The Public Sphere Online: The Ethics of Governmental Presence

Our discussions surrounding Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ and rhetoric have, like many of our classmates, led me to some clear and obvious connections with electronic mediums today. Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere evolved as a political attempt to reinvigorate the Enlightenment project of freedom, ‘through the reconstruction of a public sphere in which reason might prevail, not the instrumental reason of modern practice but the critical reason that represents the best of the democratic tradition’ (Ku, 2000). Habermas argued that this sphere emerged as a means for citizens to express their opinions openly and free of political constraints – democracy. These individuals are sharing opinions, thoughts, stories, and anything else they feel like sharing. As we know, the Internet, more notably, social media platforms, is facilitating this. This online discourse has been celebrated as a means for promoting democracy and giving everyone a platform to have their individual voice heard. While I agree, some recent experiences have caused me to sit back and reflect.

This semester I had the privilege of lecturing for the COMM PBRL 3013 01: Mass Media and Public Opinion undergraduate class on the subject of the discourse of fear, and the “tough on crime” agenda in media. The relationship between fear and the media dates back to as far as the First World War however now with social media engagement at an all time high, it is particularly prevalent today. I come to question if citizen journalism is a true form of democracy, as Habermas argues, or if it is just adding fuel to the fire.

I, along with the majority of our country, flew to Twitter as soon as the news of the shootings on parliament hill broke. In fact, I believe the news broke on Twitter. It was the personal accounts of those on the scene that provided us the up-to-the minute updates about the situation and the well-being of those involved. As a society, we have come to expect this speed during crisis. The public is so starved for information, the set themselves up to be vulnerable to just about anything someone has to say. As social media is a public forum and citizens are free to say what they wish, feeds can often become more of a he said, she said, rather than factual information. As the public scans through their feed, they are absorbing each post, regardless of the author’s credibility. Media has had a poor reputation of trust in the past for pushing messages of propaganda and stories that advance government agenda. As Habermas suggested, the public is looking to get away from governmental constraints and discuss openly with other citizens. People are more likely to relate with and trust the average citizen as opposed to the media’s formulated – assumed – politically driven messaging.

We are in the now generation. This is a time where society is accustomed to instant gratification and no longer enjoys it, but demands it. How we receive our news is no different. Citizen journalists are commenting on current events at such a pace, credible news outlets and law enforcement are having difficulty keeping up. In the absence of the official story, the public relies on these citizens for their information. This past fall I attended a media panel where the largest media outlets in Newfoundland gathered to discuss social media and its influence on the delivery of the news. Interestingly, a few outlets stated that many of their reporters are sent into the field to gather what they can as quickly as they can, regardless of if it has been fact checked. They simply send out a disclaimer that this is not the official story. For the general public however, if you are reading a news update from a CBC reporter, you are lead to believe it is to be true. This is the thin line that citizen journalism walks. Despite the mistrust many major news sources receive, it may be in the public’s best interest to look to them for facts rather than their fellow tweeter.

During PR Ethics and Leadership this term, we spent time discussing online privacy and the ethics surrounding the perceived government control over our Internet presence. As Habermas argues, the public sphere should be free for open discussion, free of governmental influence. That said, there are many occasions where, in my opinion, governmental implication has proven to be critical. If the government had not had access to the public’s social media and online activity, alerts to potential terrorist or dangerous events may not have been flagged. With the globalization of these social sites, individuals from around the world are using this medium to communicate about any subject of their choice. This could be concerning to some interest groups. Outside of clear public threats such as terrorism, there are other dangers such as child pornography, or sex trafficking. As outlined, the public sphere is meant to be a source of communication at the public’s discretion. Who is to say that a group of individuals cannot come together to discuss such disturbing activity?

Overall, I am positive about Habermas’s idea of the public sphere. As an avid user of social media and someone who goes online to gather and share my opinion, this form of free speech is both useful and crucial in my daily life. Personally, I am more than comfortable with the government have an observer role in the Internet as I don’t believe I have anything I need to hide. I take a utilitarian approach to this issue and would relinquish my privacy for the greater good if that could lead to the capture of a potential pedophile or terrorist. I understand that this comparison is quite dramatic, but I think it delivers the point.

How do you feel about the public sphere online? If the government is involved, is it still a public sphere?


Ess, Charles. (2013). Digital Media Ethics. Hoboken: Wiley. Retrieved from

Ku, Agnes S. (July 2000) ‘Revisiting the Notion of the “Public” in Habermas’s Theory – Toward a theory of politics and public credibility’, Sociological Theory 18 (2): 216-240.

Waluchow, W. J. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.


2 thoughts on “The Public Sphere Online: The Ethics of Governmental Presence

  1. The Public Sphere Online: The Ethics of Governmental Presence

    Erika touches on so many great points that I see woven throughout the blogs of our fellow classmates.
    We have the issue of trust, and what can be considered a reliable source in this day and age. I recall being advised during my undergrad to only trust AL Jazeera as my news source, because they had no bias. It is likely much safer to assume that all information has a certain bias or spin they are trying to persuade you with. Citizen journalism may have opened to door to less trust in previously considered reliable news sources. Credibility takes time to develop, which we are not allowing anymore.
    We have the issue of speed, which is even more fascinating the more I get into the book Paula recommended: Faster –by James Gleick. When writing about the spread of information with the internet now he says, “The more people talk and write about eh occasional mass phenomena that grab the hysterical attention of American culture –O.J. Simpson, El Nino, Monica Lewinsky, Y2K – the more people want to hear. The more journalists hear, the more they feel able –even obliged- to keep talking.” (Gleick, 2002) Society cannot seem to pull itself out of the information consuming/generating cycle. It seems as though we have an information obesity epidemic.
    That also means that much of what we are consuming may be bad for us. When looking at the shooting on Parliament Hill and the way information is shared, people had to be reminded to not tweet the location of police to not compromise the security of the situation. As much as the good guys are trying to help on social media, the bad guys are using it too.
    What does that mean in terms of the ethics of governmental presence in a public sphere and Habermas? I myself consider it a necessary evil, or a better the devil you know than the devil you don’t reality. Indeed, it may be informing our discussions more effectively simply by its awareness. It also harkens back to an old Oscar Wilde quote, “A true friend stabs you in the front.” In the context of the government within the public sphere, there is less blindsiding of the public. Even if actions may be disagreed with, there is awareness of them, and the ability to voice discontent.
    What may be scarier than all this interconnectedness is what could possibly come next? Or, if citizen journalism and the public sphere were to all disappear, what form would communication take if social media were to cease?

    Gleick, James (2002) FASTER- The Accereration of Just About Everything. N.p.: Vintage Books. New York.


  2. Erika and Pamela raise some interesting points about how government interacts with public on the internet. From my understanding of Habermas, he would put government (both small and large ‘g’ as part of The System. As I noted in an earlier post, I think the Internet, and in particular, social media, acts as the modern public sphere, however imperfect. I think it is inevitable that that the government will have some role within in it. What the government uses it for, however, can be problematic. From the perspective of participating in conversations around issues of the day or sharing information in the public interest, it is practicing two-way symmetrical communications. It is a fine balance, however between the public interest and propaganda. I believe the government walks a fine line in its dual role as part of the public sphere and the system. As such, they must be held accountable and in check.


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