Privacy in the Public Sphere

As I read through my notes and try to decide what to blog about, I find myself continuously returning to the idea of our public and private life in the digital age. I find it especially interesting as other classes have touched on this idea as well. There is an apparent shift in the importance of individual values versus the importance of communal values.

“Western societies early notions of individual selfhood are now moving toward a greater emphasis on more relational notions of self-hood”. (Ess, 2014., p. 61) Our society is shifting from a focus on individual values to a focus on communal values. Why the shift? I have a few ideas.

Habermas touched upon the collision of the life world and the public sphere. These two worlds are colliding because it is inevitable in the ‘bare all’ technological world we live in. We are subjecting our information to the interpretation of our audience. Your life can only be private so long as you keep your information private. The emergence of social networking sites has resulted in an incredible amount of information being put on the internet to be used at the disposal of whomever happens to get their hands on it. Once you post information on a social networking site, you are leaving it up to interpretation of the reader (as well as creating a permanent digital footprint). Babe (2007) would suggest your message only to be of effect if it is understood by the reader in the way you intend the message to be understood. Considering your frame of reference, the information may be misinterpreted or misunderstood. In an ideal world, this misinterpretation would be impossible – a message would convey exactly what it is intended to convey. Unfortunately, due to barriers of communication, such as frame of reference and the chosen medium, this absolute truth is unattainable; but it does not mean we cannot try (what is truth anyway? – in postmodern sense) I believe the shift in the individual privacy to community privacy has emerged as a direct result of misinterpretation of information. If you wish your information to be well received by your ‘audience’ (followers, friends), you had better step into their shoes and try to imagine what it is they would like to see. Empathy is incredibly important in the use of rhetoric. As you empathize with them, and imagine what it is they would like to experience, you can create dialogue that persuades them to see a situation in a way that is mutually enjoyable for yourself and your audience. As the pleasure of your audience becomes more important, you are straying from your individual focus to that of the content of the community. Grierson alluded to the relationship between individualism and interdependence pg 107 babe 2007. There is interdependence between our community and ourselves. William Stewart explained McLuhlan’s idea of the global village as a society “interconnected by an electronic nervous system”. (2014) Interestingly enough, McLuhlan was right. He predicted the internet’s mass appeal to the world.

Babe, R.E. (2007). Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ess, Charles. (2014). Digital Media Ethics: Digital Media and Society Series.


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.

Behind the rhetoric – female politicans are still searching for an equal voice

Our class readings inspired me to analyze the role of female politicians through a rhetorical lens. Interestingly, Sutherland and Sutcliffe (1999) found that the rhetorical tradition developed into a much narrower meaning throughout the centuries, one which “confined it to the public discourse of men of the ruling class.” (p. 10). This phenomenon is still alive today in the role and image of 21st century female politicians.

The First Lady ultimately set the stage for women in the public sphere, as they took on the role of compassionate supporters and motherly figures (Griswold, 2007). Despite the success of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the public image of female politicians is influenced heavily by the idea that political rhetoric is primarily ‘masculine.’ Griswold (2007) explains that “a woman, unlike a man in politics, must balance addressing her gender with a masculine and powerful rhetoric. If a female politician upsets the balance by coming across as too forceful, then she in untrustworthy, and in contrast, if she is too ‘feminine’ then she is deemed unfit to lead” (p. 3). Although female politicians have come a long way, media coverage reveals that lingering sexism towards female candidates is still very prevalent.

Sarah Palin is arguably the most sexually objectified female candidate to date. Throughout her political campaign, news sources emphasized her physical appearance and publicized her past participation in beauty pageants. The media used Palin’s former pageant career to dismiss her as a serious candidate with news anchors referring to her as the following: “The race for the U.S. presidency is not just one more beauty contest,” “Caribou Barbie,” “Presidential Barbie” and “Malibu Barbie” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009, p. 330 – 331). The media’s objectification of Palin led the public to discredit her political agenda and view her as incompetent.

On the other hand, Hilary Clinton executed a much more mature and commanding image to the public. However, her sometimes “intimidating nature” and decision to pursue a more dominating leadership style was seen as fair game to many media outlets. She was often identified in the media as not being ‘feminine’ enough with headlines identifying her as “calculating,” “overly ambitious,” “cold,” “scary” and “intimidating” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009). The media often criticized her attempt to assert a traditionally ‘masculine’ rhetoric and viewed her husband, Bill Clinton, as a source of necessary aid and strength.

In Canadian politics, this issue was brought to life after two female NDP MPs came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against two of their Liberal counterparts. It is interesting to note that the rhetoric surrounding this case is largely focused on the fact that Parliament doesn’t have a formal process to deal with these types of allegations. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called for a new policy to deal with harassment issues, but the fact that there wasn’t one already in place is extremely troubling (to say the least). Canadian Parliament seems to be living in another decade when it comes to the treatment of female staff and officials in the workplace. Despite the bickering and finger–pointing between the New Democrats and the Liberals, Canadians are expecting more from all members of Parliament and want to see action and change so that future issues of harassment are properly addressed.

After diving deeper into the rhetoric surrounding Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton and Canada’s recent harassment issue at Parliament Hill, it is clear that female politicians are continuously struggling to fit into a public sphere that the media and public deem as ‘masculine.’ To move beyond this issue, future political leaders need to openly discuss issues of sexism and harassment, as well as adopt a rhetoric that is neither defined as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ It is also crucial that journalists, PR professionals, members of the public and politicians hold the media accountable for acts of sexism against female (or male) politicians. It will be interesting to see where the future of politics goes and if it is possible to create a gender-neutral public sphere for political debate and societal change.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your thoughts.




Griswold, D. (2007). The politics of speech: engendering the public sphere. Retrieved from Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Sutherland, C. M. & Sutcliffe, R. J. (1999). The Changing Tradition: Women in the History of Rhetoric. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Winfrey, K. L. & Carlin, D. B. (2009). Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage. Communications Studies, 60, 326-343.

Twitter: Public Sphere or Public Square

It’s something of coincidence that the week I began to hate Twitter was the week I was immersed in Critical Theory and more specifically, the work of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Fascinated by Habermas’ concepts around the Lifeworld, the System and Public Sphere, I began immediately trying to see parallels in how we use social media. I was most interested in the idea that Twitter was the technological marvel that merged the Lifeworld — typically the domain of the private and information shared only among close family and friends – with the Public Sphere – the place where people come together to talk about issues of importance to them.

Twitter has a myriad of uses. From sharing the mundane such as today’s lunch special or cat video to live updates on breaking news to intense discussions around social issues, Twitter gives everyone the opportunity to join the conversation.

I am a big fan of Twitter. Since joining in 2007, I have found it to be not only a source of amazing information and great entertainment, but also a great way to meet new, fascinating people (including Stephen Harper’s deceased cat, Cheddar Harper, with whom I’ve had an on again-off again relationship for a number of years).


I remember doing a workshop on Twitter and sharing Margaret Atwood’s love of Twitter. She called the Twittersphere an “odd and uncanny place” and akin to having fairies in your garden. Atwood talks about the whimsical nature of Twitter and the variety of interactions possible.  An idyllic world indeed.

Back to Habermas and my somewhat utopian view that Twitter was the 21st century Public Sphere where not only where dialogue flourishes, but “ideal speech” – respectful, reasoned discourse among individuals – is possible. That all changed with Jian Ghomeshi.

mayIt was fascinating to watch the story evolve on Twitter from the very first Tweets on Sunday, October 26th as people (including me) expressed disbelief that the CBC would fire Ghomeshi through growing shock and then anger as the story developed. Some high profile people – including Green Party leader Elizabeth May – tweeted their support for Ghomeshi in the first hours before the Toronto Star article with the serious allegations of violence and non-consensual sex was published. Those supportive tweets would be retweeted over and over again in the coming days with vitriolic comments added despite the mea culpes from people like May.

I began to see what I had been denying for so long – Twitter, far from being an idyllic Public Sphere, is in reality a vast echo chamber that gives everyone tries to yell louder than the next person. Or worse, the public square where people can be pilloried and shamed for all to see.

I saw people I respected and considered “progressives” attacking other like-minded individuals because they weren’t politically correct enough or hadn’t expressed their outrage loudly enough. There was a rush to post your opinion, then trumpet why it was the correct one.

Zosia Belski wrote an interesting piece in the Globe and Mail on October 29 called “Social media, victim blaming and the two camps enshrined in Ghomeshi-gate, that talks about the rush to judgement. She quotes Alfred Hermida, author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters as saying about social media It’s the way that space is designed. You’re expected to react right away, not to take a minute to consider ‘Do I really think that?’…Immediacy privileges reaction rather than reflection. It fosters ardour rather than nuance. These are certainly not the conditions necessary for ideal speech.

All of this is not to argue that there haven’t been some amazing memes that have come from the Ghomeshi affair, including the “BeenRapedNeverReported” hashtag that has shined a much-needed spotlight on why women don’t report sexual abuse and violence. It also doesn’t mean I’ve given up on Twitter. It means I need to look at Twitter with more of a critical eye, and when I tweet, ensure I’ve taken some time to reflect rather than just react.