Tuesday night's Intelligence Squared debate entitled "When It Comes To Politics, the Internet Is Closing Our Minds" had little to do with politics, and treated the internet as if most political attitudes were driven by Google and Facebook.
The real subject of the debate was the personalization of the internet, and maybe incidentally, the political impact of personalization, that is the effectiveness of Google and Facebook driving (through filters) users to websites which catered to their individual preferences. In other words -- pushing conservatives to conservative web sites and liberals to liberal websites. One set of debaters foresaw major problem arising from the filtering process; the opposite side welcomed the filtering, and foresaw it only as, at worst, a "theoretical" problem.
To me, the question seemed both overstated and insignificant. As a journalist, I always believed that objective readers/viewers always saw our news through the eyes of their own prejudices, though they refused to admit them. When I was growing up (until 1950), New York still had seven newspapers. Readers gravitated towards the paper that most confirmed his/her points of view. Before World War II, The Daily News and the Journal American were anti-New Deal isolationist papers, mostly read by Catholics; The Daily Mirror was internationalist, pro-Roosevelt, and mostly read by Jews. The Herald Tribune was Republican, mildly internationalist and read mostly by Wasps; The Times was mildly Democratic, strongly internationalist and read mostly by Jews. The Sun was the most conservative of all papers, and read mostly by the most conservative members of all races and creeds, each group searching for reinforcement of its own opinions.
Last Tuesday's debaters acknowledged that consumers have the right to choose the media that most accords with their biases, but the key word is "choose." One side was afraid that Google and Facebook are weighing the choices in favor of what they perceived as the users' biases. The other side, that was no big deal, the users were going to find what they were looking for on their own.
It seemed to me, much ado about nothing. The debaters were all smart men, and they loved to talk, but their talk had very little to do with politics. Three of them had previously written books about the internet, and proud to quote from them, but I didn't hear the word "politics" often, if at all, in their quotes. The fourth one, a journalist who had in 2007 had been named "Web Editor of the Year," rarely mentioned politics either.
I had gone to the event with the hope that I would hear something about what impact the internet might have on the 2012 election, because I had previously learned about a new website designed specifically to inform voters about their choices and permit candidates to advertise to its audience. It's called eVoter, and claims to be nonpartisan. (I want to make it clear that I was asked by eVoter to invest in the company and serve on its board. I declined, because I'm currently overly involved in other things.) Nevertheless, I introduce it here because I believe it will have a positive effect on the political process.
eVoter plans to provide every voter in every voting district in the United States with a list of all the candidates, from dog catcher to president, who will appear on his/her ballot next November. (eVoter is currently providing lists of primary nominees to voters state by state.) It's greatest virtue might be its simplest -- it will provide every voter with the address of his/her polling place.
eVoter also offers candidates the opportunity to provide brief biographies and accepts endorsements and advertisements from organizations that back the candidates. Since the Supreme Court's Citizens United case gives PACs and other organizations, even foreign companies, the right to back their favored candidates, eVoter is likely to be very profitable very quickly.
Internet advertising has one great advantage over other forms of advertising -- it has no deadline. In the past, most political advertising time was purchased weeks or, at best, days in advance. In an era of constant polling, it was difficult to reframe ads in accordance to the polls or adapt ads to meet new attacks from rival camps. In the post eVoter world, political advisers have the ability to create new messages, concoct new talking points, until the polls close in every state in the Union.
Intelligence Squared suggested that "When It Comes To Politics, The Internet Is Closing Our Minds," I suggest that sites like eVoter will be changing our actions.