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.

Group think and Jian’s victims

I’m posting again because, admittedly, my first post was cheeky. It did get the ball rolling, however. And it did reflect my initial struggles to compute and connect theory to practical. Now that we’re past post modernism, I feel the worst might be over. I have to say, thank goodness for Jian, because almost everything that’s happening can be pushed through the lens of the theories we are learning.

I was looking forward to the articles on organizational communication, assuming I would instantly be able to relate it back to my experience working for a global corporation with multiple layers of management. And I did. One of the components of ecological theory — a “generalized theory of change” — as expressed in the reading, is retention, which are the routines, bundled competencies that allow an organization to do what it does (Monge, P. and Poole, M.S., 2008, pp 681-682) In other words, its governance. It’s the “we’ve always done it this way” answer that resists change. Change does eventually come, usually with a merger, or new technology, or a massive reorganization (or all of the above). I witnessed this many times and it wasn’t always pretty.

But it was the second reading, Social Identity, Self-categorization, and the Communication of Group Norms that most resonated, particularly since I had just finished marking papers by my post grad PR certificate students that had them come up with a Team Charter. The assignment had them think about the norms of behaviour, the group rules, the communications principles and consequences for un-group-like behaviour. They were to talk about the four forces of small group formation: norming, storming, forming and performing, how personalities impact communications and decision-making (all part of the sociopsychological tradition). Turns out I’m teaching them organizational communications. (And after their grades, turns out they should have read this article as part of their research)! The entire article was a primer on small group work and group decision-making (or lack thereof).

Lucy DeCoutere  Photo by

Lucy DeCoutere
Photo by

photo by

Reva Seth
Photo by

When the article turned to leadership, that’s when I had my aha! What we have been witnessing with the discussion of women victimized by sexual abuse, by collective hashtags like #BeenRapedNeverReported, is group formation. When actress Lucy DeCoutere came out publicly about  the violence she experienced at the hands of Ghomeshi, she gave permission for many other women (now nine, plus one man) to follow suit, be it with a name, like Reva Seth, or anonymously. As a consequence, followers are prepared to take risks (Hogg, M.A. and Reid, S.A. 2006, p. 20) such as going public, sharing their story or even reporting it to police (three women have pressed charges). A social movement was created, and perhaps we will see a paradigm shift to rethink how women are treated in the workplace and how women can communicate harrassment in a safe environment. As the article states, “the hurdle for social mobilization is that social protest carries personal risk that inhibits participation” (Hogg, M.A. and Reid, S.A., 2006, p. 20). Nothing could be truer for these women. But it has to start somewhere. Thanks Lucy. #IBelieveLucy


Hogg, Michael A. and Reid, Scott A. 2006. Social Identity, Self Categorization, and the Communication of Group Norms, Communication Theory, pp. 7-30. Retrieved:

Monge, Peter and Poole, Marshall Scott. 2008. The Evolution of Organizational Communication. Journal of Communication, pp. 679-692. Retrieved:

Public discourse in the Rhetorical Tradition and Habermas’ Theory

I was really jazzed by our course readings on Habermas. His theories were down-to-earth, practical, applicable to the modern world, and very relevant to the current events unfolding during the week of reading and discussing his theories (Oct 26-Nov 1, 2014).

The readings about Habermas reminded me of one of another theory we read earlier. I looked back on the moodle posts and found it on page 135 of Robert T. Craig’s “Communication as a Field” article, right in the title of the section: “The Rhetorical Tradition: Communication as a Practical Art of Discourse”. (Craig, 1999, p. 135) Aha, read on!

A double-check on the meaning of public discourse revealed “A fancy way of saying public discussion. When you have people on a panel show, they are having public discourse – in other words, discussing something in public.” (Yahoo Answers, 2012)
Rhetoric was defined as “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing”. (Oxford, 2014)

Turning to Habermas, we find a description of public discourse in Peter Levine’s blog entry (Levine, 2012). Levine describes the way Habermas defines the public sphere as “the set of forums and institutions in which diverse people come together to talk about common concerns. It includes civic associations, editorial pages of newspapers, town meetings and parts of the internet.”

Back to Craig, who says about the rhetorical tradition: “This way of theorizing communication is useful for explaining why our participation in discourse, especially public discourse, is important and how it occurs, and holds forth the possibility that the practice of communication can be cultivated and improved through critical study and education.” (Craig, 1999, p. 135) I heartily agree with this statement!


Jian Ghomeshi

A very relevant section in the Craig article: “We know some people are better communicators than others, and that the best examples of rhetoric can rise to the level of great art.” (p. 135) How relevant to the Jian Ghomeshi situation! The parallel between Craig’s statement and Ghomeshi’s skill at communicating in the public sphere (radio) is striking.

An interesting question here would be how public discourse could be balanced, and be free communication, as we see Haberman’s theory described by Stowe (2010), “Free and open communication should be the basis of all social interaction”, if one of the communicators’ skillset far exceeds any other. We saw Ghomeshi’s incredible ability to gain sympathy and support in his Facebook post on Sunday, October 26, 2014 (Facebook, 2014). We then witness a deluge of public discourse over the weeks to come about the truth of that post, and the effect of his convincing words.

Both Habermas and the rhetorical theory see public debate as having the potential to convince and improve the world for the better. Gengrich tells us Habermas thought debate in the public sphere can “create the possibility of greater reason, justice and human freedom”. (Gingrich, n.d., p. 1) This is true in many cases, such as election debates, talk shows, town halls or public meetings.

Where public discourse does not always show greater reason, justice and human freedom, is in the public space of the internet. Unfortunately, this easily accessible, world-wide, open and free method of communication and debate is often besmirched by thoughtless people who do not take the time to critically think through their words before they bang on their keyboard and share their comments. Many people waste the opportunity to engage, enlighten and share ideas, and the internet becomes a place for insults, oversharing and meaningless cryptic comments.

Mike, Bree, Andy and Dayna

Case-Rowling family dinner discussion

This topic of public discourse led to much discussion at the dinner table, and has potential for many other private as well as public debates. Many of us would benefit to consider the question: “Where do you see public discourse in the modern world, and where does it work well?”





Craig, R.T. (1999). Communication as a Field. Communication Theory, 9:2, p 135-136. Retrieved from

Ghomeshi, J. (2014, October 26) Dear everyone [Facebook post] Retreived from:

Gringrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. University of Regina. Retrieved from

Levine, P. (2012, July 11). Habermas and critical theory (a primer) [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Rhetoric (n.d.) Oxford Dictionaries, retrieved from:

Stowe, M. (2010, March 20) Jurgen Habermas Concepts, Communication Theory and the Problems of Modern Society [Web log post]. Retrieved from:

Public Discourse (n.d.) Yahoo Answers, retrieved from: