Norms for the New Public Sphere


Institutionalising Respect for Truth, Self-Government, and Privacy

University of Stirling project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Background

A well-constituted public sphere is essential for political legitimacy. According to our model inherited from Ancient Greece, the public sphere is a social space in which people discuss political problems, ideas, and policy proposals, and get an opportunity to influence political action. In the large democracies of the 20th century, the public sphere was no longer associated with a physical space (an agora); instead, it was primarily constituted by debates in print media, the radio, and television. Today, as news and opinions are increasingly shared on social media and the old media wither or adapt, a new public sphere is being forged.

In this new public sphere, traditional roles like ‘investigative journalist’ or ‘news anchor’ have lost their former significance. In their place, how often and how quickly a news item or opinion piece is shared has become a key factor affecting the attention it receives. New ‘gatekeepers’ – social media platforms and their algorithms alongside old-media editors – have altered traditional patterns of inclusion and exclusion. People who would not have sent a letter to The Times can make their voices heard in concert with peers (as in the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo campaigns). At the same time ‘fake news’ (e.g. climate change sceptics, the anti-Obama ‘birther’ conspiracy theory) gains a wider following, and personalised online content polarises social groups.