The space for public debate created by the media is our source of information, our insight into what is happening in the world around us. But just like the world around us, the space for public debate, also known as the public sphere, is becoming increasingly globalised. With, a new set of challenges come along, ones that would not have to be faced in the past.
Thanks to social media, we are more aware, and have more opportunities for action and connection, with further reach, than ever before. But paradoxically, the more we engage on these platforms, the more of our own power we are handing over.
The original concept of the public sphere stemmed from a Western image of a political community confined within a nation-state. In theory, this made matters much simpler – the public in each of the separate countries had their government to hold accountable. The power of their public voice was directed at the more concrete target of a centralized institution.
In comparison, social media platforms do not take responsibility for the content they channel, partly because that would conflict their main interest, user engagement, which generates ad revenue, and partly because the question of internet censorship and data policy is still a grey area with little legislation in place.
Even though social media platforms do not function like news organisations or public institutions, there are still editorial and potentially political decisions being made about what we see – in this case by the elusive algorithm.
The age of globalisation put an end to what was left of the illusion of division between nation-states. As communication technologies changed and evolved, so did the nature of the communication they channelled. The emergence of social media gradually transformed the public sphere as we used to know it, and the principles these platforms are based on would appear to present us with a double-edged sword.
Traditional media’s role within the public sphere is that of watchdog and gatekeeper. While holding the authorities accountable, they also filter what information is released into the world.
In contrast, social media platforms provide a space brimming with user-generated information independent of any institutions, and free from their editorial guidelines. Users can contribute to the debate with their content, which in some ways reinforces independence and is a direct means for the expression of the public voice.
Much like the traditional public sphere, the global public sphere of social media carries the potential of a political force. But with no centralized foundations, the activities of many individuals acting largely on their own become scattered.
The primary reason for the creation of social media platforms was the desire for human connection.Now the principle of connectivity does not only provide effective means of connection between people but also brings automated connectivity into the mix by linking content to user activities and advertisers.
This means the information is not only shared between users but also spread to third parties. In a world where connectedness is becoming the new default, the meaning of privacy is being redefined – in an interview for Time, Mark Zuckerberg describes privacy as ‘an evolving norm’. In exchange for the connection social media platforms enable, we give them, and consequently the advertisers, our data.
Another notable change to the one-way traffic of information flow we used to see coming from traditional media was introduced by social media’s programmability. The traffic became two-way between users and programmers. Users were given the power to filter the information flow out for content they found engaging through their interaction. At the same time, the data collected through this constant feedback enable social media platforms to trigger user interaction as they please.
Intertwined with one another, programmability ties to a principle of popularity – just think of any platform’s “Trending” section. The gatekeeping role of traditional media, one of the core journalistic principles, is now in the hands of an algorithm. The algorithm might also be played with when a group of users get together in an effort to make a certain issue more visible. But as Facebook’s and Twitter’s filtering techniques for popular items become more sophisticated, it is getting harder for users to orchestrate a publicity wave.
Therefore, social media’s early promise of a more democratic public sphere where users can equally participate and contribute somewhat fades away.
Social media gives us the freedom to express ourselves and the opportunity to customise our content, but this comes with a risk of finding ourselves in a virtual echo chamber, endlessly reinforced by the algorithm. As social media feeds become the main source of news for an increasing amount of people, readers are exposed to news more selectively.
In the environment of platforms, the priority of which is to trigger user engagement by showing content that is likely to interest, it is easy to go down a rabbit hole of information confirming one’s point of view, with the countervailing information filtered out.
This lack of balance and diversity produces more set and extreme opinions. Social media platforms are growing by the day, yet they remain reluctant to accept the responsibility that comes along. The grey area of internet censorship could potentially prove dangerous and add to further fragmentation of an already polarized society.
Some choose to see the liberating and communitarian potential of social media, while some perceive it as a vehicle for customized advertising. The recurring pattern shows us how social media can and does work both ways.