The Internet remains one of mankind’s most remarkable inventions in history, particularly in the area of communication. It probably ranks as high as the discovery of television and radio, both of which were invented much earlier. As people continue to marvel at the great capability of the Internet due to its extensive reach that surpasses all kinds of physical barriers, one area that calls for more interest and attention is on the influence of the Internet on democracy.
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Several scholars continuously attempt to conduct studies in this area, with others building on past theories and findings. Others conduct fresh researches to offer their conclusive and factual verdict about the relationship. Jurgen Habermas’ contribution in relation to this subject matter is significant in the sense that it offers a valid basis upon which this discussion and other similar ones can be supported (Habermas, 1991, p. 40).
Opponents of the Internet, as a public sphere-broadcasting platform argue that the phenomenon is fast losing its democratizing potential. Instead, the opponents are conforming to the ways of the traditional media platform, including newspapers and televisions. Powerful players in society, such as multinational corporations, are argued to be the main influencers of newspapers and televisions through their insistence on obedience from the consumer audience.
As Curran (2002, p. 114) asserts, ‘modernity’ as a concept is losing meaning because the Internet serves either as a reflection of modern production practices in every institution or as a means for enabling the supple testing of alternative and the eventual development of a new variety of capacities. In actual sense, the results of this struggle do not reflect on the technology itself. Instead, the social conditions shape the conditions that, in turn, result in the invention, as well as adoption of different technologies.
In analysing the possibility of the Internet providing a perfect forum for rational political debate, I specifically maintain the focus on the online technology and the principles that may reinforce true democracy. The Internet is a powerful tool that gives the users the platform for coming up with content and sharing it widely and with ease.
This aspect of the Internet is its main differentiating factor as compared to technologies such as the television, as well as radio. In other words, while the Internet is unrestricted, both radio and television characteristically remain controlled about the person who is permitted to create and eventually broadcast information.
The comparisons drawn between the Internet and its usage, on the one hand, and the radio and television, on the other hand, help to develop constructive discussions and arguments concerning the possibility of the Internet offering a rational political debate forum. Setting up a broadcast station for radio or television is not an easy undertaking, although it is possible to do so. Powerful corporate bodies, mainly multinational in their formation, call the shots when it comes to propagating radio or television content.
The Internet is a totally different form of media because it only requires one to be computer literate to come up with rich content and share it widely. People enjoy the freedom availed by the Internet to initiate debates whereupon they discuss varied political issues that may confine them to national issues or the international scene. The contemporary user of the Internet enjoys the power of online discussion boards, blogs, and wikis to announce their preferences or choices regarding any given political aspect.
What makes online discussion boards, blogs, and wikis, among many other internet platforms powerful is the fact that they are freely downloadable and can be installed easily as well. Their “open source” availability makes them easily accessible by users from whatever global location. The Internet automatically qualifies as one of the most prolific platforms to sustain rational political debate given that the social online community is thought to be comprised of 2.5 billion.
Numerous shortcomings of the online community hinder its effectiveness in terms of enabling a forum that sustains rational political debate. Firstly, the online social media is considered as a noisy and an uncontrolled environment. There have been a lot of ideas to be disseminated because anyone with access to the Internet is able to broadcast any political idea with little or no control.
Some of the suggestions and ideas lack any tangible basis, but they are all the same floated around because people have the freedom of doing it. Secondly, the large amount of information available through the Internet overwhelms the public or the targeted audience. Everybody has turned out into an information source. Thus nobody pays attention to others’ suggestions and ideas.
Equally, it becomes more challenging for an audience bombarded with all kinds of information from an infinite number of sources to separate facts from hearsay.
Coupled with these characteristics is the reality that internet identity cannot be verified in most cases. Inclusiveness also lacks in the use of the Internet, particularly because the older generation tend to prefer other traditional media, like newspapers, radio, and television than they do the Internet. In essence, the composition would still not involve a significant generation of the society even if the social community engaged each other in political debate.
I draw from Jurgen Habermas works and the argument concerning the potential value of such forums as blogs, wikis, as well as online bulletin boards as I undertake to discuss the relationship between the Internet and its influence on rational political debate.
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Another critical source that will help shape my arguments is Dahlgren’s, “the Internet, public spheres and political communications”, which appears in the Political Communications’ publication (Dahlgren, 2005, p. 147).
In particular, Dahlgren (2005, p. 147) looks at the Internet as a modern media that has contributed immensely towards the destabilization of the traditional political communication systems. Significantly, Dahlgren introduces the public sphere concept that helps in explaining what the Internet is capable of doing to influence the public notion.
The Public Sphere
According to Habermas (1991, p. 43), the public sphere, just like many other concepts in the world, has undergone an evolutionary process, especially in terms of its participation in a rational political debate that touches on the society. For instance, he notes that it was only towards the end of the 18th century that the Bourgeois public sphere eventually emancipated itself from the public authority’s directives (Habermas, 19991, p. 79).
From this period on, as Habermas continues, the public sphere appears to have attained its full development. As a result, the rational-critical debate by the public sphere was expected to transform and achieve some level of consensus concerning the necessary practicality of issues that would eventually serve everybody else’s interest (Habermas, 1991, p, 83).
Different rights are necessary for this sphere’s formation. Firstly, it is critical for individuals to enjoy the ability to engage amongst themselves in discussions that critically point at the ruling institutions and their various failures or limitations. For such rights to thrive, the freedom of both the press and assembly ought to be available, while the individuals should be able to petition and participate in voting activities, amongst other practices that uphold and promote their many individual rights.
A person is also endowed with the right to freedom as a human being and to belong to a patriarchal set of a family. Habermas (1991, p. 48) refers to this as an existent private sphere. Lack of an appropriate private sphere denies people the capacity to develop genuine human relations (Habermas, 19991, p. 48). The third and final set of rights described by Habermas regards private property, mainly about its protection (1991, p. 83).
All these rights promote the public, as well as the private spheres, particularly the public sphere’s institutions and instruments, along with the basis of private autonomy (Habermas, 1991, p. 83). The collapse of the Bourgeois public sphere ensued following its integration into private life. Thus, the merger of the public and private sphere made it tough for individuals to attain the necessary perspective needed for engaging in rational political debate.
On his part, Iosofidis (2011, p. 619) concurs that the public sphere remains a critical analytical tool applicable in the modern society, which specifically helps in making sense in as far as the association between democracy or civic engagement and the media is concerned. Iosofidis (2011, p 33) agrees that Heberman’s theory and work may involve several limitations, but he appreciates the fact that the public sphere and democracy remain inseparable.
Thus, with respect to these findings, it is the responsibility of the media to sustain rational argumentation process (Iosifidis, 2011, p. 33). This is mainly achieved through the provision of an enabling environment that eventually supports free, as well as reason-based public opinion. It is the responsibility of the media to control the debates that form public opinion.
The media also informs the public. These critical factors, in turn, enable the upholding of democracy. The essence of public information mainly entails supporting the common interest, as well as supporting the participation in debates discussing the common interest. According to Webster (2006), the public relations intrusion often contributes towards damaging the public sphere because it jeopardizes the rationality criteria.
The advancement of laissez-faire capitalism caused significant effects on the public sphere, according to Harbermas (1991, p. 50). As a result, the public sphere’s decline reflects on the rapid social developments that were witnessed mainly in the last century in the form of urbanization, industrialization, the emergence of popular press, increase in literacy levels, as well as other similar factors.
Dahlgren (2011, p. 147) on his part, considers the public sphere as a constellation comprising of communicative spaces within any given society, which promote information circulation. The public sphere equally influences the exchange and the movement of ideas, at the same time enhancing debates that help in shaping political will. Like Iosifidis and other scholars who have explored this topical issue, Dahlgren concurs with Habermas’s theory. However, he too agrees that inherent limitations affect the effectiveness of the supposition.
Dahlgren’s idea of a public sphere comprises of three important dimensions he identifies as structures, representation, as well as interaction (2005, p. 147). The proposed structural dimension relates to the formal features of an institution, including media organizations, the political economy, regulate ownership, and other financial related issues. It equally involves the legal frameworks involved that go to an extent of defining communication freedoms and the related constraints.
In particular, the structure helps in directing people’s dimensions towards such model issues related to democracy, including freedom of speech and access and the vibrancy of inclusion and/or exclusion. Structural dimension is a pointer to the political institutions that have been established in the society to address the issue of politics as presented in the media (Dahlgren 2005, p. 147).
It, thus, establishes the limits that accurately define the character of the information, as well as forming the expression that circulate. Weak democratic tendencies in a society deny the society the opportunity to develop healthy institutional structures in as far as the public sphere is concerned (Dahlgren, 2005, p. 147). In such circumstances, therefore, the inadequate representational dimension will definitely be witnessed.
The Internet and its Sustenance of Rational Political Debates
Many discussions held on blogs, online discussion forums, and wikis often border on benefits for the privileged in society, along with the disadvantages that the underprivileged face in the same society. Individuals with access to computers find the Internet more valuable as a resource when it comes to political participation.
The Internet is a platform where individuals pay attention to the available opportunities for communication and participating in democratic processes (Dahlgre, 2005, p. 150). In other words, it relates to the organisation of cyber-geography along legal economic, social, as well as cultural and technical lines (Dahlgren, 2005, p. 151).
Nevertheless, the mere access to the Internet does not necessarily imply that those involved will enjoy increased political activity; neither does it point at enlightened political discourse (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 12). Many others remain excluded from any such political discourses held on the Internet because of the challenges of connectivity. This goes a long way in influencing the rationality of online political debates because it eliminates robustness within the public sphere (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 12).
New digital spheres have opened up courtesy of the Internet. These spheres offer striking similarities to the public sphere concept as discussed by Habermas (Stumpel, 2009, para 1). The public sphere brought about by the Internet includes Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, blogs, online discussion forums, as well as wikis just to name a few. These platforms are evidently outside the state’s control and offer an opportunity for individuals to learn new things through exchanging knowledge.
This characteristic of the Internet implies that the resultant space created by this modern media that can be used effectively by individuals to develop their public-minded rational consensus.
No specific organization or arrangement is required of social community participants, rather the space is open and anyone is allowed to assume the role of a discussion’s speaker without incurring any related costs. Murru (2009, p. 143) confirms that the Internet, therefore, allows individuals to distribute news. Information is also freed because the control of major multinationals is curtailed.
The transformations described by Habermas in relation to the Bourgeois in the 18th century mainly involved traditional media such as the newspaper and free radio waves before the control of airwaves by government authorities. In the same breadth, the Internet or modern media also influences the extent of participation by individuals regarding rational political discourses.
In the case of the Internet, the situation is supportive because no issues relating to confinement are experienced. An infinite audience size can be reached, while everybody can literally publish and produce content they consider as logical. The notion of democracy is practically aided by the fact that the Internet opens, frees, and decentralises space that, in turn, sustains the voicing of free opinion.
In his analysis, Dahlgren (2005, p. 155) admits that the advent of the Internet has helped in promoting civic interaction, thereby accentuating the sprawling character that is in the public sphere. Blogs, a formidable platform created by the Internet, can be related to the diaries, as well as the letters that Habermas said they played a contributory role in influencing the old Bourgeois’ development and transformation to a public sphere in the 18th century.
On the other hand, online bulletin boards, another of the modern media creation, can equally be equated to the table societies, salons, and coffee shops, all of which Habermas describes as having borne the brunt of rational political debate at a time when authorities and powerful businesses controlled people’s thinking (Hooks, 1994).
One significant similarity that characterises the coffee tables of the 18th century and the online bulletin boards at the present-day age is the fact that they pay no attention to their user statuses. Often, the contributor’s actual name remains unknown as most users adopt names referred to as pseudonyms.
An online user’s popularity and the extent to which he or she may influence others’ thinking and ideology revolve around the quality that describes his or her argument. Professional credentials and fame are not necessarily considered as important because it is easy to forge such attributes without the other users finding it possible to substantiate the claims (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001, p. 129). Indeed, the Internet is a sure platform through which rational political debate is sustained.
Other users can detect childish or irrelevant arguments and rightfully ignore it as they engage on other more reasonable opinions. Concrete practical evidence that underscores the Internet’s contribution and influence on political matters is seen when revisiting the period beginning mid-1990s, where a majority of the general elections in countries considered as democratic had a virtual presence on the Internet through the official websites.
Even political parties across the globe have made their presence felt in the online world by establishing websites through which they conduct some of their businesses. Barrack Obama, perhaps, remains as one of the living examples to have made use of the new media to achieve a political goal (The Economist, 2010, p. 33). Before his election as the US President, Obama relied on the Internet as his perfect platform upon which he marshalled activists, raised funds, as well as convinced voters to elect him (The Economist, 2010, p. 33).
Another argument brought forward by Habermas (1991, p. 73) is that it is possible to apply the concept of problematicization of sections that were beyond reach. A discussion board is catchy if shows some elements of originally and depth in analysing a given issue. In most cases, bulletin boards guarantee their members or users the ultimate privacy they require.
However, most state authorities insist on understanding and determining the actual identity of the members and the topics they discuss. Rational political debate is interfered with by the state because of the state infringing the rights of the citizens.
Conduct and Participation Rules
Despite the strong internet characteristics that offer great opportunities to the new media sustaining rational political debate, there are also significant limitations that undermine the Internet’s suitability to ensure discussions remain rational. Firstly, the Internet does not restrict participation in terms of either qualification or understanding. This is a sure recipe for chaos because it means participants will be shouting their opinions without caring about others.
Often, discussions on political subjects end up degenerating into a barrage of insults and name-calling, especially when those taking part fail to agree on certain issues.
Such a discussion is less likely to include any rational thinking and discourse. Further, it is still difficult to contain the emotions of a virtual being, even where moderators of such blogs or online discussion boards attempt to control the warring parties. In the end, the audience of such an online platform does not stand to benefit from any logical discussions on issues affecting individuals or their societies.
The overall conversation ought to be carried out in a structured manner for a discussion to have meaningful principles that help the audience towards shaping their ideologies. This cannot be said of online discussion platforms because they virtually lack model rules to determine behaviour. In such a context, participants’ voices and texts can turn out to be anarchic, instead of being democratic. This can erode any rationality of the political debate.
Despite the large sizes that characterise the Internet community, it is critical to note that not every group or individuals in society form part of these online communities. One significant trend that is almost replicated across the entire globe is about the average age of internet users.
Mostly, the youthful populations in society prefer using the Internet to any other form of media. In contrast, the older generation is often not so comfortable with the Internet (Reisenwitz et al., 2007, p. 406). Thus, in terms of inclusiveness, it can be argued that internet discussion forums do not represent the whole idea of the society.
Instead, the forums only support the ideologies of a section of the community, while leaving out very important contributions by a significant section of the community. Apart from the challenges bordering on age, internet access also depends on whether people have computers and the respective infrastructure at their disposal.
Not all societies or countries allow their citizens to use the Internet freely. Countries that also lack ideal democratic leadership fear the interactivity of the masses as promoted by the Internet because it could enlighten the people and result in strong opposition.
In China, Cuba, and North Korea, the respective authorities have in the past denied the citizenry the opportunity to access social platforms such as the Facebook and Twitter owing to their great ability to marshal people and influence their political thinking (Crampton, 2011, p. 28). In such countries, therefore, it is prudent to note that no rational political debate can be held on the online social media because users fear tough reprisals from the government.
I have discussed elaborately about the potential of the Internet and its contributions towards supporting rational political debates. There are many characteristics of the new media that are similar to the traditional media. According to scholars who have studied the impact of media on promoting social-political discourse in the past, the human community did not have the freedom to freely discuss politics and appeared to oppose the authorities and their decisions.
Governments in association with strong multinational corporations ensured the masses only received information that was regarded as safe or acceptable. Thus, the authorities and the powerful economical means controlled the media and dictated news items and discussions that eventually reached the audience.
However, as Habermas’ theory of public sphere suggests, the human community constantly engaged in struggles with the powerful authorities in a bid to expand the social space and create an opportunity from where the authorities, as well as the strong multinational companies could be criticised by the masses in the manner in which they handled issues, particularly political subject matters.
The full attainment of the Bourgeois or the middle-class public sphere only occurred in the period between the end of the 18th century and the mid 19th century. As Habermas explains, the masses had to rely on other platforms other than radio, television, and newspaper to reach their goal.
These platforms included congregating in salons and coffee shops from where individuals discussed political aspects amongst themselves. While television, radio, as well as newspapers, would have played bigger and influential roles in sustaining the political discourses, they were monitored strictly by the authorities that felt that allowing the masses to engage in political discussions would incite them over their authorities.
However, technological innovations in the area of ICT led to the discovery of the Internet towards the end of the 20th century. The information superhighway, as it is known today, is characterised by great interconnectivity that offers global societies an opportunity to interact freely without being constrained by physical limitations such as national boundaries or distance.
Today, individuals residing in different continents that are hundreds of thousands of miles apart still enjoy the ability to communicate in real-time without facing the same challenges encountered in the past prior to the invention of the Internet.
The Internet, therefore, has provided the most formidable platforms upon which rational political debate is held by the masses. Various platforms have resulted from the invention of the Internet, including blogs, online discussion boards, as well as wikis. These online platforms allow participation from individuals connected to the Internet. They also provide great privacy that assures the users their protection.
People, therefore, contribute to political debates rationally without fearing any reprisals from the authorities. Unlike in the case of the traditional media, the new media is hard to control by governments and powerful companies. Powerful bodies and authorities can no longer control peoples’ ideas and minds because the individuals in society chose what to broadcast and in their own language. With the traditional media, people had to wait for somebody else to broadcast information to them in a way that only suited the authorities’ whims.
The largest online community across the whole world, estimated at 2.5 billion people, further enhances the Internet’s position or the capability to support rational political debate. Many people can contribute in the political discourses and promote logical debate that reflects effectively on the actual political scenario of the country or society.
The Internet platform may as well involve political experts capable of initiating and leading rational discussions on the political aspects because of the free participation and membership. As has been witnessed in recent countries, many general elections held across the globe have witnessed respective national electoral bodies using their official websites to disseminate information, at the same time receiving feedback details from their targeted audiences.
Political parties have equally been engaging much of their activity on the Internet using their officially designed websites. The current US President Barrack Obama is a beneficiary of the Internet after conducting his presidential campaigns and related political activities extensively on the Internet.
Nonetheless, the Internet communities and their overall arrangements are limitations that affect the new media’s ability to sustain rational political debate. No significant structures determine the way online discussions are conducted. Important guiding structures such as age limits and code of ethics do not exist in such discussion forums. In essence, people shout at each other as they give their opinions without caring to listen or read what others have to say about a given topical issue.
Such discourses definitely lack decorum and the necessary rationality needed in a political debate. The debate has to entail communication, where people give their opinions to others and read and interpret carefully what others have to offer, without necessarily considering whether others’ views are opposing or supporting their stand.
Secondly, the Internet obviously lacks inclusiveness that is important in supporting rational political debate. The trend in many societies depicts an active online community that is mainly youthful in terms of age. The older generation is left out of participation owing to inadequate skills to operate computers or a general preference for the traditional media to the new media. Additionally, not everyone in society has access to computers or internet infrastructure.
Thus, although many people hold political discussions on the Internet, little rational debate can be associated with their discourse owing to the failure of the Internet to include everyone on board. Thirdly, other countries with limited democratic practices or ideals attempt to limit the participation of the masses in using online platforms to discuss political issues.
China, Cuba, and the North Korea exemplify societies in which the authorities express keenness to restrict the use of online forums as Facebook and Twitter. In these countries, therefore, it can be argued that the masses may prefer to avoid the use of the Internet to promote rational political debate for fear of vilification by the authorities.
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