Democratic Culture Is More than Mere Voting

The question “is social media broken?” is a seemingly simple query, but like Russian nesting dolls or ad-buy scandals, much more lies beneath the surface. For one, what does it even mean for a concept as new and ever-changing as social media to be broken, anyway? For another, when was social media ever done correctly, such that it might now be ruined? And is this really about what social media was––or is it just what we hoped it could be––that makes us now feel like it might have somehow become bereft of social utility?

Will Rinehart takes on one specific angle to this broad question in his essay Fake News and Our Real Problems: Despite the conception that social media played an enormous role in enabling fake news, which in turn undermined the power information had to create an informed electorate—which in turn undermined democracy—online platforms are not our real problem. Rinehart argues that social media is not a “but for cause” to modern democracy’s collapsing house of cards, but instead “the culprit is well meaning reform efforts that have dismantled our intricate, informal system of political intermediation.”

The argument is compelling, and Rinehart bolsters it with much evidence of the importance of free and accurate information in creating democratic legitimacy and recent studies debunking the role of fake news in the 2016 election. But his is perhaps a formulation far too narrow in how it defines democracy, discussing it only in terms of elections, government, and political participation and never reaching the “intricate, informal” systems he seems to think are actually at work. The narrower view is of course a totally accurate and well-understood definition of democracy, but in the modern era, Rinehart’s focus feels a bit like walking into the Sistine Chapel and just looking at the floor. The internet has given us more than just new insight into an enlightened political regime of governance – it has created an entirely new culture of democracy, one in which freedom of speech has a more vital role than ever.

Freedom of speech in an internet age, then,1 is not about “a republican concern with protecting democratic process and democratic deliberation,” but instead, as Professor Jack Balkin has argued, it is about “a larger concern with protecting and promoting democratic culture.” One of the central tenets of Balkin’s theory of democratic culture is understanding that the internet, by empowering individual speech, creates a much more complicated vision of democratic power than that encapsulated in mere politics. This is because the internet and online platforms allow people to cheaply and easily amplify speech not just to their communities and countries, but around the world, without being dependent on “traditional media gatekeepers” and publishers. The internet also changed the kind of speech that gave people democratic power. Today, while huge swaths of political power are still tied to political families, wealth, race, and elite education, people today can mobilize democratic culture to “route around” these traditional power structures. These alternate channels include content creation, memeification, organizing, and advocacy.

If Rinehart’s conception of democracy seems somewhat stodgy to the modern reader, it seems downright progressive when compared to his understanding of online speech. As scholars like Balkin have noted, freedom of speech ––in a somewhat circular fashion––is both one of the things promoted by a democratic culture and one of the things protected by it. Rinehart seems to acknowledge and agree with this relationship when he discusses the role of social media in democracy, but then curiously goes on to miscast and trivialize it:

What people do online is engage in the pointless babble that is so often derided. They go online to express sociability and maintain bonds, not debate politics. Snapchat isn’t built on political rants, it is built on videos and pictures of family, pets, and the sweet banality of daily life. Much more social media is like this than we tend to imagine and also absent of the role of social media not just as a source of information, but as a source for amplification of speaker’s voices.

This conception not only misses the breadth and depth that online speech platforms provide, it undervalues the nature of modern democracy in the internet age. It also seems to underestimate the role of digital speech and culture in tapping into a more traditional type of informed and participatory democracy, as opposed to a “public life that reconciles democracy and expertise,” on which Rinehart seems focused.

A recent example illustrates this point. Traditional media informed the public of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal, and those same institutions played a vital part in fact-checking and vetting the information given to consumers. But the development of a simple hashtag, #metoo, by Tarana Burke took the Weinstein allegations and made them personal. Not just to every woman who has experienced sexual harassment or assault, but to all the men who were forced to scroll through the status messages and stories of women in their online communities, and in turn all of the people those men and women vote for. The #metoo movement––individual speakers amplifying their voices through social media independent of gate-keeping publishers––in turn became its own source of power and political change and, ultimately, its own story worthy of coverage in traditional media. It was the essence of what Balkin speaks of when he describes digital speech enabling democratic culture and thus becoming democratic power.

This model is more comprehensive and allows us to understand––and discount––the problem of fake news for democracy, a problem that Rinehart seems to agree is not really so great a problem at all. I cannot claim credit for these insights, or even give it to Balkin alone. A few months ago, media lawyer and scholar Nabiha Syed wrote in the Yale Law Journal Forum that, “[a] focus on culture, not politics, does more than remedy the central gap of the collectivist view while maintaining its system-wide focus. It also helps us expand our focus beyond legal theory to… understand amplification as a relevant concept… .not only through rational deliberation, but also by using familiarity and in-group dynamics as a proxy for truth.”

To focus a discussion about the internet’s role in democracy only on its ability to enable discussions of pure politics or information for actual voting is like arguing that one leg of a stool is the most important. Instead, the real concern for democracy should be not on fake news but instead on preserving free speech online in order to continue to enable a robust and vibrant democratic culture.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • We expect that voters should be well-informed, and to that end the press is essential. Yet reconciling democracy and expertise is no easy task, and examples of the press behaving badly seem all too common, particularly in the form of fake news. Yet Rinehart argues that concern over fake news may be overblown, and he suggests that our democracy’s real problems lie elsewhere.

Response Essays

  • John Samples draws on Thomas Emerson’s Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment to argue that social media is doing a reasonably good job at satisfying four widely shared values. He argues that it is doing particularly well in contrast to the television monoculture that preceded it.

  • Mike Godwin argues that social media is still in its infancy, and it is much premature to declare it “broken.” He adds that non-political expressions of sociability should not be dismissed as valueless; they have great value both in themselves and as part of the process by which a republic is formed and perpetuated.

  • Kate Klonick argues that social media has empowered individuals to create a democratic culture that is much larger and more powerful than just what they do at the polls. Social media allows grassroots activism to work in new and important ways that don’t always aim at changing the way people vote, but that do change society all the same.