Skip to main content

The Architecture of Political Spaces: Trolls, Digital Media, and Deweyan Democracy


The problem of trolls exemplifies the challenges of building democratic communities in the digital environment of social media. Distinguishing trolls from activists can be difficult; democratic theorists have yet to adequately address how to prevent the former while remaining open to the latter. In this article, I outline a theory of democratic politics that takes space as a central element in shaping democratic interactions. Using the work of John Dewey, I draw out two key characteristics of democratic space: boundedness and flexibility. Using these criteria, I then evaluate Kinja, Gawker Media's commenting platform, both before and after trolls attacked the site in 2014. I find that in altering its boundaries to successfully protect against trolls, Kinja introduced a new problem: a lack of flexibility that continues to affect the possibility for democratic discourse on the platform. I conclude by suggesting how this theory of democratic space might shape future research.

Corresponding author
Jennifer Forestal is Assistant Professor, Stockton University, 101 Vera King Farris Drive, Galloway, NJ, 08205–9441 (
Hide All
I am grateful to James Farr, Ellen Mutari, Menaka Philips, Chris Sardo, Joel Schlosser, and participants at the Northwestern Political Theory Workshop for their insightful feedback on earlier versions of this article. The article is also much improved thanks to comments from the three anonymous APSR reviewers and the APSR editors.
Hide All
“About Reddit.” 2014.
Ackerman Bruce, and Fishkin James. 2003. Deliberation Day. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Adams Tim. 2011. “How the Internet Created an Age of Rage.” The Guardian.
Andersson Krister P. 2004. “Who Talks with Whom? The Role of Repeated Interactions in Decentralized Forest Governance.” World Development 32 (2): 233–49.
Asen Robert. 2003. “The Multiple Mr. Dewey: Multiple Publics and Permeable Borders in John Dewey's Theory of the Public Sphere.” Argumentation and Advocacy 39 (3): 174–88.
Asen Robert, and Brouwer Daniel C.. 2003. “Introduction: John Dewey and the Public Sphere.” Argumentation and Advocacy 39 (3): 157–60.
Barber Benjamin. 1984. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
BauHaus Lil. 2013. “Welcome to What's Next.” Jalopnik.
Benton Joshua. 2015. “Gawker Media's Independent Kinja Posts Apparently Aren't Generating a Ton of Traffic.” NiemanLab.
Bertolini Lauren. 2014. “(Re)Introducing Pending Replies.” Product.
Bimber Bruce. 2014. “Digital Media in the Obama Campaigns of 2008 and 2012: Adaptation to the Personalized Political Communication Environment.” Journal of Information Technology and Politics 11 (2): 130–50.
Bode Leticia. 2012. “Facebooking It to the Polls: A Study in Online Social Networking and Political Behavior.” Journal of Information Technology and Politics 9 (4): 352–69.
Bond Robert M., Fariss Christopher J., Jones Jason J., Kramer Adam D. I., Marlow Cameron, Settle Jaime E., and Fowler James H.. 2012. “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization.” Nature 489: 295–98.
Boyd Danah. 2012. “The Politics of ‘Real Names.’Communications of the ACM 55 (8): 2931.
Carlisle Juliet E., and Patton Robert C.. 2013. “Is Social Media Changing How We Understand Political Engagement? An Analysis of Facebook and the 2008 Presidential Election.” Political Research Quarterly 66 (4): 883–95.
Cohen Cathy J., Kahne Joseph, Bowyer Benjamin, Middaugh Ellen, and Rogowski Jon. 2012. Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Oakland, CA.
Crick Nathan. 2009. “The Search for a Purveyor of News: The Dewey/Lippmann Debate in an Internet Age.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 26 (5): 480–97.
Daulerio A. J. 2012a. “Greetings, Today's the Day All Starred Commenters Will Die.” Gawker.
Daulerio A. J. 2012b. “Hello, and Welcome to Gawker's New Commenting System.” Gawker.
Davis Noah. 2012. “Can Gawker's New Commenting System Improve Quality Without Creating Chaos?Fast Company.
Denton Nick. 2014. “Introducing Group Chats in Kinja.” Kinja: Product.
Dewey John. 1916. “Democracy and Education.” In John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 9: 1916, ed. Boydston Jo Ann. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dewey John. 1939. Freedom and Culture. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Dewey John. 1946. The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry. Chicago: Gateway Books.
Dewey John. 2008a. “Education and New Social Ideals.” In The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 11: 1935-1937, ed. Boydston Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 167–70.
Dewey John. 2008b. “Education, the Foundation for Social Organization.” In The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 11: 1935-1937, ed. Boydston Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 226–37.
Dewey John. 2008c. “Ethics.” In The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 5: 1908, ed. Boydston Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dewey John. 2008d. “The School and Society.” In The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 1: 1899-1901, ed. Boydston Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1112.
Dewey John. 2008e. “The School as Social Centre.” In The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 2: 1899-1924, ed. Boydston Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 8094.
Doig Will. 2008. “Homophobosphere.” The Advocate.
Donath Judith S. 2014. “We Need Online Alter Egos Now More Than Ever.” Wired.
Ellickson Robert. 1994. Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gutmann Amy, and Thompson Dennis. 1996. Democracy and Disagreement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gutmann Amy, and Thompson Dennis. 2012. The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campagining Undermines It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hénaff Marcel, and Strong Tracy B., eds. 2001. Public Space and Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Holmes Anna. 2009a. “15 Questions–And Answers–About the New Comments.” Jezebel.
Holmes Anna. 2009b. “Fasten Your Seatbelts. . . It's Gonna Be a Bumpy Sight.” Jezebel.
Jackson Nicholas. 2014. “Just Kill All of the Comments Already.” Pacific Standard.
“Jezebel.” Gawker Media.
Karpf David. 2012. The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kaste Martin. 2011. “Who Are You, Really? Activists Fight For Pseudonyms.” All Things Considered.
Kosnoski Jason. 2005. “Artful Discussion: John Dewey's Classroom as a Model of Deliberative Association.” Political Theory 33 (5): 654–77.
LaBarre Suzanne. 2013. “Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments.” Popular Science.
Lamont Tom. 2014. “Reddit: How to Win the Internet.” The Guardian.
Latané Bibb, Liu James H., Nowak Andrzej, Bonevento Michael, and Zheng Long. 1995. “Distance Matters: Physical Space and Social Impact.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21 (8): 795805.
Mansbridge Jane. 1999. “Everyday Talk in the Deliberative System.” In Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, ed. Macedo Stephen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 211–39.
Messing Solomon, and Westwood Sean J.. 2014. “Selective Exposure in the Age of Social Media: Endorsements Trump Partisan Source Affiliation When Selecting News Online.” Communication research 41 (8): 1042–63.
Mitchell Amy, Gottfried Jeffrey, and Matsa Katerina Eva. 2015. Millennials and Political News. Washington, DC.
Munroe Randall. 2009. “Reddit's New Comment Sorting System.” reddit blog.
Mutz Diana C., and Young Lori. 2011. “Communication and Public Opinion: Plus ca Change?Public Opinion Quarterly 75 (5): 1018–44.
Newitz Annalee. 2013. “Check Out io9’s New Design!io9.
Ostrom Elinor, and Ahn T.K., eds. 2003. Foundations of Social Capital. Northampton, MA. (July 14, 2015).
Parkinson John. 2012. Democracy and Public Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pettigrew Thomas F. 1998. “Intergroup Contact Theory.” Annual Review of Psychology 49: 6585.
Phelps Andrew. 2012. “Gawker: We Want to Elevate the Discourse about Frogs Who Sit like Humans.” NiemanLab.
Putnam R. D. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Read Max. 2014. “Why Are All My Comments Grey? What Can I Do About It?Gawker.
Rose Rebecca. 2014. “About Time: Twitter to Fix Policies After Trolls Attack Zelda Williams.” Jezebel.
Sanders Lynn M. 1997. “Against Deliberation.” Political Theory 25 (3): 347–76.
Schwartz Mattathias. 2008. “The Trolls Among Us.” The New York Times.
Silverman Matt. 2013. “Reddit: A Beginner's Guide.” Mashable.
Snyder Gabriel. 2009. “Gawker Comments Are Made of Stars.” Gawker.
Staff Jezebel. 2014. “We Have a Rape Gif Problem and Gawker Media Won't Do Anything About It.” Jezebel.
Sterne Peter. 2012. “Gawker's New Comment System: Will It Help or Hurt the Site's Young Writers?Coumbia Journalism Review.
Stoeffel Kat. 2012. “Deadliest Klatsch: Nick Denton Gives Gawker's Drive-By Peanut Gallery a Promotion.” New York Observer.
Tufekci Zeynep, and Wilson Christopher. 2012. “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations from Tahrir Square.” Journal of Communication 62 (2): 363–79.
Ulbert Cornelia, and Risse Thomas. 2005. “Deliberately Changing the Discourse: What Does Make Arguing Effective?Acta Politica 40 (3): 351–67.
Warren Mark E., and Mansbridge Jane. 2013. “Deliberative Negotiation.” In Negotiating Agreement in Politics, eds. Mansbridge Jane and Martin Cathie Jo. Washington, DC: American Political Science Association, 86120.
“What Names Are Allowed on Facebook?” Facebook Help Center.
Young Iris Marion. 2000. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Young Iris Marion. 2001. “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy.” Political Theory 29 (5): 670–90.
Zajonc R. B. 2001. “Mere Exposure: A Gateway to the Subliminal.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 10 (6): 224–9.
Zhang Weiwu, Johnson Thomas J., Seltzer Trent, and Bichard Shannon L.. 2010. “The Revolution Will Be Networked: The Influence of Social Networking Sites on Political Attitudes and Behavior.” Social Science Computer Review 28 (1): 7592.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 64
Total number of PDF views: 489 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1351 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 24th February 2017 - 20th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.