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#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media

Cass R. Sunstein

The book begins with "The Daily Me", the notion that our news is something many of us treat as a consumer product, picking our sources. Even within more heterogenous source, the stories we see are pre-filtered by algorithms that feed us stories we are more likely to click.

A key concept of the book is the Public Forum, which is an integral part of our notion of free expression. Altho he does discuss the reasons why a democracy an interest in providing a public forum.

A well functioning system of free expression requires 1) exposure to unplanned points of view and 2) a wide range of common experiences.

Wide review of current media, from twitter and Facebook to the movie Her. Cybercascades, Polarization, Echo Chambers. Social Media is fantastic for many, many things.

Sunstein choses to focus on the "demand side". We can we as consumers do and what can news providers do without regulation. . . Public Television, free air time for candidates, closed captioning.

Free Press, Democracy and the Prevention of Famines NEIL GROGAN, AUG 28 2013,

The Chinese has an army of social media sock puppets, but rather than try to contradict or refute bad stories, they flood the venue with other stories that change the subject.

A great chapter: Citizens. And the fact that we sometimes make different choices when we think of ourselves as citizens rather than consumers. And we should probably do that more often.

Here are some quotes:

p. 160 - "If people are deprived of access to competing views on public issues, and if as a result they lack the taste for those views, they lack freedom, whatever the nature of their choices and preferences. The problem is most serious .. with authoritarian regimes .. censorship. But it can also arise in a world with a sea of choices."

p. 258 - (Regulation of the Internet) - " Any system that protects property rights requires an active governmental role, and that role takes the form of regulation, among other things allowing "owners," owing their status as such to law, to exclude people seeking access. If site owners and operators are going to be protected against cyberterrorism and other intrusions on their property rights, government and law (not to mention taxpayers) will play a central role. The question is not whether we will have regulation but rather what kind of regulation we will have.

p. 258 - "Free speech is never an absolute. Every democratic system regulates some forms of speech, not merely by creating property rights, but also by controlling a variety of forms of expression, such as perjury, bribery, threats, child pornography, and fraudulent commercial advertising (not to mention viruses sent by e-mail). The question is how we can regulate some kinds of speech while promoting the values associated with a system of free expression, emphatically including democratic self-government.

And the last page:


Recall Franklin's answer to the large crowd asking the US Constitution's authors what they had "given" to the public: "A republic, if you can keep it." Franklin's answer was an expression of hope, but it was also a reminder of a continuing obligation, even a dare. His suggestion was that any document committed to republican self-government depends for its effectiveness not on the decisions of the founders, and much less on worship of texts and authorities and ancestors, but instead on the actions and commitments of its citizenry over time. In drawing attention to the dangers posed by an "inert people," Justice Brandeis was merely carrying forward Franklin's theme.

My most general topic here has been the preconditions for maintaining a republic. We have seen that the essential factor is a well-functioning system of free expression—the "only effective guardian," in Madison's words, "of every other right." To be sure, such a system depends on prohibiting official censorship of controversial ideas and opinions. But it depends on far more than that.

It also depends on some kind of public domain, in which a wide range of speakers have access to a diverse public - and also particular institutions and practices, against which they seek to launch objections. It demands not only a law of free expression but also a culture of free expression, in which people are eager to listen to what their fellow citizens have to say. Perhaps above all, a republic, or at least a heterogeneous one, requires arenas in which citizens with varying experiences and prospects, and different views about what is good and right, are able to meet with one another and consult.

Current technologies are hardly an enemy here. They hold out far more promise than risk. Indeed they hold out great promise from the republican point of view, especially insofar as they make it so much easier for ordinary people to learn about countless topics, hold their governments accountable, and seek out endlessly diverse opinions. But to the extent that people are using social media to create echo chambers, and wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they are creating serious dangers. And if we believe that a system of free expression calls for unrestricted choices by individual consumers, we will not even understand the dangers as such.

Whether such dangers will materialize will ultimately depend on the aspirations, for freedom and democracy alike, by whose light we evaluate our practices. What I have sought to establish here is that in a free republic, citizens aspire to a system that provides a wide range of experiences—with people, topics, and ideas—that they would not have specifically selected in advance.

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