Does social media fit into the public sphere?

By Lotta Stam

June, 2020

Social media has become very important in our lives in the past years; they range from sources of entertainment to sources of news. In recent years, these social platforms have allowed anyone to post anything and share it with the world, including their political views. As an American studies student, I have discussed Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere in several classes, which made me think about the role social media has in the public sphere. These forms of media seem to fit into the public sphere at first glance, but the way they are built up and the way they are used shows that in reality, this is not the case.

Public sphere

During the 1960s, Jürgen Habermas laid out his theory of the public sphere. He argues that before the 18th century, the general public fell under one category called the representative public sphere. In this culture, public opinion was represented by one party controlled by the state, such as church and nobility; the public played a passive role in this, as they had no say. Then, with the rise of widely available intellectual forms of entertainment, such as newspapers and coffeehouses, this culture changed to a critical one, in which private individuals exchanged their ideas through speech or written texts. The idea of the public sphere contains a place, either physical or mental, in which citizens form political public opinion, without the influence of the state. The biggest requirement is that anyone can join the conversation without precautions. Habermas argues, however, that modern society in the 1960s had moved away from this critical public sphere; throughout the years, the public sphere became more dependent on the state, losing a part of its critical and independent nature through mass media and capitalism. He explains this as “[l]arge organizations strive for political compromises with the state and with each other, excluding the public sphere whenever possible,” meaning that the public no longer had the room to discuss and criticize political ideas, because their opinions were being disregarded (54). Despite this, it did not go away completely; in the democratic social welfare states Habermas uses as examples, freedom of speech and the right to protest are still fundamental elements of the country’s society and constitution. Because of the way the idea of the public sphere has changed, Habermas feels that the only way it can now be realized is “as a rational reorganization of social and political power under the mutual control of rival organizations committed to the public sphere in their internal structure as well as in their relations with the state and each other” (55). This means that despite the state’s interference with private and public matters, the idea of the public sphere should still be taken into account.

Social media 

Scholars are divided when it comes to the question: “Does social media fit into the public sphere?” Some feel that because online platforms allow people from all over the world to communicate with each other, this allows a widespread discussion on political issues that are not limited to a close circle of friends and family. However, because there are so many people using these platforms, and because the companies behind them want to reach as many people as possible, innovative strategies are used to determine what a user sees, which varies per person. In the case of Facebook, smart algorithms collect information about all users, but also about individuals. The types of information vary greatly and range from what types of media are most popular to what a person’s interests are. The platform also follows you around other sites, so the types of posts you see are as accurate as possible (Cooper). This is a great thing when it comes to entertainment, but it is not an effective way to communicate with a wide variety of people. Studies have shown that people within the same demographic often vote for the same party, meaning they usually have similar opinions on political topics (“Trends in Party Affiliation among Demographic Groups”). Additionally, a high percentage of people mostly have friends within similar demographics, especially among upper-middle-class and higher-class citizens. A poll from Brown University showed that a significant number of undergraduates that responded were mostly friends with people of the same race or socioeconomic background (Brook). Therefore, a person on Facebook, who is mostly friends with people from similar backgrounds that vote for the same party and have similar interests, is not likely to encounter political views they disagree with on social media. As Facebook’s algorithm determines a person’s habits and interests based on their earlier online as well as that of their friends, it is expected that posts do not stray far from their own political opinions. This is also true for other platforms, such as YouTube. 

Fear of repercussions

Another reason why social media platforms are not ideal environments for political discussion is the fear of repercussions when a person’s views come out. A study conducted by several US universities in 2017 shows people’s reluctance to use social media as a way to share their political opinions. The respondents fell into the Generation X and the Millennial generations and they were asked about their habits online. They were asked what they disliked about social media and the majority of the respondents answered that they felt there was a lack of “respectful discourse, especially regarding politics” (Kruse et al., 69). As a result of this, almost every interviewee indicated that they were hesitant to post about politics or sensitive topics. Interestingly, a number of respondents did say they would have face-to-face discussions with persons that have opposing political views. One of the reasons the interviewees gave for not posting political-related content is the fear of harassment (71). The fact that the online environment adds a sense of anonymity and distance causes discussions to escalate and become personal and hurtful, which is less common with discussions that are face-to-face. Secondly, another reason is the fear of workplace surveillance (72). Respondents were afraid that their workplace would discover their social media pages and get in trouble for what they were posting. While personal views should not matter, some interviews had this happen to acquaintances or themselves. A lot of partakers expressed that they limited their connections to people with similar views. One of the participants called this a “hug box,” referring a place to connect with people they can agree with (73). Adding to that, many respondents said that they would only post something political when they were either anonymous or if they were sure that people would agree. All of these reasons for not participating in political discussions online are explained by the motivation to use social media; when asked what social media meant for them, all but two candidates identified social media as a place for entertainment and above all, for having fun with friends, family, and other acquaintances. A lot of them felt that these online platforms should not be a place for negativity, because they used it to stay in touch with people from different phases of their lives. Even some respondents who were actively involved in political causes did not desire to use social media for these purposes. 

While some people claim that social media adds to the public sphere because of the possibility to communicate with a wide range of people with different political views, the way social media is currently built up and used does not fulfill this claim. Additionally, it has been shown that social media users prefer not to engage in political discussions online for several reasons. 

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