Week 7 – Facebook and Twitter: the public sphere and digital activism

20 03 2011

So, what is all this public sphere talk about?

Answering this question is not the easiest as various contradicting views exist on what is defined as a public sphere.

The most accepted definition to date is that of Habermas (1989) who defines a public sphere using 4 criterions:

  1. Public spheres are spaces of discourse, often mediated.
  2. Public spheres often allow for new, previously excluded, discussants.
  3. Issues discussed are often political in nature.
  4. Ideas are judged by their merit, not by the standing of the speaker.

However, despite these contradicting views, it is agreed bewtween scholars that there is a clear link between the public sphere and the internet.

Facebook and Twitter: the public sphere and digital activism

Facebook and Twitter are best described as multiple sphere frameworks as they consist of many public spheres. It would be incorrect to call them public spheres as they are made up of many of what Dahlgren’s (2001) calls “issue publics”, publics formed around issues of interest. Facebook and Twitter consists of several issue publics due to users of the social media varying in terms of demographics, geographical location and lifestyles to name a few.  Despite both sites not being public sphere, they do expand on Habermas (1989) is concept, by allowing the public to freely engage in political and social discussions. This has allowed the trend of digital activism to emerge.

Digital activism

A brilliant example of how Facebook and Twitter have been used in such a way, is the protest against the rise in student fees, which took place on the 26th of march this year.

The protest proved effective as Facebook and Twitter allowed a large mass of protestors to be easily informed in a short time frame.  Despite being a public event, organising a protest using these social networks proved effective as information could be targeted specifically at students as opposed to telling the public as a whole about the event. Approximately 52,000 students (Guardian 2010) attended the protest, which was clearly not expected by the police who were responsible for keeping the protest under control. Instead they “were criticised for failing to anticipate the scale of the disorder” (Guardian 2010).

Shown below are a few of the many persuasive tweets which were posted on the ‘ed activist net’ twitter page in the build up to the protest, and helped gain the participation of such a large mass of protestors.

Twitter and the Police were impacted

Although the use of social networking helped tremendously in organising an effective activism event, it also proved to have a negative impact. Days after the protest, a news article(http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/dec/01/twitter-student-protesters-accounts) was released stating, protestors suspected that twitter were in favour of the police as they were unable to access the main protest twitter page, #demo2010(link).

As well, the police received damage to their reputation from various blogs which were written primarily by students. Consistent critisim was seen across a range of blogs including comments such as “the police were extremely heavy handed with people who were not breaking the law” retrieved from a London metropolitan student blog (http://blogs.londonmet.ac.uk/su/2011/03/29/first-hand-account-of-26th-march/).

Social media improves the effectiveness of activism

With the ability to share links to material such as news articles and videos offered by websites such as YouTube and various online newspapers it has allowed further enhancement on the effectiveness of digital activism. In the case of the student fee protests, various YouTube videos of the protest were shared on Facebook and links to various newspaper articles on the topic such as the guardian were used by people to post on their walls and walls of their friends.

Attempts to form a public sphere through digital activism

Spurred by the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine and opportunities withing digital media, ‘iConnect: Isralelis/Palestinians’ was created, a facebook page attempting to encourage people from both countries to see the real perspective of each other, which is currently mediated by media, military, agencies and the government. Additionally it was formed to generate discussion from the rest of the world and allow them to acknowledge the reality of the conflict, first hand, form the people themselves.

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