However, I have seen very little of that activity in the government world, even at the basic level. There aren’t too many blogs on government Web sites, and few politicians or administrators engage with constituents using these techniques.

Why is that?

Governments feel they are royalty to some degree. They don’t like being questioned. They come up with a policy, issue it, and that’s it. Questioning them makes their lives more difficult.

But isn’t that part of the great promise of Web 2.0, making officials more accountable?

Not necessarily. That is to say, it isn’t automatic. Too many people assume that technology will naturally make things better. But technology is neutral. On one side it has the potential to create a better government, but twisted in another way, it can serve to threaten democracy.

The same goes for information. We are flooding the world with content—we’ve literally experienced an information tsunami—but more information does not mean better decisions, or a better understanding of those decisions. Nor does it mean greater consensus. In fact, it can mean exactly the opposite—a polarization of ideas.

You’re saying the Web can cause society to become more politically polarized than it already is?

It can. Think about it: They say 45 percent of Americans are democrats, 45 percent are republican, and 10 percent are independent. Can the Internet really undermine that polarization? It would be lovely to think it could. But more often then not, when democrats write blog entries, they are speaking to other democrats. I am curious to find how many hardcore republicans turned democrat as a result of the Web. I don’t suspect there are many.

For more on this topic, see: CIO Insight’s Mid-Term Election Report

It’s a lot easier to agree on the most popular book on Amazon than on who’s the best candidate. Only we’re not talking about books, we’re talking about big issues like gay marriage, the war in Iraq and stem-cell research. The topics where we find more common ground aren’t as likely to be discussed. The issues that drive people to blog tend to be those that people feel extremely passionate about, and passionate people have very polar views—there is nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think the Web—which tends to be a very gloves-off environment—moderates that. We’d like to enjoy polite conversation, but a lot of the time what we see is very aggressive partisan politics.

Look at this election. Some would say this election is among the dirtiest, the most hard-hitting. It’s certainly no less nasty than elections past. And it’s the first election where the Web is really becoming a mature medium. When candidates are on the campaign trail now, there is always someone from the opposite camp with a video recorder and camera watching their every move, just waiting for them to slip. Look at what happened to Howard Dean, or George Allan in Virginia. And the first place the ugly TV ads show up is YouTube.

Yet technology is so often heralded as a way to bring people together, to improve collaboration and make it easier to share views and opinions.

Tom Standage’s book, The Victorian Internet, talks about how the telegraph was supposed to do just that. The big problem in the world had been the inability to communicate quickly over long distances. So along comes the telegraph, and it’s supposed to bring about an era of peace and harmony. And what happened in the height of all that? World War I.

It’s easy to get carried away with this Wired magazine view of “All You Need is Web 2.0,” but in some ways the very technology that is meant to solve problems merely makes people more emotional—not more reasonable. We ultimately do a disservice to society by creating this euphoria about what technology can really deliver.

But can’t Web 2.0 deliver better opportunities for citizens to participate in government?

Sure. I think we are in a very interesting phase now in the U.S., where the baby boomers are beginning to retire. The generation before them was more about taking orders, and when they retired 30 years ago, they were exhausted. But baby boomers are still full of energy. The Web can be a wonderful way to tap that collective intelligence—for social work, government, and so on. However, I believe it was Peter Drucker who said, “when the ship is sinking, don’t call a meeting.” There are certainly times when group wisdom is valuable, but there are also moments when you need someone to decide. That’s why we elect people in the first place.

So what do you say to people like Daniel Rosen, a candidate for Nevada’s Second Congressional district, who promises to make decisions based on a Web site where constituents tell him how to vote?

This is taking democracy too far in my opinion. Good politicians should already be speaking to their constituents, tapping into that wisdom on a daily basis by getting out and actually talking to people face to face. The average person is tired when he or she comes home in the evening. We work hard, and we elect and pay government officials to make decisions based on their expertise. That’s why we vote for them. Otherwise why would we need politicians at all? We’d do just as well with a big computer that just figures out averages. To expect every citizen to participate in every decision the government makes would never work. In fact, it would be an Orwellian nightmare—only instead of Big Brother forcing us to do things and watching us, it would be Big Brother constantly asking us, “What should we do now?”

And which, in your opinion, is worse: a government that monitors your every move, or one that won’t move without your opinion?

I would nearly prefer to be watched than asked every minute of the day. It’s like when you are buying software and you have to click “I accept” or “I do not accept.” You always accept, don’t you? You don’t want to read the fine print. But choosing leaders doesn’t mean we abdicate responsibility. If the government gets really awful, we can get together and make our voices heard. The big danger of the blogosphere is that it cocoons people. We have to watch out for the danger that technology can create—and not make the assumption that the Web will make the world friendlier.

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