Author: Fırat Büyükcoşkun, YOUTHART Media Team, Contents Unit Coordinator, Media Trainer
Internet: Promises of a Better Democracy
Following the discovery of world wide web, in late 90’s it started to enter our everyday lives. With the possibility of broadband internet and mobile tools (laptops, tablets, smartphones), it is now occupying our every moment in our daily routine. Certain tools and applications made it possible to say ‘the Internet is becoming the new mainstream’. This new tool opened up a way for everyone to join this virtual world. The debates about internet’s freedom has created a dilemma in the academy. The similarities of internet with the Habermasian public sphere created a belief that identifies internet as the new ‘public sphere’, and with the examples like ‘Arab Spring’, ‘Snowden Case’ internet seemed to promise a new opportunity for a better democracy. On the contrary, as Herman and Chomsky demonstrated long before the internet, neo-liberal economy started to parcel this new sphere. As neo-liberal economy requires private ownership and profit, concerns about privacy on the internet started to emerge. Is the internet a new form of public sphere? Does it promises people a better democracy? Does it pave the way for the inclusion of everyone?
Internet and the Public Sphere
In “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, Habermas (1989) conceptualizes the idea of public sphere what has been a point of reference and a subject to discussions among scholars. He bases his argument on words as such public and public opinion. According to Habermas “we call events and occasions “public” when they are open to all, in contrast to closed or exclusive affairs” (Habermas, 1989), that is where public opinion is formed. One of the key features of Habermasian public is that it’s open for everyone’s access. Simply ‘public’ is the opposite of what is ‘private’ or in other words, ‘public’ is what is not ‘private’. The participatory feature of public sphere carries the concept of citizenship and the idea of democracy in it. In Habermasian understanding ‘public sphere’ took its form especially in Enlightment Age in Europe. 18th Century created a basis for bourgeois to form a venue that is a deliberative sphere independent of the state, democratic and accessible by everyone. Public sphere is strongly related to development of ‘publicity of news’. Publicity of news brought communication among the public and the public sphere is formed around this communicative action. Therefore citizens communicate within this public sphere and everyone ought to be free to express his/her opinions, political views, and ideas without any hesitation. Furthermore, public sphere is an equal ground and built upon egalitarian values. There is no class distinction among participating citizens regardless of their professions, status, titles. In Habermasian words, every citizens can access this sphere who are ‘dealing with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion’ (Habermas & Seidman 1989).
Public sphere acts as a common denominator for participant citizens to get informed, inform, communicate with other parts of society, form up a public opinion, negotiate over this public opinion, and even contest this public opinion. According to Habermas (1989) public sphere is constantly reinforced and reproduced through communicative action. It is a way of performing participatory democracy for citizens. Moreover as Kellner (2000) puts it concept of the public sphere which facilitates maximum public participation and debate over the key issues of the current conjuncture and which consequently promotes the cause of participatory democracy. In addition to what Kellner states, Habermas (1989) elucidates that the public sphere stands somewhere between state controlled space and private space. This common ground acts as an intermediary to form a communication between the state and the private. If i put all these mentioned features of public sphere, it is possible to express five prominent factors of public sphere which are: accessability for all citizens, freedom of speech (regardless of whatever it is), communicative action within the sphere, forming a public opinion over negotiations, discussions, and contestations, and being a domain of social life. In this way, people gather around a topic through communicative action, create discussions over this topic which can be their self-interests, economy, politics, and social issues. Public sphere should be independent from state institutions, state interventions, and economic matters to function properly. The crucial difference between public sphere and other grounds is ‘not membership but purpose’ (Graham 2012). In Fuchs words as he quotes Habermas, the public sphere is “a sphere free from state censorship and from private ownership. It is free from particularistic controls” (Fuchs 2014:60). Therefore, public sphere should not be owned by any private institution which leads to the participation of anyone and through communicative action a critical approach and a debate can occur. On the contrary, Habermasian public sphere has been a subject to criticism. Nancy Fraser argued on the accessibility of the Habermasian public sphere and stated that “as anything but accessible to everyone” (Fraser 1990:60), and criticized the public sphere from a gender based point of view as such:
…The power base of a stratum of bourgeois men, who were coming to see themselves as a “universal class” and preparing to assert their fitness to govern. Thus, the elaboration of a distinctive culture of civil society and of an associated public sphere was implicated in the process of bourgeois class formation; its practices and ethos were markers of “distinction” in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense,6 ways of defining an emergent elite, setting it off from the older aristocratic elites it was intent on displacing, on the one hand, and from the various popular and plebeian strata it aspired to rule, on the other. This process of distinction, moreover, helps explain the exacerbation of sexism characteristic of the liberal public sphere; new gender norms enjoining feminine domesticity and a sharp separation of public and private spheres functioned as key signifiers of bourgeois difference from both higher and lower social strata. It is a measure of the eventual success of this bourgeois project that these norms later became hegemonic, sometimes imposed on, sometimes embraced by, broader segments of society (Fraser 1990:60).
Furthermore, she addresses the Habermasian public sphere as a liberal public sphere and stresses that the Habermas did not take other ‘non liberal’, non bourgious spheres into account. According to Fraser, Habermas fails to examine other possible versions of public spheres. Referring to Calhaloun in his paper Jodi Dean indicated that the public sphere “never existed, it excluded women, it was built on the backs of the working class” (Dean 2003:96).
Despite its’ criticisms, Habermasian public sphere outlines a frame of how a participatory democracy supposed to function. Public sphere is a prominent component of participatory democracy and it is useful to examine internet and social media through the features of public sphere. According to Fuchs communication is a social action, which needs a medium (2014). Going back to previous paragraphs, communication – communicative action- is a center around where public sphere forms itself. Following this argument, it would not be wrong to claim that in every medium there is a communication, and through every communication there is a possibility a public sphere might be formed. As humanities new medium, Internet brought lots of discussions whether it is a public sphere or not among researchers. It has been a subject to debates formed around deliberative democracy. Dahlberg, summarizing the arguments of many scholars writes:
Many Internet-democracy commentators, researchers and practitioners (and even a number of policy makers), draw upon and advocate a deliberative public sphere as the ideal for citizen participation in politics, where rational debate or argumentation between citizens over common problems leads to critically informed public opinion that can guide and scrutinize official decision making processes (see, Benson 1996; Bohman 2004; Clift2003; Davis 1999; Fang 1995; Fung and Kedl 2000; Gimmler 2001;Noveck 2000; Schneider 1997; Sunstein 2001; Tanner 2001; Wilhelm 2000). In relation to the Internet, these deliberative public sphere advo-cates are interested in the extent and quality of argumentation being facilitated online, particularly given claims that the Internet’s two-way,relatively low cost, semi-decentralized and global communications, combined with evolving interactive software and moderation techniques, offer the ideal basis (particularly when compared to the mass media) for rational deliberation (Dahlberg 2007:48-49).
The main reason behind the deliberative public sphere advocates (in Dahlberg’s terminology) is the interactive and participatory feature of internet. After its’ introducement to public usage in 90’s, internet quickly found its’ way among ordinary people’s homes. Enormous amounts of information has been put on to internet since its’ emergence. Supposedly, this information stack is ‘open to all’, everyone can access this information without any restriction. Moreover people are able to freely express even their anomalous thoughts regardless of their socio-economical class, titles and so on. “Chatrooms, cybersalons, and ezines are just some of the new electronic spaces in which people can participate as equals in process of collective will formation” (Dahlberg 2007:97). Is it so? This question remains with various answers have been given to it. Regardless of practical data, in theory internet seemed to fulfill the gap between state intervened space and private space. In theory, internet might offer the same functions what once a café in London used to offer. The early criticisms about Internet being the new public sphere is similar to what once Fraser pointed at Habermasian public sphere. Does it include everyone? With the growing numbers of new users the dominant white, male user population seems to lessen in time.
Table-1: World Internet Usage1
As it is seen in Table-1, internet usage has grown considerably in last 14 years. This table also indicates that the early concerns about user population of internet were well judged criticisms. Despite the changing numbers according to given continent, still more than half of the world population is not online. According to Habermasian criterias, to be able to call it a public sphere, citizens ought to be present in the debate regardless of their backgrounds. Papacharissi also questions the citizens’ participation to this virtual sphere:
While these are indisputably advantages to online communication, they do not instantaneously guarantee a fair, representative, and egalitarian public sphere. As several critics argue, access to online technologies and information should be equal and universal. Access should also be provided at affordable rates. Without a concrete commitment to online expression, the internet as a public sphere merely harbors an illusion of openness (Pavlik, 1994; Williams and Pavlik, 1994; Williams, 1994). The fact that online technologies are only accessible to, and used by, a small fraction of the population contributes to an electronic public sphere that is exclusive, elitist, and far from ideal – not terribly different from the bourgeois public sphere of the 17th and 18th centuries (Papacharissi 2002:14).
Despite the paper was written in 2002 and having lots of new users joined the online community, Papacharissi’s research gives an insight about the contradictory claims on the public spheriness of the internet. Furthermore Papacharissi frames how the online discourse is produced by certain dominant groups. According to Papacharissi white supremacy groups are creating the most innovative content but at the same time displaying a concerning undemocratic attitudes towards other groups through race, ethnicity, and so on. While freedom of speech is one of the basic principles of democracy, the discriminatory acts are confronting this principle. Freedom of speech is both internet’s and public sphere’s most featured characteristic but at the same time unlimited freedom causes an intractability between itself and dominant discourses. Papacharissi’s work, elucidates how traditional discourses are still the dominant discourses online and she stresses that internet can only be a virtual sphere for ‘additional expressions rather than reforming political thought and structure’ (Papacharissi 2002:14). In addition, tracking the online information, organizing it can be a hard job which requires extra skills and according to Papacharissi not a lot of people possess these skills (2002). To the end, Papacharissi concludes her ideas as she states the ‘democratizing potential of the internet depends on additional factors’ (Papacharissi 2002:15). Greater participation in online discussions is not merely a symbol of democracy, on the contrary it can be a problem, ‘the content, diversity, and impact of political discussion need to be considered carefully’(p:18).
Public sphere is a fundamental principle of a democratic society, and what brought public sphere to life, is also took its’ political features away; mass media. Public sphere turned into a sphere of leisure and entertainment according to Habermas, but, the internet brought a new discussion over the possibility of a new public sphere with its’ appropriate tools and easy accessability for everyone. As it is argued in this section, internet –by its’ all means- is still not be able to meet what a public sphere demands. It includes but at the same time excludes certain groups. With internet’s easy broadcasting tools, private life is brought into public life and vice versa (Fuchs 2014).
Ownership and the Internet
Capitalism is basically ownership of means of production. Media tools, traditional or new, promise great amounts of profits and control. According to Chomsky and Herman, a media corporation produces its contents parallel to owner’s own interests (1988). Ownership based media criticism is applicable for conventional media. Internet’s free publication feature contradicts with the idea of ownership. In a Marxist sense, means of production, in its own developmental process under relations of production, have brought into an irreconcilable contradiction with modes of production (1970). Intellectual property now is not owned by a private individuals or corporations, it is but practically internet provides individuals with tools to share intellectual properties regardless of restrictions. But as indicated before, reaching this kind of ‘pirate’ information may require skills.
Today, almost every social media platform is owned by a corporation. This rises concerns about personal information which individuals put on the servers of these corporations. Fuchs indicated that ‘most corporate social media’s capital accumulation model is to turn private, semi-public and public user data into commodity that is sold to advertising clients that present targeted advertisements to users” (Fuchs 2014:79). Furthermore, he argues that the users personal datas are being used as a valuable information sources by state-organizations such as NSA (2014). This points out that the online users are subject to a serious survelliance system, their actions are deeply monitored by the corporations and states, and sold to third parties. Provided personal information is being processed and used to create a consent by the adversitors. Fuchs argued:
Contemporary activists create public spaces of protest and make use of social media and face-to-face communication, online digital and offline non-digital media, in order to voice their political demands. At the same time they are confronted with the treat that both social media corporations and state institutions control corporate social media and thereby have the power to directly or algorithmically control political movements’ internal and public communication capabilities. Civil society is facing an antagonism between networked protest communication that creates political public spheres online and offline and the particularistic corporate and state control of social media that limits, feudalises and colonises these public spheres (Fuchs 2014:89).
Furthermore, the online content is monitored through several filters. Several regulations acting as gatekeepers to filter the information that is put online by the anonymous users. This contradicts the most claimed the freedom of expression feature of social media and the internet. Despite these filtering systems are offered not obligatory, there are examples that those filtering systems are being used redundantly. For instance, Microsoft uses an own filtering system in its browsers. This restricts users to take part in certain political conversations or just conversations. Who decides what information should be accessible or not? Controlling over the information channels, confronts the idea of a democratic space. It also reduces the online debates to a particular daily conversations and entertainment purposes.
Moreover, to the the information provided, these filters are filtering the content according to accepted moral norms in the society. In other words, common sense, dominates the approaches to the online content. Filtered information, reproduces and reinforces the common sense and prevents new media to be an alternative source of information.
Internet brought new means of communication and through communication, a new possible public sphere or public spaces. Within the offered features by the Internet, when compared to Habermasian understanding of public sphere, it does not meet the demands of public sphere. Internet is inclusive but at the same time exclusive and the content is produced by certain dominant groups. Also the freedom of expression on the internet sometimes goes beyond the borders of racial discrimination and ethnic humiliation. Thus, still less than half of the world population uses internet and there is no information about their intentions for using this new media tool. Internet opposes the property, seemingly, but at the same time, it is also owned by several corporations. These corporations use user information to make profits and states collect personal data to monitor their citizens. Furthermore, several filtering systems are being used to manipulate users what information they can access. These filtering systems are based on accepted moral norms and they filter the information accordingly. This reinforces the norms not so different than conventional media tools. Internet’s possibility to create a way to establishing a more democratic society does not seem realizable yet. But day after day, new users are joining the online community and finding new ways to overcome third party interventions. Internet is a prospective tool for democracy but at the same time it can be a new tool for totalitarian rules.
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