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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Faction and the Internet

This fall I did a short talk at the Loyola (Chicago) Constitutional Law Colloquium (a great event, btw, that I hope continues) entitled Faction in the Age of Facebook.  Somehow, and perhaps inappropriately, this weekend’s tragic events in Arizona got me thinking about the subject again.

In the talk, I suggested that Madison’s Federalist 10 argues that two features of an enlarged republic should make it difficult for factions to coalesce and undermine our basic democratic commitments.  The first of these, of course, is a great increase in the NUMBER of citizens.  The sheer volume of people would, Madison thought, make it difficult for any one faction to gain enough voting or advocacy power to make a destructive difference at the federal level.  Second, Madison thought geography would work to our advantage.  It was unlikely, he thought, that a political kook in Georgia would ever meet up and join forces with a like-minded kook in New Hampshire.

While the first of these two protections against faction may actually be strengthened in the Internet age—where more people seem to join the conversation every day—I don’t think there’s any doubt that the second protection is diminished.  Now those kooks in Georgia and New Hampshire probably subscribe to ten of the same blogs, and receive updates from another five common listservs.  They probably exchange emails regularly.  This, I think, should give us at least some cause for concern.

In my talk, I had to concede that there have been other major advances in communications through our history, and the sky hasn’t fallen.  But the Internet combines two features in ways that newspapers, radio, and even television could not:  (1) incredibly broad reach or scope; and (2) real and meaningful interactivity.  In addition, or perhaps as part of the interactivity, the Internet allows for very detailed levels of self-selection in terms of the news sources etc. that one chooses to read.  I suggested that this new combination of scope and interactivity provides opportunities for factious groups to coalesce in ways that have not been possible before—and that this might be a dangerous thing.

Now, of course, many objected—and you might as well—that a rising tide floats all factions, so to speak.  That the Internet makes it easier for all factions to coalesce, and that this increase only adds to Madison’s first pluralist protection, the sheer number of voices in the marketplace.  It may turn out that this is right, and that all these Internet voices may indeed drown one another out.  My fear, though, is that the Internet has actually shrunk the field in important ways, and instead of more and more splintered kinds of factions, we may end up with fewer, better organized ones.  This, I think, might present a real problem for the Madisonian model.  Any thoughts?


Posted by Ian Bartrum on January 11, 2011 at 12:20 PM | Permalink


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