HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Director, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government


A healthy democracy requires a deliberative public sphere—an informal space for citizens to gain information and communicate with one another in order to detect problems, bring them to public view, suggest ways to address those problems, and debate whether they are important and worth addressing. In this paper, we take up concerns that digital technologies have destroyed the democratic qualities of the public sphere. This chapter aims to lay out standards for the healthy democratic public sphere. These standards consist first of a set of individual rights and opportunities to create equal, substantive communicative freedom; and second, of a set of norms and dispositions that must be widespread in order for the public sphere to function democratically. The chapter applies these standards to assess the democratic strengths and deficits to two information systems: the 20th century mass media public sphere and the 21st century digitized social media public sphere. Finally, the chapter offers some tentative suggestions about what can be done to make the 21st century digital public sphere supportive of successful democratic governance. We offer suggestions for government action, platform reform, and the responsibilities of individual citizens.


Cohen, Joshua, and Archon Fung. "Democracy and the Digital Public Sphere." Digital Technology and Democratic Theory. Ed. Lucy Bernholz, Héléne Landemore, and Rob Reich. University of Chicago Press, 2021, 23-61.