Senses overwhelmed, you look around. Everywhere, people are yelling over the top of one another. Cries of ‘The government needs to do more!’ mingle with the aggressive positivity of a woman selling skin care. ‘Women should get back in the kitchen,’ says a man with no face, while a grandmother declares her grandchildren the kindest in all the land. The noise is overwhelming, the conversation impossible to follow. Welcome to the comment section.
In the 1980s, German scholar Jurgen Habermas developed his ‘public sphere’ theory, which has become a cornerstone for discussion of digital democracy. For Habermas, the public sphere was a space where individuals —as opposed to businesses, politicians, or authority figures—came together to talk all things politics, people, and power. Habermas’ public sphere idea is often discussed with regard to Enlightenment-era salons and coffeehouses.
There’s something very romantic about these establishments. Imagine: on the streets Paris or London, you duck into a dimly lit cafe. You order a drink, sit back, and tell the room what you reckon about the world. No need for the painstaking rigmarole of peer-reviewed sources, or a degree that declares you certified in a particular area. Just coffee, and the voice of the people: both served undiluted.
This seems a far cry from the incessant notifications of an argument pinging away in the comment section of a Facebook post. But these two distinct spaces—one digital and new, the other physical and old—function in a surprisingly similar way.
Since the advent of social media in the early 2000s, the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been hotly debated by experts for their merits, or lack thereof, as a democratising force (that is, they have been discussed in various peer reviewed journals like this one and this one, which is about as hot as it gets in academia). In many ways, the dawn of the digital era brought with it a new and improved public forum. With over 15 million Australians on Facebook, it’s undeniable that we have access to a much wider network of public opinion than ever before.
Axel Bruns is a Professor in Digital Media Research at the University of Queensland, and he’s done a lot of research into politics, democracy, and social media. He says the traditional public sphere was inherently limited and exclusionary, and social media has provided a platform for almost anyone to engage in democracy.
“With the rise of the internet and the rise of modern communication technologies including social media, ordinary citizens themselves have moved into that space [of debate] as well,” he says.
Professor Bruns says traditionally, citizens would watch public debate happen in front of them, but now citizens can actually get involved, via that famously noisy comment section.
He says the thousands of comments on any politicians’ social media pages speak to the public’s desire to directly engage with those in power.
“[The public sphere] has moved to a space where the public themselves are much more active in debating issues, and possibly even engaging directly with some of the elite stakeholders”, he says.
However, according to Professor Bruns, not all comments are created equal.
The seemingly idyllic salons and cafes of yesteryear were actually highly exclusionary establishments. According to academic Craig Calhoun, while they were touted as a level playing ground for people with all kinds of backgrounds and opinions to come together, in reality they were spaces curated by and for the bourgeoisie, and they excluded women and the working class. In this way, the old school public sphere gave an illusion of inclusion.
Similarly, Professor Bruns says the comment section can give an unrealistic snapshot of public opinion. According to Professor Bruns groups on both sides of politics use knowledge of algorithms to their advantage, so they are overrepresented on social media.
Just like rich Parisians claiming to be the voice of the people, Professor Bruns says organisations like the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs or extreme leftist activist groups can comment incessantly on social media to dominate public debate.
“In some cases it will be that they feel that they should have a say, and they’ll just attach their say to a prominent politician’s page so it becomes more visible,” Professor Bruns says.
So if the digital public sphere is so fraught with misrepresentation, how seriously can it be taken as a pillar of democracy?
For WA Young Labor President Jake Wittey, social media is an important part of modern politics.
“I first got involved with WA Young Labor by messaging the page and asking if there was anything I could do or if they had any events coming up. So in that sense it fosters participation in party politics, which is a big part of our democracy,” he says.
Mr Wittey says he sees young people get involved in politics online not just to engage in debate and ask questions, but also to construct and express identity.
Cameron Anderson is an electrician from Melbourne. He’s not a politician or an authority figure. In fact, he epitomises our old friend Habermas’ notion of the individual who makes up the public sphere.
For Mr Anderson, social media is an invaluable tool for democratic engagement. He is not averse to a debate in the comment section, and he regularly shares articles online about issues important to him.
He says social media is the main way he participates in democracy, as it allows him to access a myriad of voices and information which he can then share with others.
“I’m trying to expose the truth to more people rather than people being swept up in mainstream media,” he says.
Dr Madison Magladry is an academic from Curtin University, who teaches a unit called ‘Digital Culture and Everyday Life’. This class explores, unsurprisingly, digital culture and everyday life. That includes social media, politics, and democracy.
According to Dr Magladry, social media is neither inherently good nor inherently bad for democracy and the public sphere.
Like Mr Anderson and Professor Bruns, Dr Magladry acknowledges the way the internet can, in some ways, make public debate more inclusive, adding: “Social media is a really important tool for politicians and activists…it can give previously marginalised voices a platform.”
For Dr Magladry, people like Mr Anderson commenting on a politician’s post speaks to a unique opportunity online democracy affords us:
“[Online politics] gives us an unprecedented look at power and how it works. Politicians are made to be more open and transparent about how their power works.
“But it’s not as if social media is a utopia.”
Dr Magladry explains the online sphere is not exempt from the unequal power structures of the ‘real world,’ as biases and inequality exist online as well as offline, explaining: “Digital access is not the same for everybody.”
What Dr Magladry is referring to here is the digital divide. This lovely little alliteration is used to describe the way people are left behind while rich, educated Facebook users in countries with uncensored internet access dominate public debate—often under the assumption that debate is inclusive of all voices.
As well as being unaware of the digital divide, Dr Magladry says participating in online democracy can give people the illusion they are doing more than they are. This gets dubbed ‘slacktivism’: defined as a way of feeling like you’ve contributed to society by ‘sharing’ on a post or signing an online petition.
Indeed, in the words of Mr Anderson, “it’s a real easy way to be a political activist.”
But Dr Magladry says just because commenting on a post or liking an activist’s page are not groundbreaking feats of political engagement, that doesn’t render them meaningless: “Comment sections can be a place of meaningful debate. People’s engagement with comments is part of their everyday life, so it’s really responsible for changing and shaping our beliefs. I’ve seen comment sections where people have actually changed their minds. I think it is meaningful, it’s definitely not something to be totally dismissed.”
Mr Anderson says when he comments on a political post or shares an article about something important to him, he isn’t in it for the glory of likes. He just wants to have a say, and hear other people have a say too. Like Dr Magladry, he says he sees people listening and learning in the comment section.
“I reckon it’s one of the most powerful tools to change someone’s mind,” he says.
According to Dr Magladry, our relationship with the internet is not linear, but rather cyclical: we shape our online habits as much as they shape us: It is important to observe and critically engage with this ouroboric relationship when we discuss the modern public sphere.
We shouldn’t think of the internet as some all-powerful, outside force. The comment section on Scomo’s Facebook page didn’t waltz into a Parisian salon, knock over the tables and forcibly shake up democracy.
“People were always having debates about politics, that’s not new,” Dr Magladry says.
Only now, we get to have those debates in a far more complex space – one that extends far beyond the walls of a coffee shop. The online political stage lets us get up close and personal with authority figures, and with each other. In that way, it makes strides for the accessibility of democracy. But, because humans are flawed, and the internet is full of humans, this online public sphere is far from perfect.
Habermas’ original notion of the public sphere was hinged on the idea of discussion of and engagement with issues that matter. As social media has become the platform for that discussion, it itself has become worthy of discussion. Like Dr Magladry says, the online public sphere cries out for critical engagement. We cannot dismiss politics on social media. Nor should we view social media as the only way to ‘do democracy’. Rather, we must engage critically, and meaningfully, in the coffeehouse that is the comment section.