There is a Knowledge Gap: the division between the knowledge rich and knowledge poor. The former have the motivation, knowledge and skills to influence public affairs while the latter are effectively disempowered. These divisions have consequences on the quality of the democratic process and help to sustain social inequities.
This is happening while we are living in an information environment unlike any before, an environment that can potentially foster various forms of open knowledge: releasing open data, placing culture in the public domain and enhancing the interaction between civil society and government.
Our democratic society is premised on the idea that each citizen has the necessary information to take part in democratic deliberation. This does not ensure consensual nor particular outcomes but it does ensure that outcomes are a general reflection of the public will[i].
Yet, there are still significant barriers in use, access and understanding of information. Morozov questions the democratic potential of the Internet[ii], and Bartels highlights the detrimental effects of a mismatched self-interest on policy-outcomes and overall well-being[iii].
The academic literature, so far, has explored the effect of (new) media on democratic deliberation. This research can be broadly divided into two viewpoints. The first sees the new media as potentially enhancing the democratic process by either increasing civic knowledge[iv] or help in political mobilizing[v] .The second sees it undermining it through widening the political knowledge gap[vi] eroding social capital[vii], and demotivating the electorate[viii].
Beyond these two polar-opposites there is a view, prominently argued by Kenneth Newton, which holds that the media should be seen as embedded into society and its effects are mediated by other forces in society, such as class and personal values[ix]. Newton highlights three paradoxes about the media and its effects. First, those who have the least interest in politics are most affected by the media, though they are least likely to expose themselves to it. Second, the more people have personal experience of something they are more likely to be interested in it when they encounter it on the media, though they are more likely to trust their own judgements. Third, the more the partisan media tries to persuade the less it is trusted and exhibits the least amount of influence[x].
Noakes’s ideas are linked to Markus Prior’s forceful argument on the effects of the structural change that has happened in our information environment. He notes that we used to live in a ‘low-choice broadcast environment’ that is characterised by only a few choices for media. In this ‘restricted’ environment people were often inadvertently exposed to important news ensuring that the even some of the people least likely to be interested in the political process received a rudimentary level of civic knowledge and current affairs [xi].
Now in our ‘high-choice environment’ with a plethora of media outlets catering to different interests ensures that those who are least interested in current affairs are less likely to be ‘accidentally’ exposed to important news – or even bypass it altogether. Conversely, those who are most interested in current affairs are now in a better position than ever before to increase their knowledge. Both of these trends confirm one of the greatest ironies of our time: the transition into the ‘information age’ has coincided with a drop in political knowledge in significant portion of the electorate[xii]
The insights of Newton and Prior can be useful to understand mass opinion beyond the narrow realm of political science into a wide variety of social questions. For example, strong scientific evidence about the harmfulness of cigarettes has been available for over 40 years yet despite overwhelming evidence and anti-smoking campaigns sizeable portion of the adult population still smoke. Or for a more recent example, why the two-thirds of the American public supported president Bush’s tax cuts despite being concerned of growing income-inequality, thus effectively acting against their own economic interests[xiii].
These questions indicate that people are reacting to societal messages through personal biases partly informed and validated by knowledge derived from different sources – widening the knowledge gap between different groups in society.
The Finnish Institute has been at the forefront of exploring these issues as a part of its open knowledge agenda: publishing ‘The Open Book’ – a multi-author book contextualising the international open knowledge movement from the perspective of those fostering it, and being a key actor in organising ‘The Open Knowledge Festival’ in Helsinki and helping to establish Open Knowledge Finland.
Now its new agenda seeks to explore the ways to identify tangible scenarios where and how information asymmetries have caused adverse effects to democratic decision-making and to examine how to bridge the evidently widening gap. To do this we have to investigate three questions:
· What are the dynamics leading people to hold erroneous information?
· What measures can be taken to increase people’s motivation to find and use important information?
· What can be done to improve equity in our information society?
A public sphere free from contestation is as utopian of a prospect as democracy without conflict. However, aspiring to make each citizen as informed as possible on important social issues helps us move closer to our democratic ideals and, perhaps, help us find ways to increase general well-being.
[i] Delli Carpini & Keeter (1996) What Americans know about politics and why it matters, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 6.
[ii] Morozov (2009) ’Iran: Downside to the ”Twitter Revolution”; To Save Everything, Click Here (2013)
[iii] Bartels ‘Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind’
[iv] Lupia & Philipot (2005) ‘Vews from inside the Net: How Websites Affect Young Adults’ Political Interest’, The Journal of Politics, pp. 1122 – 1142.
[v] Krueger (2006) ‘A Comparison of Conventional and Internet Political Mobilization’, American Politics Research, pp. 759-776.
[vi] Bonfadelli (2002) ‘The Internet and Knowledge Gaps: A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation’, European Journal of Communication, pp. 65-84.
[vii] Putnam (1995) ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 65-78
[viii] Ansolabehere et al. (1994) ‘Does Attack Advertising Demobilize the Electorate’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 4, pp. 829-838
[ix] Newton (1999) ’Mass Media Effects: Mobilization or Media Malaise?’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 577-599
[x] Newton (2006) ’May the weak force be with you: The power of of the mass media in modern politics’, European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 45, pp. 209-234
[xi] Prior (2005) ’News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 49, No. 3, pp. 577-592
[xii] ibid p. 589
[xiii] Bartels (2007) ’Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 194-230