Social Media and Big Data from a Public Sphere Perspective

Jürgen Habermas. Photograph: Martin Gerten/EPA/Corbis

The combination of big data and social media, may both empower development in many ways as well as harm human rights and privacy. Nevertheless, those two diametrically opposed practices will be further analyzed in following posts. In this post, it is briefly discussed how both those perspectives fit into the theory of the Public Sphere.

According to the classic theory of public sphere introduced in 1962 by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1989), public sphere is the discursive space that floats between the private sphere and public authority. Living in the age of internet, many theorists offered diverse perspectives on how the Internet may include public spheres or how it can constitute a public sphere on its own (Dahlgren, 2005; Bohman, 2004). Indeed, it is a huge advantage what modern communication channels offer to us.

Online forums, social media and other functions of the online world include people from diverse places under the same platform, and host their opinions. That is a more globalized perspective of Habermas’ idealized public spheres, which were based on the coffee houses and saloons of the nineteenth century. A more alienated perspective as well, it might be argued. The point here, though, is that from a spatial perspective, the public sphere became more inclusive. Furthermore, what is discussed on social media does not necessarily remain just theory. There are many tangible examples of how internet communication turned into action, starting from how Philippine President Estrada was stripped of his power back in 2001 (Shirky, 2011) to how Egyptians used Facebook and Twitter as tools for their uprising in 2011 as described in the Guardian.

The other significant limitation existing in Habermas theory, that the use of social media exceeds, is the class issue. In the ideal public sphere that Habermas describes, the participants were all bourgeois. Today a great percentage of the world’s population has access to Facebook, Twitter or the Internet in general. As a result, those who wish to be politically active have always a variety of platforms to rely on.

Along with all those advantages, there are also quite a few problems that come along. The most important one is data security. All those Petabytes of data created everyday, are accessible by people or institutions that should not have access to such information.

Focusing on the public sphere perspective, there is a huge problem here. While most theorists highlight how the public sphere is compressed due to public authority, most people forget that right now the private sphere seems to be in even greater danger. Besides the willing exposure of each individual who uses social media, there is a certain exposure that occurs against the user’s will. For example, Google has databases that keep a record of user’s actions, and Facebook not only has access to private information but also uses that information for advertising purposes. In order for the public sphere to function properly, it is a requisite that public authority and the private sphere play their role as well. The Internet provides huge advantages when it comes to public sphere expansion but at the same time whatever was thought to be private when Habermas came up with this concept, nowadays can be easily accessible.

As a result, from a public sphere perspective, social media and the Internet provide a great tool in order to expand the public sphere, make it more inclusive and create more discursive space. On the other hand, all the data that are produced and stored online can be accessed, this automatically constructs a threat to personal privacy and affects the public sphere theory balance.


  • Bohman, J. (2004). Expanding dialogue: The Internet, the public sphere and prospects for transnational democracy. The sociological review, 52: 131-155.
  • Dahlgren, P. (2005). The Internet, public spheres, and political communication: Dispersion and deliberation. Political communication, 22: 147-162.
  • Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere (T. Burger, Trans.). Cambridge: MIT Press, 85: 85-92.
  • Shirky, C. (2011). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign affairs, 90(1): 28-41.

35 thoughts on “Social Media and Big Data from a Public Sphere Perspective”

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  2. This is an interesting approach to the concept of Public Sphere. In her 1990 article about “Rethinking the Public Sphere”, Fraser states that “[a]ccording to Habermas, the idea of a public sphere is that of a body of ‘private persons’ assembled to discuss matters of ‘public concern’ or ‘common interest’” (p. 58).
    Several researchers have theorised the fact that Internet and, by extension, social media enable activities that allow a large number of people to potentially take action in public arenas. In the book “Communication Power” published in 2009, Castells emphasises the role of multimodal communication networks in constituting public space.
    Introducing big data and the issue of data privacy opens new perspectives for considering the Public Sphere in the digital age.

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