Digitized Public Sphere

The digitized public sphere has had an impact on Middle Eastern countries, in fact it was one of the causes of the Arab Spring.  The Arab Spring uprising was started by people coming together online on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.  Facebook in particular was critical to the uprising in Tunisia because citizens of the country were able to connect and share ideas with each other without restriction.  Before 2012, when Facebook became available in Arabic, people were not able to engage in public discourse in person. Reasons may be age, gender, socio-economic status, (etc).  The importance of public discourse taking place online, is that it introduces a whole new public sphere that is open to everyone.

The public sphere is problematic as it doesn’t include everyone in the public.  Jurgen Habermas defines the public sphere as people “gathered as a public, articulating the needs of society” (Tufekcis, 2017, pp. 5). However, there was almost no open public sphere in the Middle East as the people who were able to discuss societal issues with each other were either upper or upper-middle class men.  Leaving those who identify as something other than male, or those who are considered poor to be left out. Social media sites such as Facebook provide an outlet for those who are excluded from these societal conversations. These outlets are important to the world as a whole. Online there is no separation of social-classes, or restricted access to blogs (just as an example) because the person is a man or a woman or other.  Within this online public sphere there are ways of connecting to people who you may or may not have previously known. This is the case with any social media site as they allow you to connect with real life people from all over the world online. In Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekcis, we see just how the Arab Spring rebellion was ignited by the idea of the “cute cat theory” (Tufeckis, 2017, p. 20).  This theory states that when people see something they like or agree with on non-political websites (like Facebook) they spread it like crazy, much like how people share videos of cute cats on their Facebook timelines.   

As Facebook was becoming more popular in the Middle East, people began sharing ideas of how they want change within their communities and governments and these ideas caught on. One share led to another and soon thousands of people were planning protests online and being politically active.  This is one of the big reasons as to why the Arab Spring happened. Citizens of the Middle East came together and shared ideas of change and they came to fruition. This act is considered a homophily in which “birds of a feather stick together” (Tufeckis, 2017, p. 9). Because of the unity of the citizens of Tunisia, and other countries, the government had a hard time trying to stop protests from developing.  One of the positives of the digitized public sphere as mentioned in Twitter and Tear Gas, is the seamlessness of communicating with one another.  There is no issue of race, gender, or socio-economic status that could possibly lead you to be dismissed by others on the internet.  In contrast, the public may view someone as lesser because of their background.

The digitized public sphere plays into Webster’s idea of an information society.  This theory is in association with the technological definition of an information society.  Webster (2002) states that technology is “one of the most visible indicators of new times” (p. 518) and the signal to an information society.  He later says that “such a volume of technological innovations must lead to a reconstitution of the social world because its impact is so profound” (Webster, 2002, p. 518).  This describes perfectly of what has happened in the Middle East. Technological advancements such as Facebook’s availability in Arabic has allowed for new information to be spread to the masses.  Then quite literally it was the beginning of new times for those who were in countries like Tunisia. Webster states that, “technology is an integral part of the social” (p. 524). This is true as everyday life is becoming more and more dependent on technologies.  People get their information from online sources. Webster goes on to write that technology “bears the impress of social values” (p. 524), which only reflects one of functions of the digitized public sphere. Where people can go online and learn and discuss what is important to people in their society.

Jurgen Habermas, the man behind the theory of the public sphere, wrote about how the public sphere has changed throughout time in The Social-Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas says that there is a change that has occurred within the public sphere, in which the private and the public realm have become intertwined. The digitized public sphere has promoted this idea with social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter allow people from the public to see personal information about you. This could be pictures on your profile of your dog, what your interests are, what celebrity you are a fan of, or what you were talking about with your friends yesterday. All of this information is now public because of the access the public has to your own personal Facebook page or Twitter profile. In the past, no one was able to see or find out intricate details about you. Your home was where all your personal things were, whether they were physical or mental. Now though that has changed due to the openness of the internet. There is also the issue described by Habermas of stateification. This is the process of combining the state and society in the public sphere. Stateification has “destroyed the basis of the bourgeois public sphere” (Habermas, p. 142); the basis being the separation of state and society. In the Middle East, there is a great deal of restriction in terms of media access. An example of this mentioned in Twitter and Tear Gas, is how the radio system is operated. The radio is allowed to pay for only a few hours a day. With the state in control of something like the radio, a tool used to discuss society as a whole by the public, people are limited to what they can say and thus cannot voice their opinions. The digital public sphere moves around this, as there are no restrictions on the internet.

The digitized public sphere can be seen outside of Facebook.  One example is when a community of fans of a reality show, such as ABC’s The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, come together and live tweet during the show.  This is a time where fans can share their thoughts, feelings, opinions, whatever it may be, with others while watching the show.  This is all simply done by using a hashtag created by ABC. Say if you didn’t like what one of the contestants said about another contestant on the show, you could say “Brittany is being such a jerk! #TheBachelor” and then thousands of people can see what you said and interact with your tweet as they please.  You can have whole conversations with people and anyone can hop in whenever they want to.

A whole website that is dedicated to public discourse is Reddit.  Reddit is a blog website where people can discuss anything from the next superhero getting their own movie, to their thoughts on the presidential debates.  People from all over the world come to this website to get their news and maybe spark a debate with some random person if their heart desires. Their system using upvotes and downvotes also helps when deciding if someone has said something valuable.  For context, upvotes are considered good, downvotes are bad. Had the people of Tunisia been using Reddit, a simple protest idea could have received thousands of upvotes to show that people were on board with the idea.

Habermas, J. The Social-Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, (p.141-180).Retrieved from Canvas.

Tufekcis, Z. (2017). Twitter and Tear Gas. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Webster, F. (2002). The idea of an information society. (pp. 512-547).  In Mills M. & Barlow D. Reading Media Theory, Thinkers, Approaches, & Contexts (2nd ed.). 2012. New York, NY: Routledge.

Image Attribution: Images used in this post are in the Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Mark Cooley, 2019

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