The Global Public Sphere

Listen to a podcast of the lecture.

Ingrid Volkmer urges media scholars to rethink the “public sphere” in an age of global media.

“It is time to assess the Habermasian notion of public deliberation within these news spaces” the Associate Professor of Media and Communications at The University of Melbourne told an audience at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The public sphere remains a key theory for understanding the media’s role in democracy.  Cultural theorist Jürgen Habermas imagined a deliberative public sphere "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state.”  According to the German scholar, the collective discussion creates public opinion that informs policy debates and “legitimate[s] authority in any functioning democracy.”

Volkmer argues Habermas’ normative conception of deliberative democracy, which highlights the “golden age” of rational discourse in coffee houses in the 1600s and 1700s, requires a new conceptualization, especially in a time when proliferating satellites orbiting the earth instantaneously link millions of people around the globe.

Volkmer used the Department of Media and Communications’ public debate to outline why she believes online communities have created new deliberative spaces where reason-based debates and decision-making occur. 

Volkmer’s lecture was briefly interrupted when an unidentified man sitting in LSE’s Old Theatre was removed by campus security. 

The lecture’s chair, Professor Nick Couldry, later told the audience that he had been informed by a university official that the man was banned from attending public lectures at the university.

Volkmer continued with her lecture about reconceptualizing the public sphere, noting, to the laughter of some in the audience, it was necessary to “broaden the frameworks of deliberation now after this incident.”

Volkmer added that the idea of consensus is changing in the emerging online public spheres that she accounts for in her new theory.

“Agreement,” she says, “is no longer related to a bounded civic collective but fluctuating across thematic spaces and loyalties of broad unbounded communicated spheres which articulate new types of normative structures.”

“Deliberative spheres,” she adds, “emerge within a new in-betweenness, no longer between citizen and the state but between digital engagement of choice.”

The media and communications scholar points to the simultaneous global Occupy movement as an example of a growing global field of deliberation.

Volkmer also highlights the virtual activism in China shining a light on human rights abuses and Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ in 2009 and 2010 as more evidence of newly emerging deliberative online public spheres that cross national borders and sometimes lead to government action.

The Australian-based media scholar similarly singles out the Pirate Party founded in 2010. Operating across about 50 countries, the movement advocates direct democracy, increasing transparency, freedom of information and reform to copyright laws.

“The Pirate Party…,” she told the LSE audience, “is an example for a new form of political agency where decisions are reached less through traditional representative committees — but rather deliberately through discursive and egalitarian, online liquid democracy, enhancing its influence through strengths of public interdependence across its transnational nodes.”

Volkmer contends some deliberative discussions on social media are part of “a multi-layered spectrum of subjectively chosen authentic communicative forms, incorporating traditional local dimensions of deliberative cultures which are now embedded in deliberative public practices across geographies of network spheres.”

Professor Mary Kaldor, who heads the LSE’s Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, applauds Volkmer’s efforts to rethink Habermas’ notion of the public sphere, stressing that new concepts are needed to map the emerging public spheres online.

Kaldor, however, argues that much of the internet is controlled by corporate interests, preventing truly free debate.

“The internet is already colonized by big companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google,” Kaldor said in response to Volkmer’s lecture.

She says many of the online spaces detailed by Volkmer are “filtered.”  “There are,” she stresses, “various algorithms and what you see is what they think you want to see.”

“What that means,” she adds, “is that every time you go to Google, you get reinforced in your own views.”

Kaldor was also skeptical about the deliberative quality of virtual discourse, noting that often people will say things online that they might be reluctant to say to someone face-to-face.

The internet, she says, “reinforces prejudice” instead of “opening up a critical space.”

Kaldor also questions the power of so-called social media revolutions, noting that what was noteworthy about the Arab Spring was not the use of Twitter or Facebook to organise protests —but the human connections during protests such as the one that saw thousands of protestors demanding democracy in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“What is significant,” Kaldor stresses, “about these experiences in the Square is the human contact, is the fact that people come together and get engaged in deliberative assemblies.”