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News media play a vital role in the functioning of democracy; they shape our culture, world views, values and society in itself. Media are expected to be free and diverse, and to contribute to democracy by disseminating information, influencing public opinion and igniting political discussions that are key to what Andrew Perrin would call in his book American Democracy[1] the “Agonistic society”. Plurality in news media is crucial to its contribution to democracy. In order to engender political debate among citizens, they have to be able to access different world views and opinions. With today’s audience fragmentation, the only way that public debate can be carried out is through agonistic public spheres, that are “noisy, uncomfortable, inefficient, and sometimes even scary”, but that is “forthright and honest, and it encourages people to pay attention to and consider the points of view of other groups”[2].

However, when it comes to analyzing the role and impact of the Internet on this media plurality that supports agonistic discussion, we find there are extremely opposite opinions and perspectives. On the one hand, there’s a group of intellectuals that believes that the actual trend of people resorting to the internet as one of their main news sources after TV[3] is a good thing for democracy and plurality. They argue that “digital media provide users with access to a greater range and variety of news”[4], that social and community media enable citizens to take a more active and participative role in the process of newsgathering and dissemination.

Nonetheless, on the other hand, some scholars argue against this idea, claiming that the developments in digital media haven’t been so “universally positive”[5]. They are worried about two main problems, first of all, the uneven quality of news existing on the Internet. Citizens have to struggle and be careful about what they’re reading, either because in the multiplicity of content sources is hard to find news of value that are trustworthy or because the limits between facts and opinions are constantly fading. The latter is found frequently in the digital media, where content overrules authors. This generates a sense of anonymity that lightens the responsibility they have over their publications. The other problem that threatens plurality is the “Echo Chambers” mentioned by Perrin[6] and the “Filter Bubbles”.

Wikipedia –though not very well accepted in academic spheres- somehow gives a clear definition of what an echo chamber is in media terms: “the situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed or otherwise underrepresented”. It is the media effect caused by audiences seeking certain news sources online that are compatible with their world view or way of thinking. Psychologists have proved that people “generally prefer and are better at understanding information that accords with their existing schemas”[7], limiting their chance of encountering new or dramatically different ideas.  This process of having the public divided into echo chambers seriously jeopardizes democratic citizenship. In an agonistic society where fragmented audiences have totally different ideas and thoughts, it’s of vital importance that they share them with each other, discuss, and debate, even if they don’t arrive to a conclusive solution or consensus. It’s part of the democratic life to be able to embrace different ideas and accept the critics that others have to make of ours.

This “echo chambers” effect is not only produced by the mere consuming of certain news sources instead of others, but also because we usually share our ideas and make friends with people that think like us and that have our same values. In this way, our own ideas are replicated and even magnified by our closer social groups, reinforcing the ideas and making them more true and convincing to us than before.

On the other hand, the “Filter Bubble” is another effect produced mainly by new digital media that adds up to the “echo chamber” problem and the lack of plurality in news online. Like Robin Foster explains in his report News Plurality in a Digital World, “through the filtering of stories via friends, or via the personalization of search, digital media encourages people to remain within their own comfort zone”[8] . The term “Filter Bubble” describes the phenomenon by which social networks and search engines “use algorithms and personal data to select only content which matches existing tastes and preferences”[9]. This process keeps on making hard for citizens to encounter opposing ideas that would trigger a debate or change their way of thinking. It also has a negative effect on democratic participation, closing the development of publics and exchanges that are vital to democracy.

However, for some authors there’s still hope. They agree that the new digital world and their tools have helped those people who really are interested in politics to widen their knowledge and enhance their democratic participation. These “attentive publics have more access now to information, ideas, and diverse interpretations that did similar citizens at any prior point in history”[10]. Concluding then, we can say that the digital world instead of impoverishing political knowledge, in fact, it has done nothing but actually deepened and pronounced the already existing gap between those active citizens that care about politics and take action, and those who don’t and live their democratic life in a more passive way.

[1]Perrin, Andrew. American Democracy: From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter. 2014. Polity Press.

[2]Perrin, Andrew. Op.cit. Page 183

[3] OFCOM report Measuring Media Plurality. Available at http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/consultations/measuring-plurality/statement/Annex5.pdf

[4] Foster, Robin. News Plurality in a Digital World. 2012. University of Oxford. Page 18. Available at http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/News%20Plurality%20in%20a%20Digital%20World.pdf

[5] Idem. Page 21

[6] Perrin, Andrew. Op. cit. Page 153

[7] Perrin, Andrew. Op. cit. Page 153

[8] Foster, Robin. Op. cit. Page 22

[9] ibidem

[10] Perrin, Andrew. Op. cit. Page 154

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