Democracy: a Harvard Law School Lecture Series | Session 3: Social Media and Democracy

A Nov. 15 panel on Social Media and Democracy featuring Nate Persily (Stanford Law), Jamal Greene (Columbia Law), and Tristan Harris (Center for Humane Technology), moderated by Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig.

In the last few years, politicians, activists, academics, among many others, have become increasingly concerned about the role of social media in American democracy. The concerns are myriad. They include dis- and misinformation, increased polarization, the absence of a shared epistemic framework, and hate speech — amplified by business models that benefit from this pathologies. For lawyers and legal academics, an important inquiry is whether law can be at all useful in addressing the threats that social media pose to democracy. Are social media companies capable of effective self-regulation? What role should governments play in regulating social media companies? What role — given the constraints of the First Amendment — can governments play? Is this the new normal or can we expect a new and better equilibrium as we adjust to the promise and peril of social media’s ubiquitous and arguably necessary role in our politics?



  1. Social media heavily suppresses democratic expressions for the most part, but the U.S. never really had a functional and thriving democracy for and by the people. Democratic power has always been in the hands of the powerful — even in colonial times — and that was by design by our founding fathers. They knew from the beginning that allowing people to unite politically to form a real democracy for themselves would not be good for their interests because they would never be able to amass enormous sums of wealth, and so keeping the people politically divided and subjugated has always been the formula of America's success. But that could change if we simply use our heads and stop being so greedy.

    On How to Change Society in a Fundamental Way

    If we want the general public to have a real voice in what the government does and in the direction that society takes, then it is only logical that the implementation of some sort of democratic political structure specifically designed for the individual citizen would be required. The traditional methods of organization and demonstrations that could take decades before changes are actually made has never been practical, and to continue to rely on such methods in order to obtain a more humane, practical, and functional society for its people — especially now in the computer age with the effects of global warming and the dangers of an ever increasing nuclear threat to the world looming more than ever before — is now becoming quickly obsolete.

    As a matter of convenience and practicality, it would have to be an online structure — most likely a public platform or web portal that would basically be a comprehensive public forum where the citizen would be able to do any number of things as simple and straight-forward as voting in an election or taking a poll on a particular issue. It would also function as an educational and intellectual support facility where people can learn about the very ugly aspects of our history, like our history of imperialism or our history of propaganda and exploitation, so that it would be common knowledge that the general public has been used as pawns for the the minority interests of the power elite in their quest for wealth, power, and domination. Most importantly however, this platform would provide a safe and secure facility where individual citizens could unit with like-minded others relating to any issue that they deem to be vital to address and to resolve.

    The establishment of a democratic political platform would be no different than any other government platform or web portal except that this would be a public forum that every citizen can use and benefit from — and it would also be a political game changer.

    Participation in this democratic web-portal would of course be voluntary, but it would require a certain amount of time and energy from the individual, and this would be understood. Most people do all sorts of things in their daily lives that are not totally necessary, and so, I would think that making time to engage in the political process would be something that most people could in fact do.

    The central function of the this democratic structure would be the encouragement, promotion, and facilitation of critical thinking and robust engagement in rational, political discourse. Like-minded citizens would huddle around a particular common cause — like a social injustice, a systemic flaw, or perhaps a government secret that needs to be fully exposed — and would proceed to listen to each other's concerns and ideas in a highly structured, meaningful, and constructive way with the ultimate goal of figuring out a common sense resolution to the issue. Brainstorming sessions would unfold, and logical and practical solutions to the real problems that confront human beings would be produced. The people's official proposals (which perhaps could be known as pops) would of course be voted on by the participating public and then be forwarded to Congress which all members would be obliged to take seriously and to act upon.

    This democratic structure, through polls and other political instruments would basically tabulate and graph the voice and will of the public so that any representative in government can simply log in and see how their constituents thinks about the issue and learn about any specific ideas or proposals that they may have in resolving a particular issue. If the majority of people are dissatisfied with the representative's response, then the people would have the ability to make that known and to be put on the democratic record of that Congress member.

    The overall political structure would not replace our political system but merely act as a political mechanism to help ensure that the government acts in the public's best interest. A rating system could be set up to easily inform an individual how responsive a particular member of Congress is to the individual citizens of their state or district, and this could undoubtedly be used to leverage more political pressure upon Congress. The rating system will also serve as a useful tool for solidifying the concept of the general public as the true and main constituents of government bodies.

    We don't need the government's permission to begin working on such a grand, social project; we just need to start doing it. It would be helpful if celebrities in the mainstream media or well-established intellectuals and scholars from the academic world would voice their support and become involved. Perhaps independent, public-interest organizations that specialize in producing public campaigns could create a presentation or an entire series to promote the establishment of an online democratic structure.

    Anyone who publicly supports or who is involved in such efforts should expect some sort of backlash from the power elite, especially from the corporate media, but if the public campaign is done in a very intelligent and strategic way, and if different prototypes are made for the public to try out and to get comfortable with, which would help to promote the overall concept of the project, then it is only logical that the powers that be will bend in time.

    A possible slogan for the activists of such a movement could be: Keep Calm, and Make the Logical Argument. When you hear voices from the media start downplaying and ridiculing the importance of critical and logical thinking, or accuse us of being reckless and irresponsible, that would be a good sign of the cracking of the existing power structure.

  2. The internet also is the reason we had the Covid vaccine so quickly, since researchers all over the world got together to accomplish this. Of course the pharmaceutical companies were able to grind out the product quickly, too.

  3. Technology didn't slow down the Nazi gatherings, even in NYC back at the beginning of the 20th century. We shouldn't let those swinish groups ruin it for the rest of us.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.