The very notion of expert opinion is itself being transformed by the information revolution, requiring theories to be more thoroughly supported by data. New technologies are making it possible to bring expertise to bear in ways never before imagined — and we are only beginning to grasp some of the consequences of this new form of expert judgment. This new brand of expertise is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the emergence of novel forms of journalism. While the growing capability of the empirical social sciences allows us to better analyze the consequences of past decisions and policies, a media revolution is transforming the way policy debates occur in real time.
Most discussions of the “new media” of the information age focus on how those media — and especially their flagship format, the blog — allow more people than ever to have their voices heard. By breaking the monopoly of the traditional media on the means of reaching vast audiences, internet media can allow a diverse array of people to compete for meaningful numbers of readers, listeners, and viewers. This variety is generally celebrated as a way to bring more opinions to the surface — as if the traditional media brought objective analysis to bear while these new media offered a range of subjective views.
But the chief benefit of these new media is not simply the proliferation of viewpoints. Rather, it is precisely their potential to inject detailed factual analysis into our political and policy debates by increasing the availability of expert input. Blogs in particular can address issues at a level of specialization that the traditional media, aimed at very broad audiences, cannot sustain. In economics, law, education, energy, transportation, and a variety of other fields, we have seen the emergence of many specialized blogs that are published by experts and practitioners in those fields and read by other leading experts and practitioners (as well as by a larger public with an interest in those subjects). Within each field, these expert blogs often respond to one another, creating a networked conversation at an extraordinarily high level of sophistication. The best minds in these fields are essentially talking problems through with one another in public while the rest of us listen. And when the subject is a new law or policy proposed or enacted in Washington, the result is instant, intense, and detailed analysis and discussion among experts, available to any interested citizen — a public service of a sort barely imaginable before the advent of modern information technology.
This kind of online conversation can improve our society’s (and government’s) factual grasp of the policy world in three key ways. First, such specialized media provide incentives for greater accuracy, because they are likely to be both run and monitored by specialists. Most experts participating in such media — concerned about their reputations among their peers — will speak relatively cautiously, and will make efforts to be precise about factual claims. Furthermore, the very structure of the internet and web-based reporting — which includes links to relevant primary sources and other supporting material — promotes more factually grounded journalism. The nature of the medium pushes experts to make their sources clear, and so makes the foundations of disagreements among experts more apparent.
Second, as University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds (who runs Instapundit, one of the most popular blogs on the internet) has emphasized, such specialized media also feed into larger, more established media, providing the kernels for stories that reach the wider public. The beat of a major newspaper reporter these days no longer involves simply pounding the pavement and calling a few key sources: He must now go online to see what a network of plugged-in bloggers with expertise in the area he covers might be saying. Some major newspapers even host expert blogs themselves, which often improve on their reporters’ work. The New York Times, for instance, operates a blog (called Economix) that brings the latest scholarship on economic policy to its readers’ attention — and often argues for policies very much at odds with those advocated on the paper’s editorial page.
Third, citizens are switching from television to the web to get their basic news about national and world affairs — a change that stands to improve deliberation and knowledge in our politics. Television emphasizes the personal, accentuating appearances and images. Web-based reporting and opinion, on the other hand, effectively mark a return to a text-based understanding of the world, which tends to encourage a more analytical eye. Though web journalism is increasing its use of videos and images, text still dominates — lending itself to a more policy-oriented evaluation of, for instance, candidates’ positions on the issues rather than emotional connections to politicians’ public personalities.
Some critics have expressed concerns that internet-based media actually reduce our democracy’s ability to take account of new factual information; the danger, these critics argue, is that the new media cater to niches of political opinion, and have thus produced greater polarization among the public. But this view is not supported by the evidence. In fact, studies suggest that people who get their news online are exposed to a more diverse array of facts and viewpoints than those who get their news from television. Indeed, one recent study — conducted by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago — found that conservatives who get their news online ingest information that, on the whole, has an ideological slant equivalent to that of USA Today. Liberals who rely on web-based news, meanwhile, expose themselves to the rough equivalent of watching CNN. In neither case were the online offerings more one-sided than those that the survey’s participants would have found off-line.
This informational jousting is all to the good. Just as more vigorous market competition improves consumer welfare by creating better products, more vigorous competition in ideas should improve public policy. Indeed, the advantages of dispersed media over more concentrated media are similar to those of democracy over oligarchy. Oligarchies might appear much more stable than democracies, because they involve less surface conflict. But that absence of conflict makes it harder to change course when facts change, or to build genuine, broad consensus around policies that will work. Far from a polarizing drag that has worsened our politics, then, the new media may offer a much-needed path to serious, factually informed debate.
In this arena, too, there are a few straightforward steps that policymakers might take both to promote the development of a more knowledge-based politics and to make the most of it. First, they should extend the legal protections afforded to journalists — most notably shield laws that allow for the protection of sources — to those working in new media, especially bloggers. Treating bloggers as less worthy of protection than traditional journalists represents a failure to understand the crucial role they now play in our political and policy debates.
Second, some advocates of campaign-finance restrictions suggest that blog postings assessing candidate statements or expressing support for (or opposition to) candidates near an election should be considered contributions to candidates, and therefore subject to regulation under campaign-finance law. Here again, it is a mistake to privilege the old media — whose coverage of candidates is not subject to such limitations — over the new. Restrictions on internet speech would undermine the ability of new media to hold our political system and policymakers to account. And they would curtail this ability precisely when the new media’s facility with empirical data, and their swift applications of expertise, are most needed — around election time, when Americans are hungry for informed criticism of candidates’ policies and platforms. More generally, we must be wary of campaign-finance “reform” that restricts voters’ access to policy information generated by these debates. To be sure, campaign commercials are imperfect vehicles for conveying new policy understanding. In practice, however, canceled political advertisements are replaced not with policy seminars but with beer commercials — hardly an improvement.
One can thus hope that new information technologies will feed into one another, improving our grasp of the consequences of proposed policies. The rise of empiricism will provide stronger analysis for expert bloggers to put before the public. And this combination will help us better predict the future effects of policies, particularly with the help of another application of new information technologies: prediction markets.
John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University Law School. His book, “Accelerating Democracy: Matching Governance to Technological Change” was published in 2012. This is an extract from the essay “Politics of Knowledge” written by the author and published in National Affairs Magazine