Can the internet can be a model virtual public sphere that enables participation, civic debate and the rational exchange of opinions ?

The public sphere is a concept created by Habermas in 1962, established based on the need for democracy and therefore requiring a space for discussion and informing the general public. The public sphere is to be a place accessible to everyone, this used to be physical however in the modern age social media has adapted this providing us with an online space where participants are free to express and debate their opinions.

The #MeToo campaign started in 2017 after allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein, which encouraged women to Tweet and publish examples of prejudice and hatred against women. This has led to millions of women coming forward to share their stories with the world, this shows how the internet can provide a model virtual public sphere where debate and democracy is encouraged. It is a good example of how this public space can create a community as Alyssa Milano encouraged others to share their experienced it then created an environment where a range of people felt able to talk about a very sensitive topic, showing great participation.

It is suggested that the campaign had such popularity due to the fact “it is real” (Lawton,2017), meaning that it was not just celebrities making these claims the internet provided a platform for the everyday person to share their experiences. It has allowed us to see just how common acts of sexual assault are in our society and how many it has affected. That the scale of it is enormous and effects women from all walks of life, who through the internet are able to connect and speak about this issue in a space where others can contribute.

This public sphere for discussion is created and holds great power as Chip Tsao argues “Thanks to the new age of Facebook, all that’s needed is to hold up a selfie with a sign and instantly turn many people into Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.” (Alex, Lo, 2017) Proving how the internet can be a more influential place of discussion, a simple label or picture and the whole world is discussing the allegations against you. He further argues ‘he is a worshipper of Western Culture and so must now follow its latest fashion trend.” (Alex Lo, 2017) This shows that the internet can be a model virtual sphere but may not be the best model for a public sphere, as the internet is a space for entertainment as well as discussion it is difficult to create a define line between the two. This then leads to discussions of democracy and serious topics blending with “trends” and losing the worth in these discussions. This can be seen in the #MeToo campaign as a hashtag is to show what is popular and trending, it therefore should not be surprising that people have wanted to become involved in this.

It is not the public sphere as we used to know it. It has developed into a manipulated form of the public sphere, as the internet gives such a range of people voices to speak out with no filtration to their content the whole world is instantly able to see this content before it is discussed or evaluated.

There are disadvantages to the internet being our main public sphere for debate and discussion in today’s society as not everyone has access to the internet, this therefore means there is democracy to an extent as this prevents those less privileged from accessing information about politics and participating in the debates. This is therefore cutting out a social group in society and not providing a completely representative public sphere. Further more mature generations may not be as prominent online as the Office of National Statistics found that only 38.7% of adults used the internet compared to 99.2% of those aged 16-24 (2016) showing that there is a bias of representation online and a disadvantage when discussing and sharing their views.

Ronan Farrow suggested that “innocent men could become “casualties” of false sex assault allegations.” (Bates 2017) as although the internet can be a virtual model public sphere however this is an example of where it could possibly be going to an extreme. As the participation becomes too extreme, more people want to be included in this discussion and become part of it to feel included. This shows the negative effects of the internet representing a public sphere as everyone can be involved and the distancing of one’s self as many feel they can post online without consequences produce content which negatively affect society; for example, false rape allegations. Further this shows how although the internet can provide a public sphere it may not be for the “rational exchange of opinions” as Farrow described the #MeToo campaign of potentially going too far in a moment of “white hot anguish”. This shows how especially online where it is so easy to post content to the world instantly we may share irrational content which does not add to public discussions of democracy but hinders discussions of what is really happening in society.

On the other hand, the internet provides a platform for all, therefore this trend was responded to be men with the #ItWasn’tMe. This shows that a debate can be formed and the accessibility of the internet allows both sides to have input and therefore create some form of balanced debate.

In conclusion, the internet has provided us with a new form of public sphere however not necessarily one that enables civil debate and rational exchange of opinion. Georgina Lawton makes an important point in relation to the campaign as although it has created online solidarity it is important that “we continue the campaign in real life.” (Lawton 2017) showing that the internet can provide a public sphere for discussion and has altered our idea of the public sphere greatly, by expanding it to a worldwide scale. However, it is still important to bring these conversations into the real world and find a medium between having an online public sphere and a physical one.

Citations

Office for national statistics. 2016. Internet users in the UK:2016. [Online] https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/itandinternetindustry/bulletins/internetusers/2016, accessed 18 December 2017

Daniel Bates, Daily Mail. 2017. Ronan Farrow says innocent men could become “causalities” of false sex assault allegations if the MeToo pendulum “swings too far”. [Online], http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5200121/Ronan-Farrow-Men-casualties-MeToo-campaign.html [Accessed 18 December 2017].

Alex Lo, South China Morning Post, 2017. Backlash in Hong Kong against the “me too” campaign. [Online] http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2122858/backlash-hong-kong-against-me-too-campaign [Accessed 17 December 2017]

Georgina Lawton, The Guardian. 2017. #MeToo is here to stay. [online], https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/oct/28/metoo-hashtag-sexual-harassment-violence-challenge-campaign-women-men [ Accessed 18 December 2017]

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