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#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media

Cass R. Sunstein (2017), #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
328pp, ISBN 978-0-6911-7551-5

Connor Allen, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University

Sunstein's expository text #Republic addresses the burgeoning tendency of individuals to become ideologically isolated and progressively polarised as a consequence of an increasingly personalised social media network. Sunstein fosters a denunciation of the multifaceted evolution of the social media beast by challenging the shift towards a 'Daily Me', an eventuality whereby each individual has their own personalised social media experience. As the text elaborates, this phenomenon may indeed contribute to the erosion of democracy by way of a deeper Balkanisation of the various groups that comprise an already diverse and ideologically segmented world; the timeliness of such a criticism could not be more relevant in an era where the fragility of democracy and the power of social media are greater than ever.

The discussion as to how social media is contributing to increased societal divides and subsequently placing the democratic bastion at risk is at the forefront of this text's exposition. Amid the decline in intermediaries such as mass media, self-initiated seclusion in an ideologically attractive virtual space is anticipated and evident even now; however, the text precipitates the premise that there are potentially catastrophic consequences of this unseen level of segregation. Firstly, the concept of the 'Daily Me' is constructed within the text as a means by which Sunstein can critique aspects of social media personalisation with which the readership will be familiar. The suggestion that we may be hurtling towards a virtual reality of absolute individualisation is a point that is extremely valid; social media platforms and the internet are expeditiously morphing to serve the most specific needs and interests of users. But what are the consequences of this?

Sunstein suggests one: the rise of 'echo chambers', whereby users are choosing to associate only with those of shared views and interests, thus amplifying their opinions, polarising them from any opposing ideologies. The arguments he makes with regard to the deleterious nature of these echo chambers are particularly valid; we as readers are able to connect these claims to the clearly widening divide between the political left and right (i.e. Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election) among other social phenomena (#Blacklivesmatter versus #Alllivesmatter). A powerful deduction can be made that it is in fact this reduction in discussions with opposing viewpoints that prevents meaningful deliberation, thus weakening what Sunstein describes as the 'social glue' that upholds the democratic process.

The suggestion that the government ought to intervene in the internet is not a new one, as the text confirms with several mentions of regulations currently placed on illegal online activities such as terrorism and hate crimes. However, Sunstein takes this one step further by suggesting some sort of regulation on social media both by the private sector and the government in order to facilitate what he believes to be democratically essential unsought public discussion. While this is valid, it is not his strongest argument; his criticism of naysayers arguing with the first amendment to deny any sort of regulation is more impactful. A quote from the text, 'sometimes choices reflect and can in fact produce a lack of freedom' (p. 177), encapsulates perhaps the entirety of this argument; that in order to preserve freedom it must be infrequently impinged upon. It is argued that without the implementation of some sort of process or regulation that proliferates wider discussion, the citizenry will only become increasingly divided and polarised to the point where deliberative democracy cannot occur. The judgement as to whether the government should step in to ensure a broader dissemination of information is an interesting one that has been tested infrequently in democratic media; the potential for such a regulation in social media is therefore largely untested. As citizens, do we often consider how much knowledge is required for a decision to be deemed informed? If not, is social media more maleficent than it appears to be in terms of applying a chokehold of information through an individualisation of content, thereby indirectly obstructing participative democracy?

Perhaps the largest flaw of this text is its structure and strikingly obvious inability to distinguish between discussion topics within chapters, particularly at the earlier stages of the text. Arguably the first five chapters confront the same issues of social and political polarisation intertwined with the ongoing threat that this poses to participative democracy; the exposition is tiresome and loses its effect as the text drags on. The themes within the text are placed nicely in the modern context, e.g. the US political climate and terrorism; however, at times an inability to succinctly connect these situations with the overarching ideas of the text results in waffling, diluting the argument that is so desperately trying to be made.

The limitations of contemporaneous social media platforms and the complex political arenas that characterise modern democracies limit the pragmatism of this book's suggestions; however, it does attempt to address a perhaps seriously under-addressed social issue. When given the rapidly changing nature of our society it is highly conceivable that we take democracy for granted and therefore do not look for points of weakness; social media as such a prominent and now ingrained force all over the world should be at least considered for insidious intent. Now more than ever investigations and analysis like those performed by #Republic need to be undertaken to ensure the longevity of democracy alongside the growing dominance and ever-changing nature of social media.

Pietari Kaapa, Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies, University of Warwick

Cass Sunstein's #Republic provides a timely and relevant evaluation of the role of social media as both a challenge and advantage for democratic politics. Updating his own books (2001) and 2.0 (2007), this edition takes its cue from the multitudinous and fundamental transformations engendered by a fundamentally altered media landscape. Its focus is on addressing the profound consequences of emerging forms of online communications and pervasive media technologies to argue for the need to evaluate their impact, influence and constantly developing societal role, both in terms of social contracts between individuals and their roles in participative democracy.

Nowhere are these arguments more significant and powerful than in Sunstein's assertions on the disruptive potential of social media. Starting from the premise that social media operates in an almost insidious manner, capitalising on some of our worst instincts, he proposes the hypothetical (but eerily accurate) idea of the 'Daily Me' as a means to address the ways in which individuals can shape their online social experience to provide what is – for them – an accurate reflection of their ideological world, but which in reality is seriously curtailed by subjective bias. The ability of users to shape their social media enclaves has serious consequences. The emergence of echo chambers (where one only hears one's own voice reflected by similar voices) as well as cybercascades (informational flows that are dictated by opinion leaders of a certain ideological persuasion often followed by readers and users of a similar persuasion) indicates a communicative space that has transformed beyond recognition (an argument made more obvious by sections focusing on broadcast media). The transformations of our information-gathering activities – now predominantly moderated and curated by ourselves on social media platforms – not only fundamentally restrict democratic dialogue but enhance the fragmentation of society into bipartisan political segments.

Sunstein uses the concept of the 'Daily Me' to make a powerful argument as to how social media can effectively challenge the existence of an open and democratic public sphere instead of contributing to opening and extending societal dialogue through providing individuals more access to knowledge and to having their opinions heard – an argument often made in the work of well-known writers like Henry Jenkins. Consequently, the book suggests that the availability of more choice and an increased proliferation of niche channels in a fully personalised 'speech market' can in fact restrict freedom instead of improving the foundations for a more open and democratic society. While a free society benefits from the availability of a large range of options, increasingly we see social media companies promote the personalised experience as a means for the individual user to gain control in a society increasingly predicated on inequality and fragmentation.

Yet, while the book is certainly an important intervention, the study is not without some considerable problems. The first is to do with the repetitive nature of the exposition as similar arguments are repeated frequently from slightly altered perspectives. With some prudent editing the exposition could have been made much more dynamic. The book is possibly also problematic as a text aspiring to be a contemporaneous intervention. While it was published only last year, much of the content is arguably already out of date as events in the real world have bypassed its scope. The author takes a silk-gloves approach to Trump, for example, yet some of his arguments concerning freedom of speech, which make sense overall, do not now cover problematic statements like Trump's 'fine people on both sides' tweet regarding the Charlottesville demonstrations. Nor does it have the foresight to consider the role of companies like Cambridge Analytica and AIQ Analytics in the US elections and the Brexit referendum. Though it would be unfair to foreground this point further, these developments do undermine some of the key arguments made here. For example, the book certainly takes issue with the role of private capital in shaping limitations on freedom of speech, but it is much too easy on companies like Facebook, especially as the attempts to hoist some measure of legal control over these companies continues to be a developing story. The revelations about campaign funding collusion by Vote Leave, or the role of dark foreign capital in US elections, suggest that much more foundational questions over the role of private companies operating on or owning social media platforms need to be posed.

Yet, the book is also pragmatic enough to understand that it can only do so much with a social media technology that never stays put. Thus, the focus on questions of regulation and policy make a lot of sense, especially in relation to freedom of speech. There are many relevant case studies to illustrate the complexities of deliberating the right to express opinions and to be heard. These focus on a range of contemporary concerns from viruses to inflammatory websites. The comparison between debates over freedom of speech in legacy media such as press and broadcasting and on social media and digital platforms is particularly insightful, especially as pertains to creating voluntary means of self-regulation. Yet, the trust in the applicability of such means of control can be questioned as the failure of the Leveson Inquiry 2.0 or the refusal of Facebook to attend hearings in the UK testify to a much more cynical perspective over what are here presented as largely the altruistic motivations of an explicitly commercial industry.

Ultimately, this is an important perspective, in both scope and argument, for understanding the role of contemporary media technologies in politics and the continuing quest to preserve democracy.


To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Allen, C OR Kaapa, P. (2018), Sunstein, Cass R. (2017), '#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 11, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.