M.S. Mr. Habermas, have celebrated your eighty-fifth birthday. At your age, what does “living the present” mean? What thread connects you to the world of your children and grandchildren?
J.H. Are you thinking of any “passion for the present”? Yes, I always follow political developments passionately. On the other hand, seeing one’s own generation crushed on the past has a similar effect to a “flaying”. Yesterday, I received the first copy my biographies written by Stefan Müller-Doohm . Although the author, for whom I have the upmost esteem, would never give me a reason to be, I am quite scared of facing this book. As for my sons, who are already grown, I get the impression that on the whole they share the same political and intellectual ideas as their parents. But my grandchildren already seem to be living in another era…
M.S. In retrospect, what have been the most important experiences to guide you on the intellectual and practical spheres?
J.H. The intellectual experiences can easily be led back to specific people. I met my first philosopher in the figure of Karl-Otto Apel, who was my mentor at first and then a friend. The extraordinary privilege of working with Adorno enabled me to glimpse a way of thinking that is at once enlightening and fascinating. Both Wolfgang Abendroth and Hans-Georg Gadamer have also been kind of like ultimate academic masters. After that, I was able to learn from a whole generation of “peers” on this side and that side of the Atlantic. Most of all, I had the fortune of meeting brilliant collaborators who assisted me along the way and through all of the twists and turns of my thinking. All summed up these have been my intellectual stimuli. Yet, you also ask me about my experiences on a more “practical level”. Anyone with children who has been married for sixty years, knows that there are much more important things than intellectual stimuli.
M.S. You became instantly famous with your licentiate text Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1961). The empirical frame of reference has changed dramatically today. The public sphere has been radically transformed by new mass-media. How would you set up this task today? How could we apply that emphatic and normatively impregnated concept of a democratic “public sphere” to current circumstances, a concept to which you never ceased to remain faithful to?
J.H. Today we see how, even in the West, democratic procedures and institutions can reduce themselves to empty facades if they lose a functional public sphere. Inversely, the functioning of public spheres always presupposes demanding normative conditions. In fact, public communication circuits shouldn’t be cut out of actual decision-making processes. In Europe, even the political crisis of recent years has taught us a lot about these two aspects of the problem.
M.S. Is internet beneficial or unbeneficial for democracy?
J.H. It is neither one nor the other. After the inventions of writing and printing, digital communication represents the third great innovation on the media plane. With their introduction, these three media forms have enabled an ever growing number of people to access an ever growing mass of information. These are made to be increasingly lasting, more easily. With the last step represented by Internet we are confronted with a sort of “activation” in which readers themselves become authors. Yet, this in itself does not automatically result in progress on the level of the public sphere. Throughout the nineteenth-century – with the aid of books and mass newspapers – we witnessed the birth of national public spheres where the attention of an undefined number of people could simultaneously apply itself to the same identical problems. This however, did not depend on the technical level with which facts were multiplied, accelerated, rendered lasting. At heart, these are the same centrifugal movements that still occur today in the web. Rather, the classical public sphere stemmed from the fact that the attention of an anonymous public was “concentrated” on a few politically important questions that had to be regulated. This is what the web does not know how to produce. On the contrary, the web actually distracts and dispels. Think about, for example, the thousand portals that are born every day: for stamp collectors, for scholars of European constitutional law, for support groups of ex-alcoholics. In the mare magnum of digital noises these communicative communities are like dispersed archipelagos: there are billions of them. What these communicative spaces (closed in themselves) are lacking is an inclusive bind, the inclusive force of a public sphere highlighting what things are actually important. In order to create this “concentration”, it is first necessary to know how to choose – know and comment on – relevant contributions, information and issues. In short, even in the mare magnum of digital noise, the skills of good old journalism – as necessary today as they were yesterday – should not be lost.
M.S. With Zwischen Faktizität und Geltung (1992) you provided the liberal-democratic state with a massive base of legitimacy. How would you respond if somebody brought it to your attention that: Thanks to Habermas democracy has won on the plane of ideas, but the problem of it winning in reality still remains?
J.H. I would say: a slogan poisoned in a friendly way. I simply illustrated one of the possible models of democracy and I did so in a purely reconstructive sense, without having to sound the trumpet of utopianism. My reconstruction is based on pragmatic premises that citizens inevitably adhere to every time they a) go to vote, b) bring a case to court, c) oppose themselves to the dismantling of the welfare state. When these normative premises (again: that every vote in the ballot box is equal in worth, that judges are impartial, that governments carry through programmes for which they were elected) are systematically violated, then the practices which rely on them collapse. Or, such practices are emptied from within via the cynical approach of those in government and/or by the silent apathy of citizens.
M.S. In some recent critiques, directed more towards Hannah Arendt than Carl Schmitt, it was also argued that your deliberative model – channelled in a discursive sense – misses its objective to the extent that it strives to reconstruct the Political as an abstract scientific-knowledge process, where this is actually more like a violent fight to obtain and maintain power. What is your response to these critiques?
J.H. In a pluralistic society the democratic process is the only source to produce decisions, which are recognised as legitimate. On the one hand, this process ensures inclusion (that is to say the participation of all citizens), on the other, deliberation (for example election campaigns and parliamentary debates, on the basis of what the electorate and legislators decide to choose). Specifically due to this element of public debate – a debate that has to occur before going to vote – the result of political elections (dividing power between rival parties) is something different from mere opinion polls. This does not have much to do with processes of scientific knowledge, as it does with the expectation that political problems can be met with the most rational solution possible. This “expectation of rationality” actually requires that – in formulating significant proposals – reliable information and good reasons are publically laid down on the table. In this process, normative reasons frequently play a more important role than actual empirical data, or, expert analyses. In any case they always have to be reasons that are capable of “quantifying”. This cognitive dimension of the formation of will (both of citizens and of politicians) assumes an even greater importance when the horizon of uncertainty, in which we have to make decisions, grows.
M.S. A big theme you are passionate about is Europe and its democratic unification. At a seminar in Princeton , you recently proposed modifying the European constitution in the direction of transforming the Council of Ministers into a representation of single states, thus making it a second legislative “leg” alongside the European parliament. It was instantly objected that the European project seeks to overcome old statist divisions and therefore shouldn’t solidify or fix their survival in a “house of states”, an organ of legislative power. How do you respond to this critique?
J.H. This critique does not take the current political situation into consideration. Even the conflict on Juncker’s nomination demonstrated where the real problem actually lies. In Europe today, heads of government have the same semi constitutional role, once carried out by the sovereign of the old German Reich. It is necessary to identify what quota of power heads of government should transfer to parliament, so as to reduce that democratic deficit that is screaming for revenge. Compared to a transnational democracy, without any characteristic of statehood, the U.S. Federal system is not what we have to imitate. Rather, the Parliament should be equated to a Council intended as the place of state representation. In order to harmonise these two legislative institutions it is necessary to institute procedures. The clash to install the President of the Commission underlines how, an organic party system is still lacking at the European level, where – in putting forth their candidates – the latter can move in line with the Council from the onset.
M.S. Let’s move on to separatist tendencies in Ukraine, Scotland, Belgium etc. Why have you bitterly criticised this separatism on several occasions? Czechia and Slovakia both demonstrate that it is possible to separate without too much difficulty. From a historical perspective, secession is only a different form of nation-building. Why should we exclude it from the normative point of view?
J.H. The nation intended as a sacred principle was definitively overcome at Versailles at the end of the First World War. Instead of promoting peace it has always stirred up new conflicts. The reason for this is obvious: no population is ethnically homogeneous. Tracing new borders, simply means, reproducing relations of majority and minority in an inverse fashion. When Genscher recognised Croatia as a new sovereign state, thereby contributing to the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, he did nothing more than open the door to the most ferocious massacres in Europe after the Second World War. The same mistake was repeated with Kosovo. This is a result of the long shadow that nineteenth-century nationalism has cast on the twentieth-century. And, now we are witnessing the resurgence of nationalistic spectres in the heart of the European Union, which is not even capable of putting a halt on the Hungarian authoritarianism of an Orban.
M.S. In your book published last year, In the Riptide of Technocracy, you severely attacked Merkel’s European policy. Thus, in your work, you envisaged aiding the SPD’s election campaign. Now, however, with the Socialists in government, German policy with regards to Europe continues more or less as before. Have you changed your opinion? Do you feel disappointed?
J.H. The SPD let itself be dragged into the coalition. It never wanted to contradict Merkel on this issue. Now, however it will be forced to do so, if it doesn’t want to betray its European candidate Martin Schulz.
M.S. In the meantime many debtor states are about to leave the umbrella of protection. Perhaps Merkel’s policy was not actually as bad as it was made out to be?
J.H. In reality, structural imbalances of national economies are continuing to grow in the Eurozone. Nor can we continue with that policy of “internal devaluation” which, in countries hit by the recession, was paid off by sacrificing the most disadvantaged groups: young generations, social welfare benefits and infrastructure. If we were to continue to do so, right-wing populism would get stronger, conflicts between populations would become more radical, anti-German sentiment would grow. Merkel is scared of speaking this simple truth to her electors, and therefore gives them watered-down wine. The error of founding a monetary community without political control was a mistake made in “several liability” by all of the States involved. Now, us Germans would like to protect ourselves from the obligation of dealing with the consequences.
M.S. What gives you the strength to not react to what your teacher Adorno called “the bad course of the world” in a defeatist manner?
J.H. Hegel put absolute spirit on the table against the bad course of the world, there where Adorno contrasted desperation by seeking recourse with a messianic light – in a counterfactual way. In fact, he could only denounce the negativity of existence from within the cone of this illumination. I feel quite close to Kant’s position, to whom Adorno rightly attributed the motive entitled “inconceivability of desperation”.
M.S. It has been rumoured that you are working on a grand work on philosophy of religion, of which the prolegomenons have already appeared . What is your new interest in religion due to? Is it perhaps the irritating experience for which, against all expectations, not only has religion not been neutralised by secularisation of modernity, but actually appears to be reviving in new and often worrying forms?
J.H. If we place the adoption of language – as a mechanism of communication – at the centre of evolution, it becomes likely to assume that processes of socialisation, for a constitutively antisocial species should be passed through a strong tension between spirit and motivation. It is apparent that the “religious complex” was what kept together and stabilised first communities, shielding them from inner tensions. From the start, classics of Sociology identified the source of normative conscience and social solidarity in myths and rituals. I am currently linking this interest of sociologists to the Hegelian premise according to which, many concepts of practical philosophy – despite having Greek names – are substantially the fruit of a secular process of assimilation and semantic translation born from the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we think of writers such as Bloch and Benjamin, Buber, Levinas and Derrida, we can see that this assimilation is not yet complete. For a post-metaphysical line of thought concerning itself with normative resources in a global society derailed by capitalism, all of this could be an occasion to finally embark on a change in perspective. Instead of exclusively focusing on the sciences, philosophy should be able to put itself in relation with religious traditions that remain crucial. However, I do not want to be misunderstood. I am by no means proposing that post-metaphysical thought should renounce its secular self-understanding, but rather, extend this self-understanding in a bifocal direction.
M.S. What is your judgement on the state of philosophy today? In Germany what was once called popular philosophy – talk-show philosophy – is ever more fashionable. I am thinking of personalities such as Safranski, Sloterdijk, and Precht. Is this a good or bad thing?
J.H. Well, the names you cited are not the real representatives of German philosophy. Today, philosophy is an academic-scientific profession like all others. It only distinguishes itself from other disciplines in that, as unattached thought, it does not have a “method” nor an “object” that can be predefined a priori. Personally, I am too old to attempt to give a comprehensive judgement on the current state of the discipline. I can, however, tell you what has been my experience. My generation was able to instil interest and gain recognition from American, French, and even English colleagues only in the measure that – in dealing with several issues – we were capable of highlighting the strength of our tradition. This was done by analytically and systemically adhering to sources such as Kant, Hegel and Marx. I am daring to make this recommendation with the hope of not exposing myself to accusations of provincialism.
M.S. You always drew from ancient philosophers who went to the agora and exercised the public use of reason. On the other hand, you also have a reputation for being a complex philosopher, and your texts are difficult to the extent that they cannot be easily understood. Is there a contradiction here?
J.H. Okay. Readers of this interview will agree with you instantly. But you see, reaching a wider public was never an objective for me. I don’t even go on television. My world is that of the university. It is true that I give too many interviews and I write newspaper articles, but editors should be primarily blamed for these weaknesses of mine. What I aim for is not to have a vast readership but to circulate specific ideas.
M.S. A personal question: has it ever happened to you – as Eduard Mörike wrote in Wintermorgens vor Sonnenaufgang – to wake up in the morning and suddenly think, as it were a nightmare, that all you have thought or written so far has been wrong? If you have really experienced something similar, how do you deal with this existential insecurity?
J.H. Es ist ein Augenblick/ Und alles wird verwehen. [“In an instant/ Everything seems to disappear”]. As you can see, I went looking for poem and verse, which you are referring to. Alas, I must disappoint you. Before the last awakening I don’t slip into the fantastical and charming world that Mörike describes. Rather, I fall into a vortex of anxious thoughts. Therefore my insecurity could be much deeper. If, however, we want to give your question a less dramatic meaning, and simply put it in relation to my academic work, then I will give you a pragmatic answer. It is natural that every single statement that I have written down could be wrong. Yet, in reality you say: “all that you have ever thought or written”. Thus, you refer to the summation of all underlying certainties. Indeed, as philosophers, we always think within a unifying backdrop and context that supports us. Fortunately, this context can always reveal itself as wrong when we make a particular element stand out. Like scree, this intuitively present background slides and moves with us whenever we correct ourselves or go through learning processes. However, this aggregate of underlying certainties can never be considered wrong, in that it can never be made the subject of falsifiable statements, as a whole.
Interview published in the “Feuilleton” of the “Frankfurter Rundschau” of 14/15 June 2014. Questions by Markus Schwerin. Original title: “Im Sog der Gedanken”.
English translation by Maria Bottigliero.
[S. Müller-Doohm, Jürgen Habermas. Eine Biografie, Berlin 2014 – out in June for the philosopher’s 85th birthday, translator’s note].
[Trad.it.. Storia e critica dell’opinione pubblica, Roma-Bari 2002, translator’s note.].
[Trad.it. Fatti e norme, Milano 1996, new edition Roma-Bari 2013, translator’s note].
[ Far from being subjective preferences and prejudicial options, for Habermas even normative reasons and decisions have a fundamental cognitive value, translator’s note].
[Habermas’s American conference was translated with the title, “For a transnational democracy”, on Micromega 3/2014, pp. 12-27; on reactions to this conference in America cf. Patrick Bahners, “Demokratie kommt ohne Völker aus”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 7 May 2014. Translator’s note].
[On the big unpublished work, cf. E. Mendieta, Religion in Habermas’s Work, in C. Calhoun, E. Mendieta, J. VanAntwerpen, a Ed., Habermas and Religion, Polity Press, Cambridge UK, pp. 405-406. The above cited prolegomenons are collected essays in Habermas’s last great work Nachmetaphysisches Denken II, Suhrkamp, Berlin 2012 (currently being translated by Laterza), translator’s note].
[Allusion to the title of Habermas’s last work: In the Riptide of Technocracy, trad.it. Roma-Bari 2014, translator’s note].
Internet and the Political Public Sphere
Terje RasmussenCorresponding author
- University of Oslo
Correspondence address: Terje Rasmussen, Department of media and communication, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The article addresses the main theory of the political public sphere generally, and the role of the Internet and Internet-based media in the theory specifically. It first reviews briefly the initial social research on the Internet in the 1990s concerning political participation. After a presentation of Jürgen Habermas' theory of the contemporary public sphere, it proceeds to discuss the main problems concerning the Internet as a platform or infrastructure for public debate: segmentation and concentration. It argues that a general conclusion is that the public sphere differentiates and become more complex. A key task for future research, it argues, is to investigate the complex connections between Internet publics and mass media publics.
The concept of the public sphere represents one of the most powerful theoretical junctions between media studies and political sociology. It provides political media studies with a broader theoretical framework that connects the media to democracy and legitimacy of politics, and it specifies how democracy works or doesn't work in practice. Generally, whereas from Jürgen Habermas' first writings, it provided a theoretical horizon of lost opportunities in advanced capitalist societies, it subsequently emerged as an intake to analyse the critical and democratic potential of the new digital media (Habermas 1989, 1993). Here, I present the main theoretical view on the concept of the political public sphere in/and (?) the roles of the Internet specifically. I shall not address the use of the Internet in election campaigns or the problem of the digital divide (see DiMaggio et al. 2001; Hargittai et al. 2008; Norris 2001; Schlozman et al. 2010). Nor will I discuss its role in the struggle for democracy in developing countries (e.g. Lynch 2012). Although highly relevant for the dynamics of the public sphere, these issues represent special cases of political communication discussed as topics in their own right. Research that connects the Internet with democracy and politics has differentiated into several specialised branches, some of which have also developed new and advanced methods to harvest massive data from the online sources directly (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2010; Hindman 2008; Lawrence et al. 2010). Here, I will rather focus on the main (and seemingly contradictory) problems that have been addressed concerning the Internet as infrastructure for the public sphere: The problematic tendency of the Internet to generate segmentation, and the converse problem of concentration. I begin with a brief comment on social research on the political use of the Internet in the 1990s and then address Habermas' most recent descriptions of the public sphere. I then present some arguments against and in favour of the Internet as a current reformed platform for the public sphere with regard to segmentation and concentration. Towards the end, I argue that research suggests a thesis about differentiation of the public sphere, of which the democratic potential is hitherto uncertain. Among the most important research agendas in the coming years, I argue, are examinations of the connections between the Internet-based and the mass media-based dimensions of the public sphere.
The current political public sphere is generally conceived as a ‘space’ produced by communication about public matters as in journalism, opinion and argumentation, in face-to-face communication as well as in mediated communication. Such public discourses in a wide range of places, media and genres may lead to more or less converging views on public matters, i.e. matters that concern all potentially affected, whether in a local community, the nation state or super-national region like the EU, or for that matter, globally. The interchange is ideally based on argumentation but may also be impulsive, emotional and mediated through various aesthetic means (Papacharissi 2004). The ability and ways to articulate points of view may vary greatly in style and formality, as well as in range of themes. However, the diversity may subsequently enter into a more binding and disciplined form in quality newspapers and parliament deliberations (Bimber 1999; Gimmler 2001; Raphael and Karpowitz 2013).
During the era of the press and broadcasting, the public sphere was split between a minority of speakers and a majority of listeners. The one-way, mass-oriented technologies of print and broadcasting enabled this division, which in many ways contradicted the democratic dictum that all individuals should have the opportunity to express their views, and take part in society and politics as citizens. What neutralised some of this division between supply and demand was the face-to-face interaction in all kinds of associations and organisations in society, which picked up and processed the themes of the mass media. Then, the Internet and the web came along and changed all this in several steps. For the last two decades, the complexity of the public sphere in terms of arenas, styles, genres and themes has exploded. The most significant changes have occurred only since the 1990s with the World Wide Web, the smart phone and social media. What is genuinely novel with the Internet in a democratic perspective is that it cancelled the social division between speakers and listeners of the public sphere and made everyone into potential participants in numerous public interactions and debates, without cancelling the possibility of communication in an expanded space. Through blogs, YouTube and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, the public has transformed itself into narrators, reporters, editors and broadcasters (Davis 2009). To be sure, the Internet is approached by the population as consumers and private persons more than as citizens. Nevertheless, the Internet is intensively used now by national and international NGOs and civil organisations, ad hoc manifestations, political parties and individual politicians. A virtualization of political debates is taking place (Kies 2010).
In the 1990s, scholars pointed out the overlapping features of the Internet (its interconnectivity, its hypertextuality and flexibility in time and space, its variability in terms of media forms, etc.) and the model of the open and reasoning public sphere most recently developed by Jürgen Habermas (1996, 2009). However, only empirical research could assert whether these forms and features of the Internet and the web were actually empowering individuals and social institutions in their engagement for social and political change. A number of studies analysed online debating forums to see whether they develop towards inclusive dialogue-oriented spheres (Hill and Hughes 1998; Holt 2004; Raphael and Karpowitz 2013). For instance, Dahlgren presented a study of what he called a civic culture perspective, which here operates as an operationalisation and concretisation of the public sphere (Dahlgren 2005; Dahlgren and Olsson 2007).
Another new research approach in the 1990s was to analyse the ability of the Internet to increase or erode social engagement. Social capital was then seen as individual resources invested in political communication, deriving from participation in social groups of various sorts. Research indicated that Internet use meant less time spent on other forms of communication, including participation in public associations and other forms of civic engagement (Nie and Erbring 2000). Other studies, however, indicated that time spent on the Internet increased or supplemented civic engagement (Shah et al. 2001; Wellman et al. 2001). Similarly, in a later study in several European countries, frequent Internet use co-varied with civic engagement in the public sphere or in civil society (Räsänen and Kuovo 2007). Internet use proved more significant for social involvement than variables like age and gender. Sociological studies on Internet-based civic involvement indicate that these kinds of social and political practices involving the Internet have been growing (Kahn and Kellner 2004). On the other hand, more Internet-time was also spent on non-civic forms of communication (computer games, entertainment, etc.).
The lower threshold for political participation on the Internet compared to the mass media was generally seen as positive for democracy, but as we know, was not without side effects of more ambivalent character, such as scepticism towards political institutions, and decreasing involvement in types of collective action that require more than simply computer work. People may prefer to enter into visible, if ineffective forms of political engagement, rather than political work that may be long-term and risky (Morozov 2012). Furthermore, against Clay Shirky's argument that collective activities now can be coordinated more flexibly than ever, Malcolm Gladwell argued that the ability of many Internet media to create weak ties makes them less suited for building social movements that need strong tie organising (Gladwell 2010; Shirky 2009). A plausible conclusion from the interchange between Shirky and Gladwell, we may add, is that NGOs and social movements need to construct themselves through media of strong personal gatherings and meetings, and weak ties to reach a wider sympathising, if less active, audience.
The wide range of studies in the 1990s on the relationship between the Internet and political participation in the public sphere (involving qualitative interview data, surveys, focus groups and observation) pointed in different directions. Just like studies on social capital and civic participation in general, it was difficult to agree upon a general tendency. The impasse in research reflected the variety of different methods used, different national cultures and technological situations. Also, research aimed at a rapidly moving target: The proliferation of Internet services diffused quickly throughout western societies, if with an uneven pace. More importantly, the enquiries did in fact not address comparable phenomena. A variety of media (web, Internet Relay Chat, Internet messaging services, e-mail, etc.) were lumped together under the label of ‘Internet use’ (Rasmussen et al. 2010). However, in the first decade of the new millennium, it became quite clear that the staff in the informatics department were quite right in insisting that the Internet is not a medium at all, but an infrastructure much like railways and roads, that (according to its protocols or traffic signs) carries various media and genres like e-mail, file transfer, World Wide Web, blogs, micro-blogs like twitter, telephony, video, networking sites and more. The natures of these media vary greatly in the ways they present and mediate communication, and invite different kinds of use. Therefore, they must be kept separate in an analysis of their role in the public sphere. Following the now elementary insight that the Internet is an open infrastructure for many different media, a change of Internet research took place that differentiated between media and addressed them in the light of political public sphere theory. This closer connection to the political agenda also originated from the fact of the uneven growth in Internet use. Around the new millennium, the proportion of individuals using the Internet was around 50 percent in the OECD countries, but with considerable variance between the Scandinavian countries and southern Europe. With the continuing growth, the differences have minimised somewhat.
Habermas' concept of the public sphere today
In his first and now classic treatise on the emerging modern public sphere in Europe, Jürgen Habermas uncovered new social norms of public communication and reasoning in the new middle class social settings and associations of early 1800s Europe. Dean (2003) concisely sums them up: disregard for social status, social equality and equal access (anti-hierarchical); new social areas were opened for critical debate (unrestricted agenda); all weight was on the quality of the argument (uncoerced communication); a culture for interaction questioning; and critique about common concerns, open access and inclusivity. Generally, a notion of rationality as reasoning, transparency and inclusivity seem to permeate the public sites like the British coffee houses, French Salons and German Tischgesellshaften. This form of public communication constitutes a space or a sphere in the sense that the norms were shared by all participants. In principle, they were universal and that they, in principle, could be applied by all. Any vocal rejection of them would only confirm their existence. In practice, the norms excluded most women and the working class, but the self-identity of the public sphere was nevertheless that of equality and openness.
It was quite clear what the public sphere needed to thrive and develop: freedom of the press and expression, social settings, and media for debate and sharing of information. This empirical development had its theoretical parallel in liberal theory. In the traditions from Rousseau, Kant, John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, it is accepted that only a principle of publicity protected by law and connected to an independent and informed public opinion and independent parties can fully exhaust what lies in the concept of popular sovereignty. The importance and emphasis of publicity led to legally protected, open discursive public spaces, from informal political discussion at the pub and local newspaper, to formal will formation in political associations. In spite of commercialisation and concentration of newspapers and subsequently broadcasting, the public sphere has manifested itself as a multitude of more or less informal arenas, media, genres and networks, by which ideas and debate circulate throughout society and upwards to more formal bodies of political deliberation and decision (Habermas 1996, 184). Democratic politics today implies more than elections and corporate negotiations: Parliamentary processes rely on ‘the context of discovery provided by a procedurally unregulated public sphere that is borne by the general public of citizens’ (Habermas 1996, 307).
The opinion formation in democratic societies is seen by Habermas as independent from, but connected to, formal decision-making bodies and ‘is effected in an open and inclusive network of overlapping, subcultural publics having fluid temporal social and substantive boundaries’ (Habermas 1996, 307). It is mediated by the mass media and flows through different publics and forms what Habermas calls an anarchic structure and a ‘wild’ complex that resists organisation (Therefore, we may add, it is very difficult to examine empirically.). To be sure, public discourse is vulnerable to political pressure from above and easily affected by distorted communication in media. But more importantly from a discursive point of view, it possesses a ‘medium’ of unrestricted communication where new problems can be formulated and collective understandings of the world can be constructed (Habermas 1996, 310). Public discourses possess little or no formal power, but they can articulate interpretations and general interests with limitations and compulsions, especially on the Internet. What the American sociologist Talcott Parsons called influence becomes an object of controversy among interest groups and NGOs and leading figures in academic life and arts and popular culture but must resonate in a wider public (Habermas 1996, 364). Political influence is supported by public opinion and converted into political power when it affects the decisions of authorised members of the political system. In itself, the public sphere is relieved from the burden of decision-making (Habermas 1996, 362).
How are we to describe this abstract space? Habermas calls the current political public sphere a ‘sounding board’ for problems that must be solved by the political system, and a ‘warning system’ with sensors that are unspecialised but still sensitive throughout society (Habermas 1996, 359). It not only identifies problems but also addresses possible solutions, even dramatises them journalistically in such a way that they are picked up by formal politics. This is typically the task of ad hoc groups in civil society (the social basis of the public sphere) and journalism in concert. The political public sphere is also described as a network for communicating information and points of view: ‘the streams of communication are, in the process, filtered and synthesised in such a way that they coalesce into bundles of topically specified public opinions’ (Habermas 1996, 360). Concretely, we speak of forums, stages, arenas, performances and presentations that make up transitory publics, normally based on face-to-face encounters, but generalised and intellectualised to reach larger audiences (Habermas 1996, 361). The public sphere is a ‘communication structure that refers neither to the function nor to the contents of everyday communication but to the social space generated in communicative action’ (Habermas 1996, 360).
The democratic authority of the public sphere is anchored in the notion of deliberative politics, politics as reasoning about the most fair and just solutions. Habermas argues that ‘the formation of political will is channelled through the filter of discursive opinion formation’ (Habermas 2009, 146). What Habermas calls ‘epistemic proceduralism’ constitutes a third and more sophisticated methodological view on conditions for democratic process than that offered by methodological individualism (rational choice), and the hermeneutics of ‘republican’ and communitarian perspectives. Habermas argues that there is a cognitive potential in discursive processes that neither rational choice nor hermeneutics can account for. The ‘epistemic’ implies that processes of rationalisation in public discourse may generate new and improved knowledge. The cognitive or epistemic dimension satisfies conditions of a functional division of labour between arenas or publics that enables society to enhance discursive process of opinion and will formation. This counts as more than utopianism, Habermas argues, since (according to the theory of communicative action) normative validity claims inherent in actual argumentation may enable mutual understanding and cooperation (Habermas 2009, 146). Such validity claims assume that what is said is true or right or truthful and can be justified. Contrary to centrifugal systemic powers, they tend to encourage convergence of views.
The public sphere in contemporary advanced societies is heterogeneous and complex. It consists of episodic publics in pubs and cafés, of occasional arranged publics like presentations and theatre performances or church meetings and of abstract publics of readers, and audiences of the mass media. Still, we may talk about one public sphere:
Despite these manifold differentiations, however, all the partial publics constituted by ordinary language remain porous to one another. The one text of ‘the’ public sphere, a text continually extrapolated and extending radically in all directions, is divided by internal boundaries into arbitrarily small texts for which everything else is context: yet one can always build hermeneutical bridges from one text to the next. Segmented public spheres are constituted with the help of exclusion mechanisms; however, because publics cannot harden into organizations or systems, there is no exclusion rule without a proviso for its abolishment (Habermas 1996, 374).
Since the public sphere understands itself historically as open and egalitarian, the boundaries are permeable.
With the mass media, the public sphere became dramatically widened, and with the Internet, it became ever more interaction-oriented, inclusive and complex. Habermas is painfully aware that the socio-cultural challenges for a contemporary public sphere are immense. The cost of democratisation, Habermas argues, is a ‘decentring of unedited inputs, where the intellectual can no longer constitute a focal point’ (Habermas 2009). Diversity of interests, world-views and cultural life forms increase the burden on convergence ability in the public sphere. How can all these different voices melt into a reasonable discourse that can inform and legitimate and even rationalise politics? No doubt democratic politics is attentive to public opinion. In fact, politics seems to have become media politics: ‘The inflated volume of messages, ideas and images in circulation creates at least an impression that contemporary politics is becoming ever more deeply entangled in processes of mass communication, indeed that it is being assimilated into and transformed by them’ (Habermas 2009, 153). It is Habermas' impression that we are witnessing a communicative ‘liquefaction’ of politics, which seems to be a consequence of the turn towards an information economy (Bell), information flows and information technology networks (Castells). Political communication circulates widely in society, often as a strategic ‘medium’. However, according to Habermas, this tendency cannot cancel the principles of deliberation.
Following this view on politics as omnipresent information, Elmer et al. address how the Internet, WWW and social media like Facebook and Twitter have entered and redefined the ‘permanent campaign’ through new spaces of communication like social media platforms, new roles, political actors and through the circulation political communication, what they call ‘issue-objects’ (Elmer et al. 2012, 5). Political communication, they argue, must now include the ever-expanding capacity for information storage and retrieval, new entry point of communication, and expanded sites and modes of self-expression. With social media platforms, particularly, the actors, places and topics in political communication are multiplied (Elmer et al. 2012, 6). The network of political communication is more open-ended and distributed; has thus fewer central nodes, gatekeepers and agenda setters; and depends more on visibility and uses of time. It opens the field for non-professional political actors on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, such as partisan bloggers, studied by Elmer (Elmer et al. 2012). All in all, they present an image of a more strategically organised public sphere, although stressing that the permanent campaign remains a contested terrain where all statements are continually called into question and potentially destabilised.
The post war mass media society offered several functional features to a stable political public sphere. Mass media tend to be relatively sensitive to lay people's expressions and opinions but remain relevant for great publics and cannot – contrary to discussion and chat on Facebook or blogs – be too disturbed by the immediacy of trivial particularities. The popular sovereignty was heard through the voices of the intellectuals and the elite, which provided stability and quality. However, invitation to true dialogue with the audiences was cumbersome, and opinion was relatively disconnected from learning and reasoning. The asymmetrical nature of the mass media tended to turn people into consumers and spectators. Mass communication divides the public sphere into a minority of experts and journalists who keep the conversation going, and a silently observing majority. Many in the supply-side group of information-producers rarely enter into deliberation processes themselves as that conflict with their roles as neutral experts and professionals. (Habermas 2009, 157)
Habermas distinguishes between three forms of power in the public sphere: (i) Political power in constant need of at least passive legitimation in the form of reasonable agreement with the decision-making process; (ii) Power such as economic power deriving from positions in functional systems; and (iii) Media power of media professionals based on technology and mass media infrastructure, who define the public agenda and filter and stylize messages (Habermas 2009, 167–70). All three forms of power, Habermas argues, must, however, obey the communicative logic of the public sphere. In spite of uneven distribution of resources, and whatever their intentions, they must all respect the rule of the discursive game: The generally most reasonable and therefore most convincing arguments end up getting the upper hand. All agents must contribute with facts and arguments that they consider convincing and which in turn are exposed to critical examination (Habermas 2009, 171).
In 2006, Habermas considered the Internet to be of little significance to the public sphere. Addressing the Internet only in passing, he pointed out that interaction on the Internet only has democratic significance in so far as it undermines censorship of authoritarian regimes. In democratic countries, however, the Internet serves only to fragment audiences ‘into a huge number of isolated issue publics’. Habermas claimed that:
Within established national public spheres, the online debates of web users only promote political communication when news groups crystallise around the focal points of the quality press, for example national newspapers and political magazines (Habermas 2005, 422).
To Habermas, the mass media still constituted the main base of a modern public sphere because the quality press attracted interest for reasons of quality. In digital media, he could see no functional equivalents for the structures of publicity, which could reassemble and synthesise them in edited form:
Political communication within national publics seems at present to be able to benefit from online debates only when groups which are active on the web refer to real processes, such as election campaigns or current controversies. For example in an attempt to mobilise the interest and support of members (Habermas 2009, 158).
In a deliberative perspective, activity on the net surrounding parties or newspapers seemed to be of limited value, and he preferred to rely on the more structured dynamics of mass communication.
Habermas has not been alone with this somewhat sceptical view. Benjamin Barber addressed the Internet in relation to his notion of a ‘strong democracy’, by which he means a democratic alternative where the citizens are engaged at the local and national levels in a variety of political activities, and where discourse and debate are essential conditions for reaching common ground in a multicultural society (Barber in Jenkins and Thorburn 2004, 37). In such a normative understanding, Barber argues, the Internet and new media technologies do not play a favourable role, due to a series of key attributes of the new media. Their speed, reductive simplicity and tendency to polarisation, the solitariness of their user interface, their bias towards images over text, their resistance to hierarchical mediations and their inclination towards segmentation rather to a single integrated community – all these tendencies – pull communication away from the possibility of deliberation and informed choices. Furthermore, they tend to distribute illegitimate or confused information, in contrast to the authoritative interpretations in the mass media that form our norms and standards. Barber argued that digitalization tends to compartmentalise information and to create knowledge niches for niche markets. This obstructs the common framework necessary to representative democracy and indispensable for a strong democracy (Barber 2003, 44).
A mature democracy, Barber argued, depends on knowledge rather than information and thus on mediators that test, verify and contextualise information in ways that make information meaningful. The Internet is not up to such a task, partly because it puts individual immediate needs before the considerations of the public sphere. Nicholas Negroponte (1995) was among the first to address the personalised character of news on the net, what he called the ‘Daily Me’. Later, this personalisation has been reinterpreted as an unfortunate individualisation, which leads to a decline in civil engagement and a negative spiral of fragmentation of the common public sphere (Putnam 2001). Cass Sunstein (2009) warned that the Internet could have detrimental effects for the development of public opinion insofar as it may generate segmentation, parallel spheres or group polarisation. In such a structure, like-minded people will seek each other and cultivate their common view distant from others.
In a similar vein, Michael Schudson (in Jenkins and Thorburn 2004, 49) has argued that if digital media are to be integrated with democracy and to a serious understanding of citizenship, we need to expand our notion of citizenship from that of the informed citizen. Being informed is not the basis of a democracy, Schudson argues and illustrates this with the rich conceptions of citizenship in American history. Schudson expressed doubt that the digital media will be able to support and serve to expand the current narrow notion of citizenship that in no way is prepared for a robust public sphere. Later, Schudson (2006) has argued more favourably that the Internet may assist political groups in doing more of what they are already organised to do. Internet use is a matter of amplifying existing forces. Generally, Schudson argues, it is difficult to speak of ‘impacts’ of technology on democracy, because both concepts entail so many things. Schudson (2006) notes that among the great transformations related to journalism and politics, only a few of them relate to new technologies. That social movements and trade unions turn to the Internet, he argues, is no evidence for the democratic potential of the Internet in any decisive way. Schudson is among those that argue that great political changes would have happened anyway, with or without the Internet.
The networked public sphere
In contrast to the reserved assessments of Habermas, Barber, Schudson and others, Youchai Benkler (2006) argued in an important work that the Internet represents a significant change towards a more democratic and responsive public sphere. He argued that the transition from a mass media structured public sphere to a distributed discursive architecture with multidirectional links among all nodes in the information environment has eliminated barriers to communication and fundamentally changed the possibilities for participation in the public sphere. In democratic countries, the lowered threshold for mediated conversation leads to a radical expansion of the public sphere. For totalitarian nations, this new architecture represents bad news – a new threat that they find very difficult to handle, due to the decentred, end-to-end structure of the Internet. In what ways does the Internet democratise the public sphere?
Citizens are no longer absorbed in observing and listening audiences but experience themselves as more responsible for local and national affairs. They are no longer simply private observers but subjects involved in public and political communication (Benkler 2006, 213). Even more dramatic is the structural changes of the public sphere itself. Benkler argues that the production of the public sphere benefits significantly from the networked information economy that has emerged since the 90s, with the World Wide Web, blogs, wikis and other social media. They offer insights and commentary of a rather different character than do mass media that are often dominated by conventional views considered to be accepted by the public, and by the views of their owners. Internet-based media are set up by NGOs or individuals that have another intake to issues and that present their case in different, often unconventional and non-journalistic ways. The facts presented are different and so are the views and strategies that contextualise them. Typically, politically important revelations published in the mass media are often picked up from low-budget blogs and wikis like Wikileaks. Many of the sites and blogs are neither dependent on advertising nor do they express mainstream tastes and opinions, since the motivation for publishing is anchored in personal engagement.
How can argumentation and deliberation survive in this communicative cacophony? How can the threads of communication somehow be untangled and filtered towards a more unified voice, and into an underlying sense of community or even a true public opinion? The key is the network structure of the Internet and its media. The internal dynamics of filtering and synthesis by way of links (references, feeds, retwittering, etc) enable those who are interested in the topic and connected to any of the participatory sites to get familiar with opinions and facts on the issue. By way of the structural features of the net, and in spite of its dramatic and dynamic growth, thousands of views can in fact coalesce around certain central arguments, events or sites, presenting petitions, boycott campaigns, etc.
This relates foremost to structural aspects of the Internet and web predominantly addressed by network analysis. Insights from mathematics-informed sociological network analysis have shown how the net operates in synthetic ways that create some sense of order on the net despite its enormous activity and incredible diversity. This form of analysis has some direct implications for studies of the Internet as an engine for the political public sphere, because they can counter allegations about the Internet's non-democratic effects, such as information overload, centralisation and digital divides. And most importantly, this analysis addresses the claim that the widespread use of the net may undermine the critical and investigative function of the mass media and possibly the whole existence of the paper-based press.
Among the most powerful arguments against the Internet as a contributor to the production of the public sphere is that the enormous activity on the net creates a chaotic, fragmented discourse, which in turn may lead to ‘balkanisation’, or parallel communities; isolated groups cultivating introvert, sometimes extreme views. The critique is that this Internet-based public sphere will not be able to serve its democratic function vis-à-vis the political decision-making domain. Alternative ideas and constructive views will tend to get lost in the jungle of fragmented communication. Cass Sunstein (2009) argued that the omnipresence of information combined with a weakened press to condense and synthesise would undermine the common base for political discourse. Related is the point that fragmentation leads to polarisation and reinforcing of views and beliefs. When contrary or conflicting positions rarely get the possibility to meet and challenge one another, they tend to develop more extreme views and develop further distance from one another. This is precisely what is not supposed to happen in the public sphere, according to the Habermasian approach. Group escapism, what Todd Gitlin (1998) called ‘sphericules,’ goes dramatically against the value of sharing ideas, encountering new viewpoints and confronting arguments with arguments. On the contrary, it may in turn lead to islands of extremism and ignorance. Research has analysed this alleged tendency of ‘homophily’ and found that if people with some shared interests and opinions form clusters, this makes it less likely that people of different opinions find one another in debate. But they may find each other indirectly through news feeds and linking. Clusters of similar interest may trigger some collective engagement, but it may also form isolated groups that conform to biassed images of society.
Illustrative of this is the debate in the United States about whether the Internet is to blame for a more and more polarised political atmosphere (Fiorina and Abrams 2008; McCarty et al. 2006). Analysis of the American blogosphere showed that political bloggers tend to belong either to a right wing or a liberal cluster, and that they link almost only to blogs on their own side of the political gap (Adamic and Glance 2005; Hargittai et al. 2008). A similar tendency has been found on Twitter (Conover et al. 2011). Readers of political blogs tend to be more politically engaged than others and to follow blogs that support their own view (Lawrence et al. 2010). Farrell suggests from various findings that a large group of blog readers tend to be exposed to a wide variety of online sources and views, whereas another smaller group of generally more politically active people preferentially follows political blogs of their own view and to a far lesser extent reads blogs of different views (Farrell 2012, 42). Research indicates that the more connections to other political leanings people have, the less likely they will engage politically (Mutz 2006). Cross-cutting relationships in among friends and work is considered to be a good thing but tends to weaken political engagement, while increasing political engagement stimulates group isolation and polarisation. There thus seems to be a trade-off, or a dilemma, between political involvement and cross-political interaction. Causes and effects in such cases are, however, very difficult to unpack, and research conducted by Gentzkow and Shapiro (2010) based on a large sample of blogs did not support the polarisation thesis.
Another type of critique takes a converse view that the Internet has developed concentration and marginalisation. While the vast majority of speakers on the net are never heard, a tiny minority of sites or individuals is highly linked and receives the vast majority of visits and attention. This critique is based on studies of Internet linking and addressing, which clearly shows a skewed distribution of linking and visits on the Internet. There is a low probability that a web site will be linked to from many other sites, and a very high probability that for a given web site, one or no other site will link to it. The blogosphere is another similar case: While the proliferation of blogs was seen as an important democratic innovation as it allowed for anyone to become a publisher at little or no cost, others commented that the blogosphere preserved the biassed profile of the mass media society, because a group of elite bloggers attracted most of the attention; whereas the majority of bloggers receive few visits (Farrell and Drezner 2008; Shirky 2009). American research also indicated that successful bloggers tended to be narrowly recruited socio-economically (Hindman 2008).
The distribution of linking forms what is called a right-skewed distribution and a power-law distribution (Benkler 2006, 244). If we are to associate democracy with a statistical normal distribution, the Internet is far from democratic. For reasons of ‘preferential attachment’, the early established and thus highly visible and frequently visited nodes on the net tend to grow at the expense of the late-coming majority of less visible ones because we tend to do what others do and have done: Linking tends to be conforming behaviour: It generates conservative patterns. New nodes tend to, on the average, be less frequently visited than the ‘first riders’. Of course, there are important exceptions to this tendency, such as Google. Over time, however, the dynamic Internet topology has established a limited number of super nodes and a multitude of rarely visited sites.
The concentration of linking among certain giant nodes, Benkler argues, has in fact a striking democratic effect. The new infrastructure that lies under a wide range of digital media seems to work in ways that favour freedom of expression, diversity and conversation. Filtering and synthesis mechanisms seem to yield clustering and redundancy, with the happy effect of convergence without control. Benkler argues that the networked public sphere allows hundreds of millions of people to publish without consequences of disintegration and concentration:
We know that the network at all its various layers follows a degree of order, where some sites are vastly more visible than most. This order is loose enough, however, and exhibits a sufficient number of redundant paths from an enormous number of sites to another enormous number, that the effect is fundamentally different from the small number of commercial professional editors of the mass media (Benkler 2006, 253).
Benkler thus argues that the topology of the net is ordered through some highly visible peaks supplemented with sufficient redundancy of links so that no node controls the flow of information. The power-law distribution neutralises the fragmentation argument, and the redundancy argument neutralises the concentration and polarisation arguments. Following Benkler, the Internet cancels out all main obstacles to ordered diversity, which makes it perfect as a platform for the democratic public sphere. It is both more resistant to control, and less susceptible to trivialisation than are the mass media.
Benkler shares Habermas' view on the public sphere, along with the deliberative democracy approach. And yet he locates the Internet in a quite different factual and normative position than does Habermas. Both emphasise the importance of generating involvement in the civil sphere around controversial issues. Still, Benkler goes further and argues that the Internet more than the mass media enables users to take part in dialogues where they experience themselves to be real participants in debates on society. Benkler's argument about the networked information economy as a platform for the public sphere is based on normative arguments about human reason and normative political theory, supplemented with an account of technological change: On the distributed, end-to-end nature of the Internet as a network. Benkler's position is highly normative in that his objective is to show what we lose if the structure of the Internet becomes corrupted. The Internet can only function in a liberal and liberating way if it functions along the lines it has done so far. If any of the global Internet corporations such as Google or Facebook become so powerful that they can lock our communication into their proprietary services, the Internet as a democratic platform may get lost. This applies too, we may add, if national intelligence agencies ally with the multinational Internet industry in conducting widespread eavesdropping and surveillance of both ordinary citizens and politicians. Nevertheless, Benkler clearly stands out as a liberal optimist.
Internet and the differentiation of the public sphere
Several theorists in political sociology have suggested that the public sphere may be seen as tiered or compartmentalised with regard to the nature of the interaction, degree of formalisation or of justification of viewpoints. The idea is that the diversity may itself play a constructive role in the self-organisation of the public sphere. The challenge of meaning convergence, that is, of making order out of complexity or will formation out of opinion formation, has been analysed on two levels deriving from disciplines that until recently belonged to quite different research traditions. One tradition came out of network analysis and focused on the Internet as a socio-technological structure, whereas the other tradition came out of the Habermasian theory of the political public sphere and set out to do empirical studies of local, national and super-national public spheres in terms of media content. From both positions, a dramatic expansion and pluralisation of communication is observed that subsequently leads to examinations of the possibilities for integration and convergence (Davis 2009). Benkler's study from 2006 clearly stands out as the most ambitious attempt to combine the two approaches.
A collaborator of Habermas, Bernard Peters, pioneered in doing empirical studies of the political public sphere and suggested ways to operationalise the concept (Peters 1997, 2004). He distinguished between a wide public sphere involving journalism, public performances and other public events, and a narrower public sphere involving justification and argumentation, explanations, openness for objections and recognition of fallibility occurring in political meetings, seminars and workshops, as well as in quality newspapers and broadcasting programmes. In its wide version, the main value of the public sphere lies in the ability and possibility of expression, if experimental, expressive and transitory. Such events express and provide vitality and colour to the public sphere. The narrower kind of public sphere would rather provide deliberative convergence of views based on argumentative reason, right to the doorstep of political decision-making.
Habermas himself follows Bernhard Peters' idea that processes of communication and decision-making lie along a centre-periphery axis as a system of ‘sluices’ in public discourse and generally involve two modes of problem-solving: The periphery of groups and associations of many sorts that supply and receive ideas and opinions for political decision-making, and formal political procedures in the core system. In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas (1996) makes a distinction between the informal public sphere supported and protected by citizenship and universal civil rights, and a formal public sphere of political bodies, formal will formation (argumentation, justification) and decision-making. Habermas' version of a deliberative model of democracy relies on a conception of the interplay between informal opinion formation and institutionalised formal will formation. Unlike conventional political theory, Habermas argues that regulated procedures of debate need the underlying informal communication as not only a legitimation process but as a process of improving the quality of decisions. Similarly, Van de Steeg (2002, 508) distinguishes an empirical specific concept of public discourse from a wider concept of the public sphere, where the first constitutes the aggregate of texts and media debates, and the latter constitutes its potential and reference background. Public discourse refers to a finite number of issues that circulates between media and communicative contexts, and where some form of public opinion formation emerges, on the background of the reservoir of the public sphere. With specific reference to the Internet, Rasmussen (2009, 2013) distinguishes between two dimensions of the public sphere, related to topics, style and participants, and with reference to different functional emphasis. The representational dimension refers to the heterogeneity of topics, styles and groups that reflects culture and everyday life, whereas the presentational dimension refers to the deliberation over common issues by central figures acting as voices of the people. The latter presents a public agenda and an expression of public opinion to politics as a resonance for rational decision-making.
Contra Habermas, others go on to argue that the notion of the public sphere must be considerably expanded if it is to include important changes in both Europe and less stable nation–states. Nancy Fraser argues that in a stratified society, the public sphere is and must be characterised by counter-publics, conflict-ridden, identity-based and often emotional. (Fraser 1993) Fraser and others see struggle and contestation as intrinsic features of a public sphere in a pluralist and class-divided society, or simply as important public impulses to democracy (Papacharissi 2004). From these critics of Habermas, deliberation is simply seen as too heavy a burden for the public sphere to carry. Withholding a too tight connection between a rational public sphere and a deliberative notion of democracy could imply exclusion of important types of non-discursive, collective forms of action, and in fact function ideologically. Milioni (2009), for instance, has studied the activist and alternative globalisation network Indymedia (NIMC) in Greece and found that the Internet, as the backbone of all activities, was used in innumerable innovative ways. She concludes that the concept of a public sphere is a useful concept to understand the online space, given that it acknowledges the diversity of publics, the new roles and repertoires of online activists and the need for an open model for political communication. Dahlgren reaches similar conclusions (Dahlgren 2005, 2013; see also Anduiza et al. 2012).
From the 1990s, a central task for political sociology and media research has been to understand the plethora of media and genres of public communication that so many people try out and develop further. From the start, the theoretical and methodological challenge has been to develop an attitude of ‘critical appreciation’ of digitalisation that neither rejects the new possibilities nor simply takes the technological solutions for given in a determinist manner. No technology is ever a sufficient condition for a vibrant democracy of a political public sphere, whether for the nation state, the EU or for a cosmopolitical world society. What matters are the social institutions that make use of the digital media in their capacity as agents in civil society and the public sphere, a capacity that needs to target both ends and means: both the public sphere of political communication and the digital mediations themselves. Democracy is not to be found in cyberspace but in a real society that includes analogue and digital communication. Terms like ‘netizens’ and ‘Cyberspace’ reflected an early methodological distinction among avant-garde users and researchers that later was proven of little help. Today, research assumes that citizens and groups in society use (and are addressed in) analogue and digital forms of communication that are entirely interwoven. This makes the notion of a public sphere extremely complex. It is more important than ever to examine the interrelationship between face-to-face publics, Internet-based publics and mass mediated publics – and the capacity of this hybrid public sphere to influence formal politics.
Rasmussen is a sociologist and professor of Media studies at the University of Oslo. Rasmussen teaches and conducts research on the use and transformation of digital personal media in social networks, the sociological controversies that influence the Internet as a social force, the digitization and selection of culture in archives and museums, Internet governance, online journalism and transformations of the European public sphere. He is the author and editor of several books on digital media, ethics, journalism and social theory – among them Social Theory and Communication Technology (Ashgate, 2000) and Digital Media Revisited: Theoretical and Conceptual Innovation in Digital Domains, The MIT Press, 2003. (ed. with Gunnar Liestøl and Andrew Morrison) – and several books and articles on journalism, politics and the public sphere in Norwegian.
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