“Social Media. The New Public Sphere?”
First off, let’s give a quick definition of what a Public Sphere is so that we can all be on the same page. According to Habermas, “we call events and occasions ‘public’ when they are open to all, in contrast to close or exclusive affairs.” The very concept of the public is linked to the notion of the common, this could include ideas such as community, the common usage of resources, and communal organization (Fuchs, 2013).
With the rise of Social Media and its increasing influence in the digital world we live in today, more and more people started wondering whether this outlet was becoming in a way the new Public Sphere and some are even questioning the implications it has on today’s political realm. Social Media has played a major role in events such as the Arab Spring, where networks were being formed by activists in order to communicate and to exercise their freedom of speech, not to mention how helpful it was in communicating what was happening to the rest of the world. Even Trump admittedly expresses how helpful Social Media has been in getting him elected as President of the United States, adding that his tweets are always immediately shared and seen by millions. (McCaskill, 2017) There are of course two ways that we can look at this: from an optimist’s viewpoint, or a skeptic’s.
1. Enhancing Freedom.
One way of looking a Social Media is that it enhances freedom. “To speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly” (Shirky, 2008). However, the negative aspect in that is that this freedom of speech is shared with everyone from reliable scientists, to 12 year olds who have not taken a Politics class yet. Trying to start conversation on a sensitive topic can be very hard nowadays, with people trying their best to raise awareness about a serious cause, for example, cancer, and “trolls” going around bashing those causes with negative comments. So you can only imagine how create these kids get when it gets to politics.
2. Turning Private into Public.
Another way of looking at things is by examining how well Social Media has aided the public sphere towards incorporating and becoming one with the private sphere. All that is practiced in public is now practiced in private, rendering greater autonomy, plasticity, and potential for expression. The bad side of this however is that now, the boundaries between the public and the private sphere have collapsed, rendering the realm of the political in the individual’s private sphere. In fact, this tends to be an overwhelming burden, having sects enter your personal, private life even when you’re in university, through every social media outlet that you navigate through. A true nightmare for the individual who doesn’t really involve himself in politics.
One thing that Social Media has yet not successfully replaced are protests. Physical spaces allow a large number of people grouped together visibility so that those in power are more to see them and even perceive them as a threat. They also provide opportunities for starting, developing and maintaining interpersonal relations involving things unattainable through Social Media, such as eye contact, communication, and bonding activities that are vital for the organization of a political movement. What Social Media can do however, given a lot of good organization, high interest and a lot of resources, aid as protest co-ordination and organization tools.
4. Safe vs. Harmful.
Some online activity can cause major material harm and be a major threat to those in power. Such activities are, for example, those of the notorious group, Anonymous, who have hacked in, stolen, and corrupted many valuable files of data to some of the most important companies and even countries in the world. However, there are still a massive amount of harmless activity online, such as writing articles, blogs, posting on Instagram, or browsing through Facebook.
5. Networked Public.
A networked public is a space made up of networked technologies and an imagined collective that comes when a group of people, technology, and practices get together. The positives are in being networked, having everyone’s activities online and knowing clearly who one follows and one’s preferences. The clear negatives however, are exactly that, for example, in a culture that would be infuriated and that beats up people for not being supportive of their party, having your political preferences and activity online can be a very scary thing.
Clearly, used correctly, Social Media can be a very helpful tool in politics, helping enhance freedom, opening up the private sphere to the public, aiding in coordinating protests, and networking freely to a data pool of billions of people. However, to each one of those positives, is a negative. Sadly, I think it is still too early for us to call ourselves “tech savvy.” We are still learning in a world we’ve been born too soon in. The greatest threats to politics could possibly be fake news, and our lack of knowledge about how Social Media companies show us what they want us to see without us knowing. We don’t even know if we can trust our own algorithms and if we can allow them to play around and be displayed in front of billions. According to Paul Lewis (2018), YouTube’s algorithm does not appear to be optimizing what is truthful, healthy, or balanced for democracy. There are even some allegations that YouTube and other Social Media outlets such as Facebook helped candidates such as Trump win elections.
1. Fuchs, C. (2017). Social media: a critical introduction. Los Angeles: Sage.
2. MCCASKILL, N. D., Glasser, S. B., Robertson, D., Shafer, J., DiMaggio, S., & Wit, J. (2017, October 20). Trump credits social media for his election. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.politico.com/story/2017/10/20/trump-social-media-election-244009
3. Lewis, P. (2018, February 02). ‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: how YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/02/how-youtubes-algorithm-distorts-truth
“Social Media. The New Public Sphere?” was originally published in Social Media Blog — LAU — Spring 2018 on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.