Democracy Distorts Democracy!

That, at least, was my impression of the worry expressed in a recent Wired.com article, “Real-Time Debate Feedback Distorts Democracy.”

What’s all the hoopla about? Well, you may recall that back in the 2008 presidential election CNN debuted a new ratings-capturing gimmick below the bloviating candidates: “A real-time graph depicting the averaged reactions of 32 supposedly undecided voters, who expressed favor or disfavor by turning handheld dials as they watched.”

A study by British scientists purports to show that a relative handful of indecisive common folk can “unduly” influence millions of their equally indecisive fellows around the country with this real-time feedback. Wait, we needed what was probably a tax-funded scientific study to tell us that?

Anyway … this, apparently, is BAD FOR DEMOCRACY™.

We can’t have WE THE PEOPLE™ influencing WE THE PEOPLE™ while a “debate” is going on! Oh noes! It’s the job of the elites — in the media, in politics, in government bureaucracies, in academia, and in think tanks — to influence the people before and after the “debates.” Now that’s democracy!

“The responses of a small group of individuals could, via the [graph], influence millions of voters. This possibility is not conducive to a healthy democracy,’ wrote Davis and Memon.”

Well, then, if it’s the influence of a few on the many that we should be concerned about, where’s the worry about the influence of political-campaign spin on voters? of “unbiased,” “fair and balanced,” “we report, you decide” journalist coverage of the campaigns? of slanted commentary and analysis by mainstream-media talking heads and political pundits? of “debates” consisting entirely of hyper-choreographed, alternating presentations of substanceless soundbites and slogans in response to a moderator’s softball questions? No, that’s all the essence of democratic discourse, of course. Nevermind that these elites are also relatively small groups of individuals influencing millions of voters.

It’s not so much the real-time nature of the feedback that these people find troubling. I presume they do not have a problem with a politically opinionated and outspoken individual providing running commentary to his friends or family while they watch the “debates” on tv … unless he’s espousing opinions with which they strongly disagree, of course. It’s the scale of the influence that really bothers them. CNN’s graph allows a few commoners to rival the influence of their betters. They don’t like the competition.

Would they also be troubled by a mass techno-democracy in which the preferences and reactions of millions of Americans were aggregated in some kind of social-media graph so that millions of Americans, instead of just 32, could influence each other in real-time? I think so: “real-time onscreen feedback is fundamentally incompatible with the notion that voters ought to think for themselves.” Voters ought to think for  themselves … except, that is, when it is the elites who are trying to influence them.

You know what does worry me about CNN’s real-time feedback graph?

It’s that journalists will quite naturally not be unbiased in selecting a “representative sample” of supposedly undecided voters. It’s that the graph or the sample of voters producing it could be tampered with by someone or some group with an agenda. There are token mentions of these two worries in the Wired.com article, but the bulk of the worry is over a few voters influencing millions of others. On the other hand, “random” samples of 32 voters are potentially more representative than juries, and it would be tough for their composition and deliberations to be more thoroughly manipulated by the MSM than juries are by judges and lawyers.

What worries me the most is that more people seem to be concerned about the graph than the far more insidious influence of our statist elites on society that I just highlighted.

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