Democratic Culture Is More than Mere Voting

Document Type

Response or Comment

Publication Title

Cato Unbound

Publication Date




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.