Habermasian theory of the public sphere stresses the formation of the public sphere through a realm of social life in which public opinion can be formed. With the growth of the Internet, the debate has erupted regarding the utility of the Internet to facilitate the formation of public opinion. The central notion of the public sphere that has dominated the theorization of the issues is based on the notion that the public sphere has the ability to present a platform for the masses to rationalize public opinion and guide the political system, thus, creating a strong democracy. The Internet singularly revolutionized communication, however, whether it has been successful in creating a public sphere, theorized by Habermas, is debatable. New technologies like the Internet provide tools that allow public sphere to extend its role in the social and political arena.
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Cyberspace provides a space for the online discourse on political and social issues to be discussed. The Internet provides access to global forums wherein users can express their opinion without any form of interference or mediation by the government or any such institutions. However, many are skeptical about the non-stop chatter in the ever-present chat rooms of MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, etc. Even though there are many speculations, many online political forums and projects aim at expanding Internet democracy. Avoiding any deterministic attitude towards online technology, it is safe to assert that the Internet has helped in establishing a political, social, and economic environment.
Proponents of cyberspace believe that this media will successfully create an alternate, democratic space for public participation. However, skeptics have their doubts. This essay argues that the Internet has been an unsuccessful medium for developing a public space using the Habermasian theory of Public Sphere. The paper will first discuss the theory of public sphere as discussed by Habermas and then apply the theory to ascertain the success of the Internet as a medium for creating public sphere.
Theory of Jürgen Habermas
Habermas believed that the public sphere emerged through the process of communication between people. He believed that a public sphere is formed when private individuals assembled to communicate their views and formed a public body. In the introduction to his seminal work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas points out:
… publicness (or publicity) of representation was not constituted as a social realm, that is, as a public sphere; rather, it was something like a status attribute… Representation in the sense in which the members of a national assembly represent a nation or a lawyer represents his clients had nothing to do with this publicity of representation inseparable from the lord’s concrete existence that, as an aura,’ surrounded and endowed his authority. (Habermas, 1989, p. 7)
People usually conferred to the process of public sphere formation as they adhered to a public body and communicated in an unrestricted environment. Thus, the realm or space where the private individuals assembled to communicate their ideas allowed unhindered freedom to assemble and express their opinions. The issue of discussion was not primary as it could be any topic of general interest. Habermas believed that people acted as a public body when they communicated with unhindered freedom. He points out that the mass media like newspaper, television, radio, and magazines are ideal medium for public sphere formation (Habermas, Lennox, & Lennox, 1974).
Historically, the European society in the Middle Ages showed no sign of creating a public sphere (Habermas, 1989). However, it changed with the advent of the capitalist modes of production in the eighteenth century and the inculcation of the enlightenment philosophy resulting in the creation of a bourgeois public sphere; however, through ages, this bourgeois public sphere eroded establishing the modern mass society. Thus, the modern age diluted the difference between the state, bourgeois, and the mass, thus creating a single sphere.
The Internet and Public Sphere
The Internet as a medium for interaction has provided free access to the masses to communicate and interact. The question that is exploding the media research studies is the affectivity of the Internet in creating a public sphere. Lincoln Dahleberg says that though the Internet helps in creating a space for the public sphere to be formed, it “falls short of the requirements of public sphere model” (Dahlberg, 2001a, p. 7). Still the Internet is believed to have a strong role in creating public sphere. We will discuss the effect of the Internet in creating public sphere using three categories – representative publicity, horizontally integrated media conglomerates, and democratization.
Representative publicity had been described Habermas as the means of selective publicity done by the one in power, thus, secluding the masses. This resulted in the decline of the public sphere as manipulative publicity resulted in completely ignoring the rational opinion of the public and created a public spectacle. According to Habermas, in a capitalist society where the class divisions are stark, there is a tendency to return to feudalistic society and the dominance of “representative publicity” presented in the society brings back medieval monarchy (Habermas, 1989, p. 142). Thus, a change of the society towards medieval times not only disrupts formation of public sphere, it also destroys any sphere that had been previously formed. However, Habermas’s analysis in terms of representative publicity is limited in its scope and depth. The reason for this is Habermas does not consider the strength of mass media in formation of public sphere and complete distrust of symbolic publicity.
Refuting Habermasian analysis, the proponents of the Internet believe that online discourse will successfully create a space for political discourse and hence a public space. Online discourse is expected to increase political participation of the masses. Many proponents such as Poster (1997) points out that there is a distinct increase in political opinion in the internet, creating a public scape through the new technology. However, others like Papacharissi (2002) believe it is a utopian idea. He studied the Internet as a medium of political discourse. His research suggests that the Internet is a strong medium of providing information to the users. For instance, “Internet users are able to find voting records of representatives, track congressional, and Supreme Court rulings, join special interest groups, fight for consumer rights, and plug into free government services” (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 13).
Online databases are therefore, the mode of discoursing the users. Further, discussions on the Internet through active forums allow individuals to meet and talk a certain political influence. This creates a space to discuss and propagate political ideas. Research has shown that discussion in the cyberspace can easily become viral and transferred to the masses online; however, it cannot be ensured that this will ensure further discussion on the topic (Papacharissi, 2002). Internet has become an easy method for the spread of political ideology and information to create mass propaganda:
In more recent elections in the US, clever uses of the internet allowed politicians to motivate followers, increase support, and reach out to previously inaccessible demographic groups … In turn, voters were able to provide politicians with direct feedback through these websites. (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 13)
Thus, the Internet can be successfully used a medium of publicity and propaganda to reach the masses. The Internet also allows a space to create public opinion and hence allows construction of political ideas. Habermas points out with the advent of the newspaper; the editors and the journalists of newspaper became the moderator of public opinion (Habermas, Lennox, & Lennox, 1974). The editorial staff became the pallbearers of public opinion as the publisher’s role changed from a seller of news to a creator of public opinion. Representation in the media became an important means of disseminating public opinion, as the newspaper remained a public institution.
Similarly, today, the rise of the Internet and the easy access of the technology to the masses have increased the possibility of creation of social relation through the media. Habermasian theory constricts itself to face-to-face interaction and formation of public sphere. However, he does not consider the increased power of the contemporary media to create extensive visibility and access to information for the masses, thus, creating a fissure for news dissemination and space for creation of public opinion. The Internet todays plays a profound role in disseminating news to the people and creating awareness.
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Horizontally Integrated Media Conglomerates
Horizontal integration of media houses implies one media company acquires or merges with another media company. For instance, BBC entertainment has both television and radio broadcasting services. Thus, taking over other, but similar, companies in order to broaden the portfolio of the company is called horizontal integration. Media houses integrate horizontally in order to increase media synergy. For instance, a company may release and produce a film and release a CD soundtrack of the film’s music. This type of horizontal synergy helps the company to gain greater competitive advantage.
This form of horizontal integration is a form of expansion and rise of capitalism. However, according to Habermas, such expansion becomes a source of depletion go the public sphere. He points out that public sphere is a space where people display their class and stature rather than a sphere of critical debate (Habermas, 1994). Hence, through horizontal integration, the news is being published by a few who control and manipulate the media. The Internet, through a process of horizontal integration, comes under the aegis of a single owner, who becomes a totalitarian disseminator of the news and can manipulate discourse. Thus, according to the Habermasian theory the space for communication reduces considerably (Habermas, 1994). According to Habermas, horizontal integration is a form of colonization of the media (Hodkinson, 2011).
Hence, increased integration would reduce the possibility of public sphere formation. Profit orientation of the business houses has a corrosive impact on the formation of public opinion in the mass media. Habermas believed a few pamphlets and newspapers was an effective means of public sphere formation, but mass media and its heightened commercialisation erodes all possibility of creation of such a sphere (Hodkinson, 2011). The Internet, according to Habermasian theory is just another vehicle to enhance consumerist culture wherein people are lured to believe that short-term decision to purchase an item online will help democracy and economy (Hodkinson, 2011). Thus, according to Habermas, horizontal integration of media houses would result in deplete the process of public sphere formation.
Internet as a source of free and open medium of discourse can be used as a successful means of political discourse to establish democracy. The method of debate through forums in the Internet is definitely democratic as it provides the flexibility to the users to choose the information they want to read (Dahlgren, 2005). According to the Habermasian theory, the public sphere supports democracy in order to create a civil society. Further, it also helps to establish the normative concept of public sphere that provides equality of access and rights through the Internet (Gimmler, 2001). In addition, as the Internet allows public debate without mediation by the government or any other authoritative body, it helps in establishing a truly democratic forum for discussion and creation of public sphere. However, many researchers believe that creation of a democratic public sphere through the Internet requires a deliberate attempt to create a forum for political deliberation (Dahlberg, 2001b).
Habermasian theory does not support the popular belief that the Internet can be a strong medium to form public sphere. Dissemination of political or social awareness through the media may be tampered due to the high consumerist orientation of the media owners. Further, media has become a form of enterprise rather than a non-profit making organization. Capitalist orientation corrupts the dissemination process; the Internet becomes an intruder in the public sphere and manipulates public opinion.
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