Marko Skoric’s lecture at Malmo University on 8 October 2015, regarding his research on Political Expression, Exposure to Disagreement, and Opinion Shielding on social media as predictors of Citizen Engagement, was a trigger to reflect on a number of issues: the evolution of a new public sphere through social media to democracy and gender discourse.
In this post, I will elaborate on the public sphere and democracy.
The lack of privacy on the web and how social media has evolved into a system of DIY monitoring was one of the issues discussed. Exposure to ideas and interaction between “weak” vs “strong” contacts and their contribution to what information social media users are exposed to was another aspect of the conversation.
This led me to question if the Internet has evolved into a contemporary Agora where people pick and choose the debates they engage in or is this simply a fallacy where people create their own small “echo chambers” of predisposed ideas having waived all forms of private space? 
According to Habermas, “the public sphere is a homogeneous space of embodied subjects in symmetrical relations, pursuing consensus through the critique of arguments and the presentation of validity claims.” This model however seems to fail when assessing the Internet as a political domain and even more so the social media .
Does this mean there are new power relations developing, resulting into a new form of democracy on the Internet? Poster pertinently questions the public sphere and how it emulates on the net. Who exchanges information online, and do they form a virtual community by doing this?” He goes on to add, “To ask then about the relation of the Internet to democracy is to challenge or to risk challenging our existing theoretical approaches and concepts as they concern these questions.” The issue of the public sphere and how it has evolved lies within the core of any re-conceptualisation of democracy .
Anonymity No More
“Internet – the place where anonymity dies” – Brian Stelter 
It is common knowledge that we are in the midst of a technological revolution within which social media plays a key role. Social media is seen as a vehicle that disperses infinite volumes of data that reach recipients based on their digital behavioural patterns. However, this is not done at random and it does come at a price – our privacy. Data is screened and sorted before it reaches our news feeds, and in order for this to be done information is gathered based on our personal information, friends, liking and search patterns. With the assistance of complicated algorithms, this goes on to create a customised cocktail of information for our liking, with the ultimate goal being the consumption of a product, an idea, the support of a cause, etc. Our clicking habits are laid bare to Google, et al. The public sphere has in many ways invaded our “private” sphere as Poster states through “pixels generated by individuals at remote locations” .
David Lyon argues and attempts to show in his joint study with Zygmunt Bauman (Liquid Surveillance) , that “surveillance-through-social-networks is made so much more effective thanks to the cooperation of its intended objects and victims” .
Clicking habits are interpreted as “confirmation bias, the idea that audiences like to hear what they already believe” , and the product of this appears on each individuals news feed, under the pretense of customisation.
According to Rosenberg and the study conducted by Science journal “confirmation bias in theory, threatens to close people off from ideas that compete with their own” .
Three main factors were examined in the study in order to see how they affect ideological diversity:
- What friends share
- News feed ranking algorithm
- What individuals choose to read
With a sample of 10.1 million American (anonymous) Facebook users, activity was monitored over a 6-month period across 7 million different web links shared. The links were then categorised as “hard” i.e. local / international news, politics, current affairs and as “soft” i.e. sports, entertainment, leisure. Again, according to the study “what friends share, narrow the range of ideas Facebook users on both sides of the aisle come across, with the effect greater on the left,” and with the algorithmic news feed reinforcing these ideological barriers .
The most pivotal finding of the study, however, is that users themselves have a very active role in creating their own “news bubbles”. With a simple click, they can reduce their exposure to ideas that are opposite to their views. Thus, in spite of widespread opinion and “despite the fact that Facebook friendships can and do cut across ideological lines more than 20% of the time, on average, people tended to close themselves off by not clicking on stories that clashed with their own thinking” .
Another important point mentioned in Skoric’s lecture was that a person’s “weak ties” are the ones that give them exposure to diverse information outside of each persons own “echo chamber” , as opposed to people who are close friends, who share similar views and thus will more or less like or dislike similar things (Skoric, 2015).
However, the narratives of participants convey how they understand the connection between social media and mobilisation. “Social networks are characterised as “a fabulous way of fostering social mobilisations” and “a mechanism or something that has led me to a mobilisation and solidarity”. There is a horizontal aspect of social networks that needs to be highlighted: “In social networks no one is more important than anyone else; we all are 140 characters” .
Professor Morten Hansen of the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that “social media has facilitated more effective collaborations. Our real-world friends tend to know the same people that we do, but, in the online world, we can expand our networks strategically, leading to better (…) outcomes” .
The decentralised nature of the Internet as a communication system is apparent.
The emergence of “hashtag politics” “encourages absolutely everyone to participate in conversations about current events.” Hashtags are viewed as “powerful tools for conveying a conversation around a strategically chosen subject,” thus stressing that action cannot be limited to “send(ing) a message, but through social media like Twitter and Facebook, it will also convene a conversation” .
Even though the Internet has been branded “elitist” to some extent (only 40% of the world population has an internet connection today) , there is an element of post Marxist democracy embedded within it: “as one that opens new positions of speech, empowering previously excluded groups and enabling new aspects of social life to become part of the political process (…) with a growing and vibrant grass-roots participation in it” .
The increasing role new technologies play in social networks is far from evident and “any socially grounded theory of the public sphere will have to take into account these social network structures and the communications systems that bind them. By treating communities as social capital networks, rather than strictly as discourse communities, we can begin to ground the connective elements of new information technologies in social life and social structure” .
However, it remains unclear what long term political effects it will have: “To ask then about the relation of the Internet to democracy is to challenge, or to risk challenging, our existing theoretical approaches and concepts as they concern these questions” .
 Eytan Bakshy, S. M. (2015). Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook. Science, 348 (6239), 1130-1132.
 Poster, M. (1995). Cyberdemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere. http://www.humanities.uci.edu/mposter/writings/democ.html
 Lyon, David, & Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Surveillance.
 Bauman, Z (8 May 2012). Do Facebook and Twitter help spread Democracy and Human Rights? http://www.socialeurope.eu/2012/05/do-facebook-and-twitter-help-spread-democracy-and-human-rights/
 Rosenberg, Y (7 May 2015). Business & Economy. The Fiscal Times: http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2015/05/07/Facebook-Ruining Democracy
 Bacallao-Pino, L. M (2014). Social media mobilizations: Articulating participatory processes or visibilizing dissent? CyberPsychology
 Konnikova, M (7 October 2014). The Limits of Friendship. The NewYorker: http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/social-media-affect-math-dunbar-number-friendships
UNESCO. (2012). Free flow of information and social networks: a role for democracy and social participation. UNESCO AND WSIS. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/unesco-and-wsis/internet-governance/unesco-and-the-igf/6th-igfnairobi/free-flow-of-information-and-social-networks-a-role-for-democracy-and-social-participation/
It was a pleasant surprise to find out that you’ve written about Skoric’s lecture. It was a lecture that made me think as well. I wrote about the lecture from a slightly different perspective on our blog, maybe you want to check it out: https://wpmu.mah.se/nmict152group6/2015/10/11/facebook-as-a-public-sphere-thoughts-on-marko-skorics-lecture/
I think both posts complement somehow, and it is clear that Skoric’s findings will be useful for those of us who want to develop these ideas further.
In regards to your post more specifically, I think you might enjoy reading Christian Fuchs and his work on social media from a marxist perspective. Some of your ideas reminded me of Fuchs’ works, as he talks about the cooperation potential of the Internet (in opposition to previous and current competition dynamics). If I’m not wrong, you can find most of his material on his webpage: http://fuchs.uti.at/books/internet-society/
Hi Eleni, great post. Very informative and the references are very useful.
I am just commenting briefly on the question you raise, “does this (failing of Habermas’ classic model) mean that there are new power relations developing, resulting into a new form of democracy on the Internet?”
I find a discussion of digital media activism by Carroll and Hackett (2006) adds an interesting commentary. They refer to Habermas’ Communicative Action Theory, which may be a useful way to look at how power relations and modes of citizen engagement are emerging through social media.
As we know social movements in late modernity are often more concerned with identities and lifestyles than wider socio-politics. The public sphere has “more the character of a complex of interstitial networks of individuals and groups acting as citizens”. People might then deploy social media in defence of their own personal and social lifeworlds against “colonization by advanced capitalism”. These practices are emancipatory and are about (re)claiming the right to communicate and the power to participate and secure institutional changes in their own terms.
Carroll and Hackett go on to talk about defensive and offensive modes of movement activism, the latter addressed outwardly to state and economic institutions, and in the context of media activism, relate these modes to four types of action repertoire.
This seems quite a heavy way to put it, but maybe it adds some substance to the findings of the research described in your post!
By the way, I was thinking about my own clicking habits and opinion shielding, and perhaps the UK’s Daily Mail website offers an interesting subversive strategy – to sneak in the right-wing opion which I would otherwise avoid by leading me in with some seemingly harmless gossip and funny animal stories!
Carroll W.K. and Hackett R.A. (2006) Democratic media activism through the lens of social movement theory, Media, Culture & Society © 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi), Vol. 28(1): 83–104
Thank you David for your comment and for the point you make about the modern day movements and their obsession with lifestyles and identities.
I think the question that needs to be answered here is “ are the new media a shallow substitute for authentic discourse. Can the virtual communities contribute to the revival of the public debate?” 
Also another question worth asking is if we are witnessing the commodification of media content.
Dahlgren contends “Modern democracy is no longer seen as a system expressing the will of the people, but rather one which offers consumers a series of choices. He diagnoses “a growing loss of power by centralized political systems; changes in social structure are bringing about new forms of political culture” Rheingold also argued that ICT are a business like all others and therefore is seen as a means of exerting and consolidating power from whoever has the competitive edge on technologies. 
Fernback and Thompson have worked on whether the Internet can actually strengthen civil society and they criticize the lack of questioning regarding issues of ownership and control. In the end, they find that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. They conclude, “citizenship via cyberspace “has not proven to be the panacea for the problems of democratic representation within American society.”
The article I am citing below is very interesting and looks at the arguments from a number of perspectives. You can read more here
 Pieter Boeder Habermas Heritage: The future of the Public Sphere in the Network Society