Dr. Lance Strate
Public Communication in Digital Environments
Is The Internet A Public Sphere?
Some scholars, most notably German Philosopher Jurgen Habermas, believe that a true public sphere flourished in the 18th century salons and coffeehouses of Paris, London and Ireland. There, the bourgeois class of Europe gathered to read newspapers, discuss political affairs, and monitor their governments over cups of coffee. These coffee houses were public forums where private individuals, except women, could deliberate and be critical of their government without worrying that their government was monitoring or convicting them of treason.
Habermas and other communication scholars believe that public opinion emerged from the discussions and deliberations that took place in these salons and coffeehouses of the 18th century. From their study of that 18th century phenomenon, 20th century scholars devised theories of the emergence of public opinion, democratic discourse and democratic participation. Jurgen Habermas brought the theory of the public sphere to the modern day forefront of communication discussion and argued that these once ideal places for discourse ceased to exist because of corporations, marketers, and advertisers, who have dominated the public sphere in a manner so the average voice can no longer be heard. According to Habermas (1964, 54), "because of the diffusion of press and propaganda, the public body expanded beyond the bounds of the bourgeoisie. The public body lost not only its social exclusivity; it lost in addition the coherence created by bourgeois social institutions and a relatively high standard of education." Rather than the public shaping their own opinions, corporate owned media, public relations, and economic factors shape the public’s opinion by keeping the public out of discussion. Habermas further argues that "with the interweaving of the public and private realm, not only do the political authorities assume certain functions in the sphere of commodity exchange and social labor, but conversely social powers now assume political functions. This leads to a kind of 'refeudalization' of the public sphere." ( Habermas, 54). Therefore, according to Habermas, large organizations strive for political compromises with the state and with each other, excluding the public sphere whenever possible.
Habermas developed strict criteria for what he believed should constitute the modern day public sphere. Habermas argued that for the public sphere to be successful, one must be able to express his opinion freely and logically, one must have access to the public sphere, there must not be a hierarchy present, and those in the public sphere must have equal footing in there participation. Habermas further explained that "citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion-that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions-about matters of general interest." (Habermas, 49). Though there should not be any censorship in the public sphere, some rules of law should be enforced to ensure respect and tranquility among those participating in the public sphere.
Habermas' criteria for the public sphere have not been universally accepted because it was considered by many scholars to be an idealized theory. Now, many scholars argue that the internet is a true public sphere, though Habermas, who is still living, has not weighed in on this argument. The goal of this review then is to summarize the findings of twelve of the most recent scholarly works that have attempted to determine whether the internet meets Habermas’ criteria of a public sphere. The articles reviewed in here were published between 2004 and 2010 and are extracted from three conference papers and eight communication journals. The three conference papers are from the annual meeting of the International Communication Association in 2004 and 2009 and the National Communication Association in 2008. The eight journals include Information, Communication & Society. Journal of Media Research, International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, Political Communication, NORDICOM Review, Communication Review, Information Society, and two articles from Javnost-The Public. The articles that comprise this literature review attempt to analyze questions in regards to the debate over the contributions of new communication technology to democracy, how the impairments of network neutrality might effect the public sphere on the internet, whether the theory of the public sphere can be used for an analysis of Internet web sites or online discussion, whether digital media introduce a new representative order of online political communication, whether democratic and fair public forums actually exist online, whether the public has speech rights in this medium, and what power relations are involved in defining what counts as legitimate online deliberation. While a few articles are more certain that the internet makes political debate more open to voices that are normally not acknowledged in the political field, a majority of the articles involved in this literature research are critical, seeking answers to questions such as why the advent of the Internet has not revitalized the public sphere to begin with and how the media tools used to enhance communication across the globe affects the transmission and reception of content in ways senders did not intend.
The methods of research these ten articles share is their gathering of information based on prior research fused with current observations and quantitative research. Further, a majority of these articles suggest that further theoretical work and a variety of empirical studies are still required to answer the questions relating to the topic of whether the Internet is the modern day equivalent of a public sphere.
In a series of conference papers called The Internet As A Public Sphere addressed at the International Communication Association, Soe (2004) argued that the Internet has the potential to be a public sphere, but is not reaching that maximum potential. In her abstract Soe (2004, 1) mentions that, “This paper is an analysis of online discussion sections based on Jurgen Habermas’ theory of the public sphere. Using the key concepts of the theory of the public sphere, this paper examines discussion sections of three different web sites to see if they can be called as promising electronic public spheres, where constructive public discourses could occur. The selected discussion sections are: ‘Online Community’ at www.oprah.com, ‘The Opinion’ at www.theopinion.com, and ‘Waking Life Forums’ at www.wakinglifemovie.com. In the analysis, the advantages and disadvantages of a virtual space in forming a public discourse are discussed. The needs of a mediator or a filtering system are further discussed at the end of the paper.”
Soe is concerned about whether applying the theory of the public sphere to Internet web sites and online discussions fosters positive results for the Internet acting as a public sphere. Soe pays tribute to other scholars, who acknowledge the Internet as a promising electronic sphere, by claiming that the Internet significantly lowers entry barriers and other cost factors. This allows lower class income families equal access and space for participation in the electronic public sphere. In addition, the Internet is where a range of interests can be represented and updated. However, Soe also addresses the more cynical scholars, who view the Internet and the emergence of online communities as a worrisome phenomenon. Social divides and group polarization is common on the Internet and social divides are created by the web's ability to personalize content. Soe argues that the web is a place that is quite vulnerable to social fragmentation because the more easily people receive information, the more they are interested only in what they are already interested in. This means on the web people can easily find like-minded people by visiting a site with one point of view and are mostly hearing more and louder echoes of their own voice. There also exist a growing number of hate groups and extremist organizations that own web sites, who provide links to one another in an attempt to foster recruitment and discussion. Therefore, Soe concludes group polarization is more likely and more extreme on the web than anywhere else and this is damaging to a democracy because mutual understanding becomes more difficult when people do not listen to others who have different or opposing views.
Like Soe, Rasmussen (2008) agrees the Internet poses some serious challenges due to increasing fragmentation and complexity. In “The Internet and Differentiation in the Political Public Sphere,” Rasmussen argues that when one examines the basic normative assumptions of the idea of a public sphere, it becomes clear that the Internet and personal media bring about changes in conjunction with other transformations in society, which pose new problems to democracy. While digital media brings increasing participation, inequalities, fresh viewpoints, and new solutions, it is harder to see how they enable consolidation and oversight. Therefore, Rasmussen suggests, the Internet contributes much more to diversity than to convergence within the public sphere. Similar to Soe, Kperogi (2008) acknowledges the potential of the Internet as having the requirements to deserve being conferred with the status of the public sphere in a digital form, but rejects the Internet as a vulgar, anarchic medium that is incapable of functioning as a site for rational-critical debate. In a series of conference papers called “The Electronic Village Square as a Transnational Public Sphere: Analysis of the Deliberative Practices of Diasporan Nigerians on the Internet,” Kperogi claims that the gains of Internet discussion groups in terms of opening up new vistas for advancing the concept of the public sphere are vitiated by the growing commercialization and commoditization of cyberspace by state and corporate concerns and a deficit of mutual tolerance. Kperogi seems to be saying that the same forces that caused the public sphere’s demise—state propaganda and corporate advertising—are already undermining the Internet’s potential to become a public sphere. In addition, Kperogi suggests the growing interventions of governments in the regulation of the Internet and the prevalence of filtering software are serious limitations to the Internet and detracting from the discursive openness that the Internet is supposed to provide. Kperogi postulates further that while the Internet meshes with existing and pre-existing social functions and extends them in many fresh fashions, the Internet does not fit easily in comparison to characteristically modern organizations and cultural institutions. Therefore, Kperogi concludes that while the Internet does have democratizing potential, it often fails as a public sphere in practice.
In agreement with Kperogi, Stein (2008) builds upon Kperogi's notion of the government intervening in cyberspace and destroying the criteria for the public sphere. In her article “Speech Without Rights: The Status of Public Space on the Internet,” Stein states that according to communication-centered democratic theorists, the media should serve a vital public function in democratic societies, which necessitate that the public have some affirmative speech rights in these spaces. These spaces should be accessible, available, and free from government and private control. However, under the first amendment public forum doctrine in the US, “Private owners and public, government managers of property have speech rights over the spaces and resources they own or oversee, as well as the right to exclude everyone else from this property (Stein, 1-2).” Generally, this means that the free expression rights of Internet users take a back seat to the rights of corporations and government entities’ authority to censor the websites they own. The courts have applied the public forum doctrine to define the Internet as a medium subject to proprietary control or government or private owners. When proprietary and third party, or users’ interests come into conflict, the courts have consistently favored the rights of the proprietors. The speech rights of public and private service providers, infrastructures, website managers, and search engines have thus far prevailed over those of the broader public. Public and private service providers can restrict email traffic and access to websites, search engines can exclude content providers from their search results, public web site managers can refuse to allow hyperlinks on their sites, and publicity authorized domain name registrars can decide what names to award or withhold content providers. Rather than protect public space online, Stein argues, the courts have used public forum law to preclude the existence of open forum spaces. Consequently, while the Internet may offer many speech opportunities, these are privileges rather than rights and media owners may rescind them. Stein concludes pessimistically, by suggesting as conditions online change due to pressure from both government and private interests, the broader public may find itself with few accessible and available spaces in which to speak online. Similar to Kperogi, Stein's argument is clearly another extension of Habermas’ original theory, which states that a true public sphere can never exist.
Koh (2009) would most likely agree with Kperogi and Stein in his examination of how network neutrality hinders the public from participating in the public sphere. In a series of conference papers called “Public Sphere and Network Neutrality,” Koh focuses on how the impairments of network neutrality might effect the public sphere on the Internet. He assumes that public spheres already exist on the Internet and he summarizes the public sphere as a buffer zone located between a private sector and a public sector offering a discussion area all interested groups can take part in. Ideally, according to Koh, the public sphere is the place that citizens can freely access, equally participate in, and recognize rules of procedure in a fully open way. The Internet, more than any other mass medium, has been in the spotlight in forming the perfect public sphere because of its interactivity, the relatively low cost, and its decentralized nature. However, Koh acknowledges that the Internet now faces threats that could impair these merits as a public sphere. Commercialization and concentration by huge conglomerates, especially network providers such as Comcast and AT&T, threaten the freedom and civil movements of users' rights to speech and they use three discriminatory practices: blocking, access- tiering, and quality degradation.
What actions need to be pursued to combat corporations and ensure freedom of speech on the internet? Network neutrality and the public sphere are positively related with each other in that they favor free and open Internet. According to Koh, if Comcast continues to have monopoly power in a network industry without regulation, it could conduct any action to control the public sphere and play a gatekeeper role in the future. Therefore, network neutrality rules can be a precondition of a well-functioned public sphere on the net. Proposed bills concerning network neutrality are commonly used to maintain the freedom of telecommunications networks, including the Internet. However, Koh acknowledges that the problem is how exactly to solve and regulate network neutrality related issues. Therefore, Koh concludes that the Internet rules are what we make with our efforts. Due to the development of new technologies, network owners are in a position to change the architecture of the Internet in their favor. Like Comcast subscribers, it is necessary for Internet users to pay attention to the Internet so as to keep it free and open. In doing so, the Internet should give citizens a better communication place than any other traditional media.
In his article, “The Emergence of a European Public Sphere,” Bârgăoanu (2010) acknowledges Soe's claim that everyone has the potential to use the Internet for online debate, but Bârgăoanu shows through quantitative research that not everyone actually has access or uses the Internet in the broader picture of the global community. Internet access across the European Union member states is unequally distributed and overall data collected by Bârgăoanu shows that one in two Europeans uses the Internet daily. If Bârgăoanu's assumption that a significant number of the people interviewed have not used the Internet for public debate over European affairs is correct, then one can infer that the percentage of people using the Internet for expressing their opinion with respect to European issues and for deliberation over such topics would be lower than the percentage of people using the Internet. The gap between the distributions of public participation in different European Union's member states is wider than most people probably could fathom and in countries where Internet access is at its lowest, genuine public debate over European topics simply does not exist in the world of cyberspace. As suitable to communication in the global era of instant transmission of information as it may be, the success of web sites and discussion forums in facilitating public debate over European issues depends largely on the reception of the content available by the readers. Therefore, Bargaoanu concludes given the significant differences in the rates of Internet access across European Union's member states, the uniformity of a pool of citizens involved in public deliberation simply cannot exist.
According to Albrecht (2006), who the participants are determines to a certain degree what is communicated, and this, in turn, may influence who participates. In his article, “Whose voice is heard in online deliberation? A Study of Participation and Representation in Political Debates on the Internet,” Albrecht argues there are factors that influence who participates in an online debate and what is communicated. These factors include economic and cultural resources, their political interest or lack thereof, and their social environment. Albrecht agrees with Bârgăoanu in that economic and cultural resources are also determinants of access to the Internet and those countries in Bârgăoanu's study who lack access to the Internet most likely are also low on the list in terms of economic resources. Perhaps another reason for why the public is not participating in the online public sphere is due to the political disinterest of society and the limitations of the capacities of people to understand and absorb information.
In Muhlberger's (2005) article, “Human Agency and the Revitalization of the Public Sphere,” he reasons that the online public sphere can be vitalized if the Internet as a medium offered more political cues. The logic behind his reasoning is that self-motivated people will attend to and act on political matters in the absence of political cues, others will attend when they encounter cues, and others will never attend. Therefore, since attention serves to determine which matters will receive thorough processing, then more people would participate in the online public sphere if more political cues were available to direct their attention to current affairs. For example, if publics were more aware of which congressional representatives were against a certain proposal, then these publics could debate online as to how that particular issue matters in their own set of political beliefs and what values are at stake in their votes. Ultimately, however, self-development and cognitive development explain why some people require political cues to participate and others are self-motivated and the ideal members of the online public sphere, according to Muhlberger, are systematic reasoners with integrated highly self-motivated selves who can act in the absence of political cues.
Perhaps scholars who are pessimistic about the Internet’s potential for serving as a public sphere need to rethink their stance of how they look at the communicative breakthroughs of the Internet and the classic model of the public sphere theory. Rather than negate the Internet as a public sphere entirely, scholars should understand that the Internet is reinventing a public sphere different from the one Habermas envisioned. At least that is the argument of another set of scholars.
Feenberg (2009) realizes that the debate over the contribution of new communication technology to democracy is far from settled. However, he argues that the most important contribution of new technology to democracy is not necessarily its effects on the conventional political process, but rather, its ability to assemble a public around technical networks that enroll individuals scattered over wide geographical areas. In his article titled “Critical Theory of Communication Technology: Introduction to the Special Section," Feenberg points out that politics is traditionally tied to geographically locality on the presumption that those who live close together share common interests and are able to meet to discuss them. Of course, there are likely to be disagreements, but as long as communication is possible, conflicts can be resolved by legitimate means, such as voting. Yet, in a more advanced phase of technological development, such as the Internet, this rather narrow definition of politics he just described is less plausible. Technologically advanced societies enroll their members in a wide variety of technical networks and these networks overlay the geographical communities and compete with them in significance in the lives of citizens.
Feenberg describes how technical communities now use the Internet to coordinate their demands for a fuller representation of their participant interests. Further, the ease of communication on the Internet by those who can afford it has made it possible for these new communities to organize. The new forms of online politics can not replace traditional geographically based representation, but activity in the public sphere can now extend to embrace technical issues formerly considered neutral and given over to experts to decide without consultation. Therefore, Feenberg concludes, as a result of the Internet, politics is no longer the exclusive affair of traditionally constituted political groups debating the traditional issues. The range of issues and groups is constantly widening in the most unpredictable ways.
As Trenz (2009) optimistically points out in his article, “Digital Media and the Return of the Representative Public Sphere,” new media are analyzed according to their potential to stimulate, engage, and integrate or alternatively to distract, disintegrate, and fragment audiences. The digital media are no exception in this regard because the digital media’s modern day self-description aims at a redefinition of the political space in which the public sphere unfolds, but not at a redefinition of its normative contents. Trenz suggests that the democratic credentials of the Internet measured against the old template of the public sphere should be analyzed not so much in terms of enhanced participation, but rather as a change in the representative mode of communication. Further, the Internet is unfolding as a representative space through which global diversity gains public visibility. Whereas in the traditional national public sphere, distinguished representative acts were performed in front of a larger audience, the Internet allows every single user to make a public performance. By publishing on the Internet, communicators create an aura of personal representation that does not primarily search argumentative force and consent, but seeks to proclaim truth and authority. Therefore, Trenz concludes the demonstrative publicity of the Internet should be understood as the rediscovery of the representative elements of the public sphere and through this new lens scholars can see that the Internet is not in conflict with the critical publicity of the bourgeois public sphere, but rather, continues its normative self-description.
As the Internet continues to transform Habermas' original criteria for determining what constitutes the public sphere, more and more scholars are starting to rethink new criteria for this transformation. In agreement with Trenz, Dahlberg (2007) argues that rather than discard the public sphere, the conception can be extended and radicalized through the introduction of another public sphere understanding that is being deployed in Internet-democracy commentary and research. In “The Internet, Deliberative Democracy, and Power: Radicalizing the Public Sphere,” Dahlberg pays close attention to how the "marginalized group" uses the Internet as a means for the formation of counter-publics and the articulation of identities and oppositional discourses. The concept of a counter-public enables the articulation of rational-critical deliberation. Therefore, Dahlberg theorizes the public sphere is no longer understood as a singular deliberative space, but a complex field of multiple contesting publics, including both dominant and counter-publics of various forms. Dahlberg's positive stance is radically different from the viewpoints of Soe and Rasmussen, who view opposing ideas online and in discussion forms as dangerous and corruptive to the public sphere and humanity in general.
Like Trenz and Dahlberg, Gripsrud (2009) present a positive and alternative lens for scholars when looking at the Internet as a public sphere. In his article, “Digitizing The Public Sphere: Two Key Issues,” Gripsrud argues because the online public sphere adds new dimensions and new forms of discourse, further theoretical work is required in order to better understand how these forms of discourse contribute towards the overall quality of health of democracy. Gripsrud does not believe these new dimensions are in any way damaging to the Internet as a public sphere. In fact, Gripsrud praises the Internet as an amazing vehicle for communicating and organizing across great distances and on a global scale. In addition, the Internet offers previously inconceivable opportunities for making available to a public any kind of cultural product or political utterance a person chooses to put forth. It therefore seems, Gripsrud suggests, that the Internet adds historically new and highly valuable forms of “publicness” to the traditional public sphere and the ability to now communicate visually along with written communication creates this new realm of “publicness.”
The old concept of the public sphere, as highlighted in the beginning of this literature review, exists, but does not appear to still work. While some scholars agree there can never truly be one online public sphere, according to Habermas' criteria, more and more scholars are beginning to redefine a new criteria for what constitutes the formation of a new public sphere. Even within the online public sphere, however, many scholars still debate whether mutual agreement among discourse in the public sphere leads to peaceful democratic deliberation or simply a repetition of the same voices. Though freedom of speech should be a guaranteed right online, some scholars fear there are those who abuse this right and courts, owners, and corporations do enforce laws when they feel discourse is threatening to their goals. Also, there are those who choose not to or simply cannot afford to participate in the public sphere due to disinterest or economic restraints. How can an online public sphere exist with this many obstacles?
Soe offers suggestions as to what the criteria should be in order for a web site to be considered an online public sphere. She suggests that web sites should consist of more openness and democratic debate with the notion of respect in mind, people should be willing to change their minds if necessary, there should be a willingness to modify or justify societal norms, and a trained moderator should be present to monitor the discussions. Discerning whether the Internet is the modern day public sphere only leads to more questions and many of the scholars presented in this literature review agree that more research and further probing may never be enough for a definitive answer. Dahlberg points out that we need to foster and expand the formation of new kinds of public spheres. We need to focus on not only fostering deliberation, but also upon the development of counter-publics of excluded discourse and the contestation of the discursive boundaries of the mainstream public sphere online. Muhlberger suggests that much research remains to be done to learn which cues trigger politically relevant selves and which selves matter for intensive political engagement in the public sphere. Feenberg believes that debate and further research in the belief that new approaches to politics are required by the technological changes reshaping our experience of ourselves and the world around us. Finally, Gripsrud suggests further theoretical work and a variety of empirical studies are required to better understand how democracy is affected by the introduction and functioning of the Internet.
Albrecht, S. (2006). Whose voice is heard in online deliberation? A study of participation and representation in political debates on the Internet. Information, Communication & Society, 9(1), 62-82.
Bârgăoanu, A., Negrea, E., & Dascălu, R. (2010). The Emergence of a European Public Sphere. An analysis of Europe's News Website presseurop.eu. Journal Of Media Research, (6), 3-17. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Dahlberg, L. The Internet, deliberative democracy, and power: Radicalizing the public sphere. International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, 3(1), 47- 64. (2007).
Feenberg, A. (2009). Critical Theory of Communication Technology: Introduction to the Special Section. Information Society, 25(2), 77-83. doi:10.1080/01972240802701536.
Gripsrud, J. (2009). Digitising The Public Sphere: Two Key Issues.. Javnost-The Public, 16(1), 5-16. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Habermas, J., Lennox, F., Lennox S. (1964). The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article. New German Critique, No. 3. (Autumn, 1974), pp. 49-55.
Koh, T. (2009). Public Sphere and Network Neutrality. Conference Papers -- International Communication Association, 1-25. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Kperogi, F. (2008). The Electronic Village Square as a Transnational Public Sphere: Analysis of the Deliberative Practices of Diasporan Nigerians on the Internet Conference Papers -- National Communication Association, 1. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Muhlberger, P. (2005). Human Agency and the Revitalization of the Public Sphere. Political Communication, 22(2), 163-178.doi:10.1080/10584600590933160.
Rasmussen, T. (2008). The Internet and Differentiation in the Political Public Sphere. NORDICOM Review, 29(2), 73-83. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Soe, Y. , 2004-05-27 "The Internet as a Public Sphere" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, New Orleans Sheraton, New Orleans, LA Online <.PDF>. 2009-05-26 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p113016_index.html
Stein, L. (2008). Speech Without Rights: The Status of Public Space on the Internet, Communication Review, 11(1), 1-23 (2008).
Trenz, H. (2009). Digital Media And The Return Of The Representative Public Sphere. Javnost-The Public, 16(1), 33-46. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.