The Digital Polarization Initiative

...of AASCU's American Democracy Project

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What is Digital Polarization?

We’re using digital polarization as a catch-all term for a number of different trends that we are observing on the web.

A network map of the 2014 Ferguson conversation on Twitter, generated by Emma Pierson. Note that the streams don't merge.
  • The impact of algorithmic filters and user behavior on what we see in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which tend to limit our exposure to opinions and lifestyles different than our own.
  • The rise and normalization of “fake news” on the Internet, which not only bolsters one’s worldview, but can provide an entirely separate factual universe for readers to live in
  • The spread of harassment, mob behavior, and “callout culture” on platforms like Twitter, where minority voices and opinions are often bullied into silence.
  • State-sponsored hacking campaigns that use techniques such as “weaponized transparency” to try and fuel distrust in democratic institutions.

In certain contexts, each of these things can be valuable. We like seeing news from people like us, even if that restricts our worldview a bit. The line between “fake news” and “minority viewpoint” is not always clear-cut. Bad behavior on the web sometimes need to be called out, and citizens have the right to call powerful people to account. State-sponsored hacking can be used to silence, manipulate, or punish political opponents, but may occasionally uncover important information the public deserves to know.

What we want to look at in this project, both through in-classroom and out-of-classroom activities, are three questions:

  • What are the effects of these trends on our democracy?
  • What are the underlying causes of these trends?
  • If these trends require we act to address them, what can we do to address them, both as individuals and political agents? And how do we do that in ways that don’t destroy the democratic potential of the web?

We want to stress that this is a curriculum of questions, not answers. We’re hoping, for example, that students can also look into issues such as how calls for civility can lead to the “tone-policing” activist communities feel derail discussions at the same time that that students investigate how aggressively argumentative online cultures may discourage participation by certain demographic subgroups.

In the process, we are hoping our students obtain a deeper understanding of how web technologies shape their social and political environments, and learn that taking an active and critical stance toward these technologies can improve our society as a whole.

digital_polarization.txt · Last modified: 2017/01/09 16:30 by mica42