By Tran, Sarah | William and Mary Law Review, November 2013 | Go to article overview


Tran, Sarah, William and Mary Law Review


In 1787 at the dawn of our nation, the Founding Fathers were embroiled in a raging debate over the role citizens and special interest groups should play in our political system. The Founding Fathers viewed influence from interest groups as a threat to government decision making, but they differed in their responses to this perceived problem. Proponents of republicanism, one of the dominant conceptions of politics at that time, adopted an optimistic approach. They anticipated that government leaders and citizens, guided by their education and civic virtue, would not allow factional tyranny to flourish. This republican optimism continues to markedly influence ongoing debates about the ability of rent-seeking actors to influence or "capture" government policymakers today.

This Article examines how the revolution in social media communications reshapes the centuries-old debate about capture. I argue that social media communications hold the potential to create two fundamental, but previously overlooked, benefits for our government system. Social media sites can create breeding grounds for so-called republican moments--periods in which an agitated public overcomes the power of special interest groups--to arise. This is true even though research suggests that social media communications tend to be shallow and unreliable.

The social media age also holds the potential to upgrade the relationships between citizens, government actors, and special interest groups during periods of politics-as-usual, the periods between republican moments. The threat of a viral uprising can motivate government actors and special interest groups to listen more closely to public concerns. It can further entice them to spend more resources on educating the public about issues of national, regional, and local concern. Such dialogue and education promotes the development of the republicans' utopian citizenry--citizens instilled with education and civic virtue. These two phenomena have profound implications for a variety of issues in public policy and government affairs.



   A. Constitutional Roots
   B. Contemporary Capture Theory
   A. Facilitating Republican Moments
      1. Deliberation
      2. Universalism
      3. Political Equality
      4. Citizenship
   B. The New Politics-As-Usual
   C. Implications of Cyber-Republicanism
   A. Shallow, Misinformed Deliberation?
      1. Rational Ignorance
      2. Citizenship, Diversity, and Signals
   B. Internet Echo Chambers?

"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." (1)


A blogger, concerned about the quality of her children's school lunches, helped successfully pressure Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) into letting schools choose for the first time whether children must consume "pink slime" (2) in their school lunches. (3) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (4) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) (5) tightened their oversight of the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry (6) after YouTube videos of homeowners lighting their tap water on fire gained widespread publicity, (7) The Susan B. Komen Foundation abandoned its plan to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and saw five of its high-ranking executives resign while protests about the Foundation's plan went viral on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. (8)

Each of these incidents reflects an ever increasing trend: the use of social media (9) as tools for ordinary citizens to influence policymakers. (10) These incidents defy the basic principles of public choice theory. (11) According to public choice theory, three obstacles prevent individuals from working together to achieve a public good: (1) the costs of organizing to achieve social benefits are high, (2) if a public good is attained, each individual will enjoy only a relatively small portion of the resulting benefits, and (3) each individual has an incentive to try to free ride off the sacrifices of others. …

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