Participation in the Networked Public Sphere

by Henry Farrell on December 10, 2008

I’m at the Berkman Center in Harvard, for a conference on the Internet and Politics in 2008 (Eszter is here too). Participants have written a number of interesting short pieces on this this topic for the “conference website”: (there are more promised); I’ve also done a piece, which I enclose beneath the fold on how Internet participation and partisanship are linked together.

Participation and Polarization in the Networked Public Sphere

Essay by Henry Farrell*

This essay is one in a series of responses to A Working Hypothesis, Internet and Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas

Additional responses include: The New Activism: Why Volunteering Declined in Campaign 08, by Ari Melber, A Response to Working Hypothesis for Internet and Politics 2008, by Sunshine Hillygus, The Revolution of the Online Commentariat, by Peter Daou, Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered, by Matthew Hindman, and From the Bottom-Up: Using the Internet to Mobilize Campaign Participation, by Dana Fisher.

Public intellectuals interested in American politics have spent much of the last two decades agonizing over low participation and the poor state of public debate among Americans. Their arguments have been transformed by the advent of the Internet. Some – such as Yochai Benkler – have argued that the Internet offers the potential to transform participation and debate in America, by creating a ‘networked public sphere’ of civic argument and activity. Others – most prominently Cass Sunstein – have been more skeptical, claiming that new forms of debate on the Internet are liable to problems such as erroneous information cascades and balkanization of different groups into separate universes of discourse.

This debate began before the data had properly begun to come in; the wheels of social science research grind exceedingly slowly in Internet time. But we are now beginning to assemble a clearer picture of how the networked public sphere may work – and how it may indeed be transforming American society. The best data we have is on blogs – both how blogs connect to each other through hyperlinks, and what kinds of people read blogs.

At first, this data seems to support Sunstein’s view. We see good evidence of balkanization among blogs. Left wing blogs tend overwhelmingly to link to other left wing blogs; right wing blogs to other right wingers. Only around 12-16% of links cross the partisan divide. The data on blog readers is perhaps even starker. Very few people indeed read both left wing and right wing blogs. The vast majority of blog readers read only left wing or only right wing blogs. Furthermore, there is strong evidence of ideological polarization – when we scale blog readers’ views on various ideological issues, they clump together at the left and right extremes of the scale. Blog readers are far more polarized than viewers of network news, including Fox News.

Yet if we look at the data more closely, we see some evidence of a tradeoff that isn’t really considered by Benkler and Sunstein – one between participation and cross-cutting ideological debate. Political scientists such as Diana Mutz have argued that discussion between people of differing ideological persuasions tends to depress participation in politics. While we don’t have direct evidence that this is happening, we do see that readers of political blogs are significantly more likely to participate in politics than non-readers, and that readers of leftwing blogs are especially likely to participate.

We have to be careful with this kind of data (it doesn’t tell us much about causal relationships), but one plausible interpretation is that people who are more exposed to political information that supports their own ideological biases are more likely to get involved in politics, and that people who are exposed to the kinds of movement politics that we see among left-wing netroots blogs are especially likely to get involved. In short – the kinds of polarization that we see among blog readers may have positive consequences as well as negative ones. In particular, it may make these readers more likely to participate in politics in a variety of ways.

What does this have to tell us about the relationship between the networked public sphere and US elections? Three things. First – that at least part of Benkler’s argument is right. We are likely to see a major increase in political participation, especially among activists, as a result of the Internet. Nor is there any good reason to believe that this will be confined to the left wing. We may expect to see more mobilization taking place on the right, as they adopt new tools to their own particular purposes and circumstances.

Second, this surge in participation will be strongly partisan in nature. What evidence we have suggests that the people who are getting more involved in politics are far more partisan and more ideological than the average American citizen. Some may see this as a problem – American political elites tend to like bipartisanship and moderate consensus. But there are real political advantages to stronger partisan divisions – as a minor strain of American political thought has argued, they provide voters with real choices in a way that different flavors of centrism cannot.

This furthermore has interesting possible consequences for the Obama administration (I have a piece forthcoming on this in the next issue of The American Prospect). Obama’s governing philosophy is one of pragmatist consensus and civic participation. But the party machine that he has created may help spur further partisan mobilization, both on the left (as people continue to stay involved in politics) and the right (as Republicans begin to try to emulate the Democrats in order to start winning elections again).

Third, we are likely to see a growing division between partisan activists, who will participate actively in politics, and moderate non-activists, who will turn out only at elections, if at all. Markus Prior has argued that media choice is leading to a differentiation between the apathetic and moderate majority who have little interest in consuming political news, and intense partisan minorities, who are voracious consumers of information. This phenomenon may have knock on consequences for elections. We are plausibly going to see increases in participation among both apathetic moderates and engaged partisans, but in very different ways. Apathetic moderates will turn out in greater numbers at the polls (because of better GOTV technologies, social pressures from partisans etc) but will otherwise remain unengaged. Intense partisans, in contrast, are not only likely to vote, but to engage in a variety of other activities. We’re likely facing into a new age of American politics, dominated by partisan activists. It’s going to be interesting.

* This note builds on results reported in Eszter Hargittai, Jason Gallo and Matthew Kaine, “Cross-Ideological Discussions among Conservative and Liberal Bloggers, Public Choice (January 2008) and Henry Farrell, Eric Lawrence and John Sides, “Self-Segregation or Deliberation? Blog Readership, Participation and Polarization in American Politics,”. Eric and John deserve full credit for the underlying research, but should be in no sense held accountable for errors or overblown claims in this note.

Henry Farrell is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the George Washington University, where he is affiliated with the Center for International Science and Technology Policy. Previously he was Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. In addition to a book forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, Professor Farrell has authored or coauthored eighteen peer reviewed articles for journals including International Organization and Comparative Political Studies and non-academic articles for Foreign Policy, the Financial Times, the Boston Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Nation and The American Prospect. He blogs at Crooked Timber and The Monkey Cage.



Benedikt 12.10.08 at 3:38 pm

Thanks for the interesting contribution. I wish we had such detailed research on this topic in Germany. One thing that I found especially interesting: You say that “only around 12-16% of links cross the partisan divide” and suggest that this is a very low number. I am not sure whether this is the case because of the difficulties of comparing this number with numbers for other media. In the Gutenberg Galaxy there are no links. TV and newspaper do not have links, so with what numbers can we compare the 12-16%? Additionally the total number of links may not be so important as the quality of those links. A social network analysis of the blog networks could perhaps tell something about how important those links crossing the political divide were. What do you think?


robertdfeinman 12.10.08 at 4:20 pm

It has been my observation that those on the right tend to be defined by what they are against. They are against, for example, big government, high taxes, social programs for the poor, unions, gay rights, sex education, etc.

This means that those brought into the cause are motivated by anger. You can also see this in those who have become the spokesmen for them: Hannity, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, etc. They are all angry. They react to things, they don’t propose solutions. People who are motivated by anger may be good at funding causes that promote their anger, but there is no focus for what they want to accomplish. I think this was Thomas Frank’s insight. It was easy to mobilize these people to vote for those who channeled their anger, but they got nothing out of it either in social or economic policy since they made no real demands.

The left seems more policy oriented. People often propose specific goals or solutions: infrastructure redevelopment, universal health care, government regulation, etc. As such they may be more willing to focus on the details of the political and legislative process and actually influence this. Obama’s administration will be the first test since the blogosphere has arisen to see if this is true.

Notice that Obama gets criticized already by those on the left who find fault with the administrative process he is defining as reflected in his personnel choices. I think this reflects this understanding by the left of the importance of the actual process. There was no comparable discussion on the right when Bush picked his team or when one member was replaced by another.

What this all means is that “mobilizing” will mean different things to the left and right.


Henry 12.10.08 at 4:48 pm

Yochai Benkler, who is also at this conference, was telling me that he has some new work forthcoming which touches exactly on left-right differences in organizing.


bianca steele 12.10.08 at 5:16 pm

The idea that the Internet is democratic seems to derive from the low barrier to entry in setting up a blog or personal website. But before there were blogs there were already listservs, Usenet, and other low-tech forms.

I am interested in how those media have changed since the introduction of blogs and of websites with privately owned discussion forums, but I see very little awareness of the question among academics, probably in part because they weren’t using the Internet that far back. It’s true that the generally accepted explanation is the influx of new, less sophisticated users as the Internet opened up to more and more customers. What I don’t think is true, though you hear it said, is that in the old days it was only academics using the Internet (the very fact that they can say that without challenge is, in my opinion, witness to the makeup of their forum). In particular, I suspect the move from N-N formats to 1-N formats had an effect on how people participated and how they perceived the forum — moreover, I also suspect there was a spillover effect as 1-N forum users returned to their former N-N forums.

If my hypothesis is true, it may have consequences for who, among nonacademics, is interested in participating on these “new-style” media. I don’t like to think Sunstein’s theory is correct, but he may be. It’s possible the privatization of the commons has that effect.


Seth Finkelstein 12.10.08 at 10:59 pm

FYI, I wrote a column on this, which cited the research of both Eszter and Henry:

“Don’t just blame the internet for polarised viewpoints”

“Overblown rhetoric often comes from someone whose job entails spending the bulk of the day in reading and writing, and most charitably can be described as overestimating the significance of philosophical discussions to everyone else.”


MarkUp 12.11.08 at 2:23 am

My seasonal contribution…


bianca steele 12.11.08 at 4:34 pm

You mention “overestimating the significance of philosophical discussions to everyone else”. Almost twenty years ago I would have used those words to describe many Usenet groups. Nearly ten years later when I revisited the place, I was no longer sure this was an accurate description, though the behavior was, as far as I could tell, much the same. The language had changed. The treatment of trolls had changed. The kinds of trolls there were had changed. And the engaged people who cared about the subject appeared to have dropped out of the picture.


Henry 12.11.08 at 9:43 pm

Seth – am typing from phone, so can’t be prolix, but that is a good piece. The one thing I would say to be fair is that you can mount a reasonable case against bipartisanship but the peole who adopt this line usually fail to acknowledge the pathologies of centrism. Have just seen that there is a new pol theory book in praise of political parties which looks fun and relevant.


c.l. ball 12.12.08 at 10:08 pm

In these debates, I always unclear over what we’re trying to measure. Does participation in the ‘networked public sphere’ yield increased voting, donating, volunteering, or simply more on-line networking?

Going by the 2008 election, I’m don’t see much evidence that NPS urged greater voter turnout. National voter turnout is not up that much — only 1.6 points over 2004. Even in battleground states, if you exclude the amazing NC 8% gain, turnout is up an average of only 1.9 points. Given the fundraising prowess of Obama, it may be that NPS is having its effect felt there.


Henry 12.12.08 at 10:19 pm

See my forthcoming piece in _The American Prospect_ (and my current post at the Monkey Cage) for more on this. In brief – I think that the traditional measures are still the ones that count (as, far more importantly, do the people in the campaigns), and that there is a moderate increase only in turnout (which is still significant given that political scientists were dismissing 2004’s unusually high turnout as a flash in the pan), but plausibly a considerable increase in other forms of participation among activists. Of course, this is only educated guesswork in the absence of Real Data, but take it for what it is worth.


bianca steele 12.14.08 at 2:12 pm

Dumb question, but why study links rather than clicks? To study clicks you’d need access to data from the blog providers, but since it’s in the interests of science, Google and other providers might be glad to cooperate with your investigations. You could even count distribution of something like memes with fairly simple searches. (Or you could use more sophisticated tools, but — sorry for the snarkiness — you would have to pay computer science grad students to advance the state of their art instead of paying your own to learn Perl, which is a useful skill they will be able to use if they never end up getting tenure.)


Seth Finkelstein 12.14.08 at 2:42 pm

bianca / #7 – Yes, I remember USENET then, back before the Year September Never Ended. Back even before there was spam (really – I remember the first spam there). And indeed, there was a strain of the same sort of net.evangelism. The difference is that there was no big media money or consulting gigs to be made off of it, so that had little of the extensive deceptive marketing we see nowadays – but there were definitely miniature versions, and one can see the same patterns writ small. I sometimes point to the failures there, but the stock rebuttal is the famous last words of this-time-it’s-different.

Henry / #8. Thanks. Note in my column I wasn’t taking sides in the philosophical debate on the merits of partisanship versus centrism, but rather saying the theory of the Internet being a major polarizing force is just wrong.


eszter 12.14.08 at 5:23 pm

Google and other providers might be glad to cooperate with your investigations

Companies are not known to cooperate much with academics when it comes to sharing their data.


MikeJ 12.14.08 at 6:52 pm

I think Benedikt is mistaken in his assertion that in “the Gutenberg Galaxy there are no links.” We usually call them footnotes, but they do exist. It does raise the question of how the 12-16% cross-partisan stat compares to the online world.


bianca steele 12.14.08 at 8:39 pm

But, Ezster, Google prides itself on the kind of innovation it would hardly be able to maintain unless it cooperated with university research centers — they depend on newly minted Ph.D.’s at the very least, for the really interesting stuff.


bianca steele 12.14.08 at 8:42 pm

Sorry, I misspelled your name.


Watson Aname 12.15.08 at 5:17 pm

Hiring all your best grad students (and faculty) if they can is hardly a model for cooperation, Bianca.


eszter 12.15.08 at 5:22 pm

Bianca, I wasn’t speaking in the abstract, I was referring to my and other people’s experiences in trying to get data from various companies. It’s very hard to do.

Like WA says, having your students (or colleagues) hired by such companies is not the same thing as having these companies work with academics. In fact, I’ve heard of scenarios where students go off to work at such a company for the summer, sign non-disclosure agreements, then go back to their advisors in the Fall and cannot discuss with their mentors what they had worked on during the summer months due to the NDAs. Hardly a model for cooperation and idea exchange.


bianca steele 12.15.08 at 5:23 pm

Seems to me like a good way to recruit research assistants, not to mention to attract grant money or attention in the mainstream press. Also, from what the academics on sites like this one are saying, a good way to move research assistants out so new ones can be brought on. Etc. Tech is a small world — what goes around comes around.


Watson Aname 12.15.08 at 5:31 pm

what goes around comes around.

Ah, but it doesn’t sometimes, which is the point. Certainly academic institutions can benefit from these sorts of relationships, but they can also be shut out. Collaboration is a two way street.


bianca steele 12.15.08 at 6:13 pm

Ah, but it doesn’t sometimes, which is the point. Certainly academic institutions can benefit from these sorts of relationships, but they can also be shut out. Collaboration is a two way street.


On the other hand, Google’s relationship with academia is a lot closer than is so on average. There are a few others, for example Akamai. But Google is representative of some new trends. For example (from what I read in the papers), rather than hiring Ph.D.’s and academics, or undergrads who’d just been taught the latest stuff, or even being founded by an academic who stuck around until the investors couldn’t work with him anymore, Google simply hired a well-known academic to do some core stuff, gave him stock options, and moved on.


Anna 12.15.08 at 6:55 pm

it is interesting to see so much enthusiasm around blogs! To me, they are fantastic advertising space whereby paid bloggers can encourage consumers to provide free marketing data….


bianca steele 12.16.08 at 12:38 am

I don’t know a lot of about your field, in particular what kinds of jobs your grad students or colleagues would go work at. In most situations, I don’t see anything wrong with NDAs; nobody is in the business of sharing their innovations wholesale with their competitors, and the purpose of a summer job is not exactly to establish an exchange of ideas.

The kind of data I was talking about would be a violation of customer privacy to share irresponsibly. But corporations do share sensitive data all the time, with economics business school professors as well as with consultants. It’s true they can be a little nervous about what can be shared when and with whom, and it’s possible that at times they err on the side of distrust on the basis of irrelevant considerations.

In my opinion, for example, nobody should be asked to sign an NDA that covers information they have or could have acquired elsewhere, but it does happen.

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