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?

Sources:

Ess, Charles. (2013). Digital Media Ethics. Hoboken: Wiley. Retrieved from http://public.eblib.com/EBLPublic/PublicView.do?ptiID=1583672.

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.

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