A lady asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what we got—a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic,” replied the Doctor, “if you can keep it.”
—from the diary of James McHenry, an aide to George Washington
I have been on a book tour for the last six weeks, promoting my new book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Last week I gave a talk in Oakland to a group of young musicians who were trying to eke out a living in the wake of the digital destruction wrought by platforms like YouTube. What disturbed me the most was when the discussion turned to politics. These were young men and women of the left and yet they all expressed a fear of stating their political opinions on social media. Their boldness in stating their deep opposition to Trump during the election led to doxing: Online right-wing vigilantes looking to harass them for their political opinions published their private identifying information on the Internet. As a result, they have retreated into their music, using social media for the sole purpose of promoting their bands.
And then I read the op-ed in The New York Times from a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, after one of her professors went on Fox to protest the “political correctness” on campus: “Online vigilantes from 4chan, Reddit, and other forums swarmed to unearth Evergreen students’ contact information. They have harassed us with hundreds of phone calls, anonymous texts and terrifyingly specific threats of violence that show they know where we live and work.”
When Benjamin Franklin expressed concern whether we could maintain our republic, he had just this problem in mind. The founders of our country hoped that a republic, in which citizens express their political preference through elected representatives—as opposed to direct democracy—would lessen the problem of “factions.” As Madison wrote in the seminal Federalist No. 10, “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.”
What I fear is that the violent discourse of social media is exacerbating the very dangers that Franklin and Madison thought would be moderated by the republic—a group of representatives devoted to the public good, and responsive to the interests of the public as a whole—as opposed to a small cohort of powerful individuals and groups. The fear of oligarchy rising in a large republic was ever present in their minds; several of the founders cited the cautionary words of the French philosopher Montesquieu: