I’ve spent much of the summer developing a new course for undergraduate students at UMass, titled “The Digital Public Sphere”. One of my three department chairs challenged me to build a class that would be compelling to undergraduates, could be taught as a large lecture class and could serve as an intro to “whatever it is that you do”. It’s an “experimental” class at UMass this semester, with the hope of scaling it up in the coming year. (I will post the syllabus, but not quite yet – I’m still tinkering with some of the late semester classes.)
As I thought through the hundreds of ideas I wanted to share over the course of twenty-something lectures, I’ve centered on three core concepts I want to try and get across. The first is simple: democracy requires a robust and healthy public sphere, and American democracy was designed with that public sphere as a core component.
Second – and this one has taken me more time to understand – the public sphere includes at least three components: a way of knowing what’s going on in the world (news), a space for discussing public life, and whatever precursors allow individuals to participate in these discussions. For Habermas’s public sphere, those precursors included being male, wealthy, white, urban and literate… hence the need for Nancy Fraser’s recognition of subaltern counterpublics. Public schooling and libraries are anchored in the idea of enabling people to participate in the public sphere.
The third idea is that as technology and economic models change, all three of these components – the nature of news, discourse, and access – change as well. The obvious change we’re focused on is the displacement of a broadcast public sphere by a highly participatory digital public sphere, but we can see previous moments of upheaval: the rise of mass media with the penny press, the rise of propaganda as broadcast media puts increased control of the public sphere in the hands of corporations and governments.
These moments of transition always involve tradeoffs. Broadcast models of the public sphere could reach broader audiences than those based on print, but broadcast concentrated discursive power in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, and made it much harder for individuals to challenge dominant narratives. A shift away from broadcast towards participatory media has similarly brought about tradeoffs. Many people are deeply disconcerted by a public sphere in which gatekeepers are less powerful, speech is less controlled, and mis/disinformation plays a larger part in our information ecosystem. This is a reasonable set of concerns: without a shared set of facts about COVID, climate change or the 2020 US elections, it’s hard to imagine meaningful deliberation in the public sphere.
It’s worth remembering that recent information disorder has an interesting and directly related upside: a massive diversification of points of view expressed within media. There’s been a fascinating illustration of this phenomenon in the past week, in reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire”. Twitter removed the comment, her university condemned her statement, and thousands of social media users – including Jeff Bezos – lined up to criticize her reaction.
It’s worth offering some context for Dr. Anya’s harsh words. Dr. Anya’s parents were survivors of the Biafran war, a brutal conflict in which Igbo Nigerians sought an independent state, reacting to religious violence that killed thousands of Igbo living in northern parts of Nigeria. The Biafran separatists were defeated by Nigerian forces, supported and armed in part by the United Kingdom. Referring to this past, Dr. Anja explained:
If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star.
— Uju Anya (@UjuAnya) September 8, 2022
I don’t know enough about Britain’s role in the Biafran war to evaluate whether I agree with Dr. Anya’s characterizations. What I do know is that my undergrad students, mostly white kids from eastern MA, had an excellent discussion in class on Friday about the legacy of colonialism and the power of counterspeech. Questions about whether it’s disrespectful to use the moment of a monarch’s death to remind the world about colonialism and its legacies sound a bit like complaints that discussing gun control after a massacre is “politicizing” an event. Unfortunately, we don’t discuss gun control in the US, except in the wake of shootings. And unfortunately, we don’t spend much time talking about the legacies of colonialism and their lasting impacts on postcolonial nations like Nigeria.
In the age of participatory media, a predictable event like Queen Elizabeth’s death has at least three acts. There’s the pre-ordained reactions, the obituaries written years before they needed to run, the reactions from world leaders and luminaries. In the second act, there’s a set of unanticipated reactions to a news event, as people who weren’t booked years in advance take advantage of the event to promote narratives they feel are important, hooking an oped to the news hook, or using the historical moment to remind people of an underexplored chapter of history. And then there’s a third wave, in which we debate whether or not speech in the second wave is acceptable in a democratic society. Karen Attiah, in a column in the Washington Post, does a good job of explaining why writers like Dr. Anya seize the moment in wave two, and defending plurality in the wave 3 discussions:
“It shouldnâ€™t take the death of a monarch to bring this colonial history to light, but this is where we are. The public relations imagery of a dedicated, elderly grandmother devoted to her corgis, and the Hollywood-ification of the royal family, serves all too well to blunt questions about empire. When the opportunity comes to surface truth, it must be seized.”
This three-act structure – a dominant narrative, subaltern narratives and a debate about the role of dialog itself – is a reminder that we’re in transition between an older vision of the public sphere and a newer one. I suspect that we will begin to anticipate both the counternarratives that social media will surface regarding events as they unfold, and anticipate unexpected reactions that will gain traction and attention. Over time, the third act – in which we fight over what we’re allowed to say – may dissipate.
For now, I find myself wondering how much of the panic about mis- and disinformation is a reaction to the airing of narratives many of us are uncomfortable hearing articulated. I agree that American democracy is going to have a hard time navigating a period of time in which many people believe false things about the 2020 election. At the same time, I note that interest in information disorder began to rise in the wake of the 2016 election, when many Americans – myself included – were forced to conclude that many of our fellow citizens were sufficiently alienated from our political system that blowing up government as usual seemed like a worthwhile path.
Jay Rosen observed that those who find their views outside the “sphere of legitimate debate” (as theorized by communication scholar Daniel Hallin) will “will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you donâ€™t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the ‘lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel’ (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. Itâ€™s not that thereâ€™s a one-sided debate; thereâ€™s no debate.”
Social media means there’s _always_ debate, including debate about whether or not something should be up for debate. The interesting conversations have expanded beyond “How should we talk about a particular issue?” to “What perspectives can we discuss about a particular issue and still live within a democratic society?” It seems clear that we can talk about the Mau Mau rebellion and the Biafran war while mourning (or not) Queen Elizabeth’s death. What’s less clear is whether perspectives that deny others’ basic humanity – white supremacy, for example – push the capabilities of this new, pluralistic media sphere to their limits.