Goldsmith Book Prize winner challenges true online democracy

March 23, 2010

Matthew Hindman and Nicco Mele, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy.

Matthew Hindman and Nicco Mele, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy.

March 23, 2010 — With the Goldsmith Awards Ceremony just a few hours away, Matthew Hindman, winner of the 2010 Goldsmith Book Prize, spoke to the Shorenstein Center about his book, The Myth of Digital Democracy.

Hindman, assistant professor at Arizona State University, explained that the book is a response to the claim that the Internet is “democratizing politics … giving voice to the voiceless, empowering ordinary citizens.” Looking at the “network public sphere,” Hindman warned, there is “a difference between speaking in politics and being heard in politics.” Amid the myriad political blogs, larger sites tend to get the most readership. “Inequalities in political voice online are far greater than anything that we’re used to in traditional politics,” Hindman said.

There is an argument for “cyber optimism,” Hindman said, and that is “the Internet’s ability to facilitate new forms of collective action,” which can help small businesses “use information technology to revolutionize their supply chains.” However, there are reasons to be skeptical about how broad the online “public sphere” really is. One reason is that nontraditional, noncommercial political content draws only a small percentage of Web traffic. This is a reflection of the limited presence politics has, Hindman said.

Another reason for skepticism is link distribution. While technology allows for any website to link to any other site, in practice, links are distributed in a “winner-take-all fashion.” Current search engines favor sites with the most links, leading to a “systematically distorted view” of Internet traffic.

Hindman addressed the portrayal of the Internet as a “‘digital Robin Hood’ — robbing from the audience rich and giving to the audience poor.” This is not what data would suggest, he said. In fact, Hindman found that top Internet sites receive the bulk of online traffic, and smaller sites get a collectively larger share of the total audience than they would in traditional media. But the audience is shifting away from what Hindman calls “middle-class outlets.” This shift is causing a “hollowing out” of the news industry, and “journalism and newspapers, and particularly local accountability journalism, is increasingly in peril,” Hindman concluded.

This article was written by Janell Sims and the photos taken by Leighton Walter Kille, both of the Shorenstein Center.