The concept of the public sphere, coined by philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas, and based on the model of the 18th century European Cafés has changed considerably with the advent of the internet. Some theorists question if we even have a public sphere online, but the biggest concern is how the way the internet and the digital infrastructures that control it could influence democracy nowadays. Professor Odile Heynders, head of the Department of Culture Studies in Tilburg University, and researcher of the transformation of the public sphere due to digitalization helps shed some light in the main preoccupations that we have today.
The public sphere, according to Habermas, is “a domain of our social life where such a thing as public opinion can be formed [where] citizens … deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion … [to] express and publicize their views. (Habermas 1997,105). Heynders explains that the concept of the public sphere is a metaphor, it is based on a concrete place and it became more abstract. It is used to point at places in a society, in which people can discuss their political opinions and can also critique politicians. As such the public sphere is indispensable in a democracy.
The public intellectual is also an important characteristic of the public sphere, they are needed to shape the discussion and help form public opinion. They are people who have thought about things, who are critical and well-educated. They are also very much aware of the strategies that can be used to become visible and effective in public discussion.
Can we consider the internet a public sphere?
Yes, of course. It opens a space in which we can discuss things with each other and it gives us the opportunity to have different opinions and to share different opinions and perspectives. That is the simplest answer. The more complicated answer is that it is less open and direct than the European café was in the 18th century because at that time people (mainly educated men) were very much equal, and they were sitting at the table and they could have discussions. We are not so sure if there is the same equality on the internet. That is something that we are exploring and investigating.
A well-functioning public sphere is not about you and I having our says, it is about having a sound, rational discussion in order to find a solution to our shared problems.
But couldn’t we say that there is more equality on the internet because everyone can have access to it?
Of course, that is the most given answer, everyone can have access so there is more equality. But then the other answer is that there is not always equality because we do not know who is organizing the places in which we have discussion.
For instance, if we choose Twitter as a platform for discussion, who is organizing Twitter? Who is behind it? Who is making the decisions, what is open or not or what is taken out? In a digital public sphere, we do not really have all the information about the institutions.
Besides, equality as such is not a guarantee for a well-functioning public sphere. A well-functioning public sphere is not about you and I having our says, it is about having a sound, rational discussion in order to find a solution to our shared problems. That is something that is, of course, based on equality, but also based on, for example, expertise. If you are an expert more than I am on certain things and we are debating, then you can convince me, in the end, of the way to do something. This is what we definitely miss on the internet. It may be equal, but the discussion is also all over the place and often it does not lead to rational discussions based on shared knowledge. Shared knowledge and a rational and open discussion is what we would like to have in a public sphere.
So, do we need someone organizing the discussion? How could that be a good thing and could algorithms do that?
It is good when there is a someone who is leading the discussion. I am very much in favor of that. Let’s say, for instance, you can have a debate on The Guardian site and you know the people from The Guardian are in a position of being an ‘arbiter.’ That means that there is someone who organizes and orchestrates the discussion. That is a procedure that I consider as very good.
An algorithm is something else. It is not about sharing new arguments, ideas, and knowledge. An algorithm is based on prediction and calculation. I think that the good thing about a well-functioning discussion in the public sphere is that it is not predictable. It is about finding out what we think, where we (dis)agree and, based on this (dis)agreement, find new ideas.
Maybe I am a bit too romantic, but that is something that I think is not connected to a mathematical perspective. In a well-functioning public sphere there is uncertainty. There are strange things, new fantasies and even some irrationality could help to improve the rationality and the outcome of the discussion. Not everything is predictable.
It is good that when we have a discussion that we know each other. Even when we are disagreeing, it can be a fantastic, good and convincing discussion.
Therefore, could some of the digital infrastructures that are controlling social media be positive?
They could be positive if we know who is organizing them. If it is clear how they are doing it and if it is clear to whom I am talking to. I mentioned the importance of equality already. One of the things that is not so convincing in this ‘online equality context’ is that there are a lot of discussions on the internet between anonymous people. Many people hide behind nicknames or avatars. That is, I think, a very bad strategy if you are in a public sphere discussing difficult ethical, social, or political issues.
It is good that I know you when we have a discussion. That I know that I (dis)agree with you, but also that I know where you come from. Even if we are disagreeing, it can be a fantastic, good, convincing discussion. But if I do not see you and do not know you, if you are a nickname, then something of the trust that you need for a public discussion is disappearing. The public sphere can not work without trust.
It is believed that the fact that Facebook is controlling what we see and what we have access to, can be a way of affecting the discussions that we have and affecting democracy and the public sphere. What are your opinions about that?
I am not myself active on Facebook. But I think that everyone who is acting in a public sphere should be aware that there are different types of knowledge that you should take in. I would say that, in a public sphere, and even in the 18th century, you would never read just one newspaper because this one newspaper is only one perspective on issues. Try to have as much information from as different perspectives as possible.
What I think is bad on Facebook today is that many people are only on Facebook, only in their own groups. I am not against Facebook, but if you are on Facebook you should also be aware that you can use other sites such as the site of The Guardian, Le Monde, and so on, to be informed. So, the problem is not only Facebook, it is also that people are not aware that there are different perspectives and that they should be informed about these different perspectives.
You are the one who is sitting in front of the computer, you should be a critical person yourself. Don’t stop thinking yourself.
On the internet, anyone can say anything, without it being based on knowledge, as it should be the case of the public intellectual. So how can we know or decide who really has something to say about a certain subject?
Everyone can say anything, but you should be in charge. You are the one who is sitting in front of the computer. You should be a critical person yourself. Do not just go along with everything that is happening on the internet. Don’t stop thinking yourself.
Of course, it is easy to follow someone who has the same ideas as you have, but that is also uninteresting. It is much more thought-provoking to read something written by someone that you do not agree with and that makes you think yourself.
Even in politics it is easy to follow a certain party, that you have followed for a long time: you know what they are and what they are doing. But in order to bring you back and understand why you have chosen that party in the first place, you should read something from other ideological positions. Being a responsible citizen means that you must think for yourself, and not just follow someone who is doing something that you already know, that does not take you anywhere.
How can we make people aware of that if Facebook, Google, and other social media are choosing what we get to see?
That is exactly the problem. We can only do it by saying what I said before. Try to get as much information from as many different sites that you can find. Get out of your Facebook bubble, try to find other things, do not always go to the same YouTube videos, be surprised by something else.