In contextualizing the practical relevance of the concept of public sphere as it relates to democracy today, we have to see it through the prism of a socio-economic and political competition. The discussion would focus on three strands. These are the media (arguably the most potent ingredient in the public sphere with its informative capacity represented by the emergence of information communication technology); the public sphere inducing participation; and acting as an elixir for democratic development.
The concept of the public sphere and democracy are seen as intertwined concepts. The concept of democracy is etymologically taken from two Greek words 'demos' (the people) and 'kratein' (to rule). Ancient Greek statesmen and philosophers used this idea in a fairly straightforward way. In the words of Pericles: "We are called a democracy because the administration is in the hands of the many and not the few".
The concept of the public sphere - that space, area or terrain in which, by whom, and on what topics, public opinion is formed - is associated with the German social scientist Jürgen Habermas. For Habermas (1989), the period of early capitalism seemed to approach the 'ideal speech situation'. During these formative years, discussion among the educated elite was intensely political, focusing on contemporary affairs and state policy. Gentlemen's clubs, salons, coffee-houses provided the spaces for these informed conversations which both gave rise to and began to shape public opinion (Tomaselli & Tomaselli, 2006; Bratton & Van de Walle, 1997).
By the public sphere, I am referring not only to the conventional understanding of its open electoral contest, but also to the degree of institutional pluralism in civil and political society (Tomaselli &Tomaselli, 2006) and in particular to the ability of citizens and political parties to communicate their messages to the public. The public sphere was in line with European Enlightenment ideas and ideals. Fundamentally, the public sphere was associated with the following principles:
Open access, at least in theory
Participation outside institutional roles
explained that 'middle class citizens had the luxury and resources to create rich, complex, politically sophisticated civil society' using such 'instruments of discourse' such as debating societies, newspapers and book' (Ibid:25) basically outside institutional role.
To Habermas, such conditions of argument distinguished 'private' opinion from 'public' opinion. However, the structure of the nineteenth century public sphere is not the same as that of the contemporary public sphere. According to Habermas, the 'structural transformation' of the public sphere is partly as a consequence of the growth of the advertising and marketing industries. The irony is that capitalism accounted for both the emergence and erosion of the public sphere.
By participation, I am referring to citizen involvement in activities through which they can communicate preferences, interests, needs, collective problems and aspirations to seek redress from those in charge of public policy or change them (Bratton, 1999; Putnam, 2000; Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993; Verba & Nie, 1972; Verba, Schlozman & Brady, 1995).
This participatory element is what makes the Athenian democracy relevant to its needs at the time. Direct democracy, which is viewed as being participatory by scholars such as Dunn (1993), is the
old but vigorous idea that in human political communities, it ought to be ordinary people (the adult citizens), and not the extra-ordinary people who rule. The power and appeal of the idea come from its promise to render the life of a community something willed and chosen to turn the social and political existences that human beings share into a texture of consciously intended communication. In a democracy, the people (the demos), its human members decide what is to be done, and in so deciding they take their destiny into their own hands (1993: v-vi).
This ideal might have influenced the Habermasian concept of the public sphere. But as Fukuyama (1992) articulated later about the forms of government that has straddled human existence, from theocracies, monarchies to aristocracies, and from fascism to communism in the twentieth century, "the only government that has survived to the end of the century has been liberal democracy" (1992: 45). Liberal democracy, he contends is representative democracy and this is also referred to as constitutional and pluralist democracy. He adds:
what is emerging victorious â€¦.. is not so much liberal practice, as the liberal idea. For a very large part of the world, there is now no ideology with pretensions to challenge liberal democracy (1992: 45).
Offering an insight into liberal democracy, he contends that it is the form of rule in which the citizens are free to "choose their own governments through periodic, free and fair, secret-ballot, multiparty elections, on the basis of universal and equal adult suffrage" (Ibid: 43). He pointed out however, that liberal democracy alone does not guarantee equal participation and rights. In this way, the fulcrum of liberalism is its emphasis on pluralism which not only allows individual freedoms but also is most restricted to the organization of the market as the main elixir for addressing the needs of society (Hallin and Mancini, 2004). But this cannot be taken to be wholly ideal or essential for democracy in that pluralism or representation has been reduced to holding periodic elections, emphasizing rights and freedoms and allowing for freer market of goods both tangible and intangible as McChesney (2000) describes them and for holding aloft the banner of profit.
Importantly, most political communication studies pay most attention to the media's role as the major sources of information for a majority of people- the informational and communication requirements of democracy. Indeed, information is central to representative democracy because citizens can only make meaningful choices of their leaders if they have accurate information about their stand on the issues, the interests they represent, and their record in government.
However, the media, particularly interactive forms such as the social networking sites (facebook) and talk shows, are more than just information vessels. They can be forums of participation in their own right. Yet, most empirical studies on political participation tend to privilege electoral forms such as voting, working on political campaigns, and attending rallies, associational forms such as membership in voluntary associations and involvement in other communal activity, contacting public officials, as well as participating in protests or demonstrations.
Expressive or mediated forms of participation such as writing about public issues in letters to newspapers or calling in to radio and television talk shows to talk about public issues are rarely investigated as modes of participation. Often, they are examined only to the extent that they may encourage, or hinder, involvement in the more traditional modes of political participation. The health of the contemporary public sphere cannot be discussed thoroughly unless reverence is given to the traditional construct/concept of public sphere.
The importance of the communication media in a democracy has also been clearly articulated by McQuail (2005). In his postulations, he argues that the media must perform a monitorial (informational) role. This fundamental task of the media is to ensure that it keeps constant surveillance of the social world by finding, processing and publishing objective and reliable news accounts and setting the agenda.
Second, the media ought to play facilitative role. It has to engage citizens to participate and provide lines of communication between the citizens and the government. The media must play a collaborative role with other agencies including the government to deal with serious threats to the peace or in times of natural disasters or conflict. Finally, it has to be radical or critical. Here, the media has to adopt an adversarial stance by taking the side of minority groups or the deprived whose fundamental human rights are being infringed or violated by the powerful and political authorities (Ibid).
At the heart of the discussion involving the concept of the public sphere and democracy is Schudson's argument of debate to facilitate and build a concrete manifestation of the deliberative and dialogic functions of the public sphere. For him, the question of who takes part in public debate is as important as that of the quality of the discourse (Schudson, 1995).
Flowing from this position, we can state that the new media represented by the internet, spawned by advancement in information communication technology has virtually assumed a central role in global democratic discourse and facilitating debate. The development of social networking sites, an improvement on the chat-rooms, using discussion boards and blogs have taken the Habermasian public sphere to a higher level.
Clearly, the rise of the information society as evidenced by the rise of the internet via 'Facebook', has made public sphere's relevance to democracy more attractive. The deliberative function of the ideal has become manifest in its participatory approach by an otherwise disinterested masses. The mass demonstrations in the Arab World, particularly in places which are hitherto shorn of democratic discussions in the last three to four decades has brought to the fore the importance of the Habermasian ideal becoming reality.
As noted by Thussu (2006), the democratic nature of the new social media, which is extending the frontiers of democratic discourse are premised on this technology's use of the mass medium with the essential task of providing free and decentralized information network. The events of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya among others using social media networking to demand greater democratic rights and participation in national governance has truly lived up to the contemporary nature of the public sphere. Its main vitality to democracy has been the opening up of "possibilities of digital dialogues across the world" (Ibid: 227).
Touching on the practical relevance of the concept public sphere, the events alluded to in the Arab World which is media driven using online forms is a manifestation of how the media, particularly information technology is giving meaning to the modern brand of the concept in stimulating democratic participation and growth. Unlike the usual traditional communication, which likely occupied the thoughts of Habermas, his ideal has become a major communicative and democratic tool in revolutionizing democratic participation. While it has virtually displaced the top-down, one-to-many model, the emergence of 'Facebook' and 'Twitter' for example, has given meaning to the expanded form of dialogue, deliberation and participation in democracy.
While we acknowledge the theoretical foundations of the ideal public sphere to mobilize and shape public opinion in a democracy, the invention of the mobile phone technology has not only added to the democratic nature of the public sphere but assisted in measuring improvements in democratic development. The growing stature of the information society, using information communication technology is provided for by the Project for Excellence in Journalism which states that there is:
a seismic transformation in what and how people learn about the world around them. Power is moving away from journalists as gatekeepers over what the public knows. Citizens are assuming a more active role as assemblers, editors and even creators of their own news. Audiences are moving from old media such as television or newsprint to media online (Cited Thussu, 2006: 229).
The emergence of these new forms of information dissemination has not only brought the people closer to democratic participation in what affects their lives but also deepen the democratic vision articulated by Rousseau, Locke, Paine and others. The dominant models of democracy and participation are hinged on the notion of place and on the assumption of some coincidence between space and time.
In effect, the new relationships provided by the public sphere through the emergence of new social movements and networking define people's relationship to broader social structures. The networking which instigates participation is premised on the notion that the information society will make democracy be delocalized and project into the global order of shared values and beliefs about its global appeal rather than a local ideal (Rowbotham, 1992).
The perspective offered by the information society and its appeal to democratic development of the concept of the public sphere has been the shift in the boundary between the public and the private spheres. The denial of participation to women as witnessed not only in ancient Athens but also in England and documented by Elaine Hobby (1988) affirm the strides made in using mix gender communicative tools to foster the new brand of democracy.
The persuasive and participatory tools of the public sphere in today's democracy is remarkably high as the internet, for example, has shut the door to discrimination on the basis of free expression, identity, race or colour. On the internet, forums for discussion of issues of mutual concern either about elections, credit crunch or global warming are not mutually exclusive but inclusive to able-bodied people, the disabled, young and old.
On the other hand, the information society, which drives the new form of the public sphere inducing participation in democracy, has the tendency to exclude large parts of the audience on the basis of their inability to access the technology. Indeed, for the poor who live in deprived parts of the world and who do not have the technology, the barrier to communication and more particularly to the shared global democracy is denied.
This notwithstanding, the new media in a democracy is fulfilling the need of providing information, and in turn facilitates the construction of the public sphere for debate in order to make critical rational decisions (Schudson, Op.cit). The debate within the sphere through the information provided by both the traditional and new media could be enriching for democracy and participation in the democratic process.
As argued by Schudson (Ibid) the public debate function of the media is more important for democracy than their information role. Of course the public needs information, too, and this is only feasible based on the kind of information it needs. Clearly, this can be generated only by vigorous debate in the public sphere which ultimately assist in quality opinion formation and informed decisions resulting from the media's role as active agents in the democratic public sphere (Ibid).
As Keane (1994: 168) explains, the concept of democracy cannot be taken to explain whatever it is thought to be. Keane argues that democracy is normative in that it follows a clear set of rules and has elemental implications. He elaborated on the normative implications and procedural processes to mean "who is authorized to make collective decisions and through which procedures such decisions are to be made, regardless of the areas of life in which democracy is practiced" (Ibid). Unlike Plato's argument of mediocrity and ignorance ruling over knowledge and excellence, Keane sees the concept of democracy as a combination of clear procedures which leads to consensus building. In effect, the ultimate in democratic participation is capacity building that ensures qualitative and quantitative involvement of all segments of society in the process. The growth of the information communication technology and particularly the communication media, a major player in the public sphere seems to be fulfilling this need as has been experienced in Iran through the tape revolution of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and being replayed through social networking 'facebook' in Tunisia and Egypt.
Due to ICTs' capacity to (potentially) reach extremely large numbers of users, viewers and readers it has been easy to talk about online participation as public participation. New media offer tools for new innovative ways of participation. As anyone with internet access can write blogs, comment on online articles, deliberate on online forums, screen a documentary, start a viral campaign, etc. this technology has an enormous potential for enlarging public participation. Online public participatory practices which today appear as only private because they are not standardized and in some cases include only a small number of people, can, develop into potent methods of constituting the pulic (and finally the state).
But this development is dependent on the scale of public participation. If individual actions remain at the level of reaching a small group of people and fail to inform enough people in order to start constituting the public, then these actions inevitably stay private. The basis of public participation lies therefore not only in what an individual tries to achieve, but much more in what she/he actually does achieve, but much more in what she/he actually does achieve and at what level this is being done.
Nevertheless, it has taken decades or even centuries for an action to become a modular and politically accepted form of public participation (Tarrow, 1994). Whether new media will show themselves to be useful tools for participation - extending to more civic and individual arenas - is a question that allows of no easy answer. New media do provide a substantial potential in these two spheres of participation, but the question of publicness of online public participation still needs a careful, long-term examination beyond the practical lessons it has thrown to us from the so-called 'Orange Revolutions' being witnessed in the Arab world.
On the level of democracy being enriched by the new developments within the public sphere such as new media, the political actors are feverishly making use of it to reach their constituents without going through the filtered mechanism of routing their messages through the traditional media. It is therefore not surprising that these professional practitioners see the internet as a new tool they can use. 'Politics as usual' has managed to settle on the internet because the latter allows politicians to circumvent journalists by creating a direct line of communication with their constituents. This direct line is unfiltered and unrestricted by the norms and structural constraints of traditional print and broadcast journalism (Stromer-Gallery and Jamieson, 2001).
Similarly, McQuail (2000) states that the media facilitate debate by allowing citizens to constitute themselves into a group with shared and common interests. The practical relevance of the public sphere in a democracy is circumscribed in the power of localized form of interactive media. Community radios such as the internet also provide a platform for debate, articulation of concerns in a non-coercive manner. The practicality argument is that private citizens as being witnessed through social networking sites such as 'facebook' could be likened to private individuals with a defined goal or objective to share issues of mutual concern. The medium, such 'facebook' is at the centre of facilitating this discourse among all shades of people. The communicative space formed leads to the maintenance of reciprocal discourses. In other words, political freedom and communicative action goes hand in hand as manifested in the recent upheavals in the Arab world as their citizens' demand more democratic and human rights. And this is typical of a progressive human community. As noted by Habermas (Op.cit), social life informs mutual interdependence for the sake of life and nothing else assumes public significance. Issues concerned with the survival of members of society are permitted to appear in publicly protracted discussions and debating platforms as evidenced by the internet discussion forums, chat-rooms, twitter, blogs among others.
For the public sphere, democratic action is an index of what the citizens want and demand. The changing social life which could see an qualitative improvement in the democratic participation of the people must be predicated on virtuous action (Bernstein, 1995). In this way, a collective effort by protesters in Berlin could be of essence to democratic communities in London because they derive autonomy by virtue of their virtuous actions enabled by the transformations brought by the deliberative and interactive media. This makes them active and engaging citizens and not passive participants.
Political websites are often critical one-way channels for providing government information to the individual, and very rarely vice versa. The internet is in this sense no different from other media in helping governments to maintain the status of the citizen as a citizen-consumer (Needham, 2004) - a passive recipient of information generated and delivered by the state. Even in situations where political authorities express their support for citizens contributions, their efforts remain only at the level of information distribution with low levels of interactive communication (Astrom, 2004).
But this is not only restricted to the sphere of the political. Civic organizations have been quick to adapt and exploit the advantages of new ICTs to facilitate top-down mobilization as it is cheap to use, difficult to censor and most importantly, it gives access to potentially enormous numbers of people. Civic organizations are not by definition any more participatory than political institutions, as van de Donk et al (2004) warn. The 'big players' in particular are powerful and centralized organizations where communication remains one-way, helping to mobilize people to do something and not vice versa. The effect is that in as much as we talk of democratizing information and opinion formation, it is rather being manipulated for altruistic reasons.
There is also by the practical relevance of the public sphere to democracy a superimposition of overlapping geographies of space and imagined communities under the guise of not only information technology or information society but by the so-called shared global appeal of the new media. Its impact and appeal is presumed to be enormous using the buzzwords participatory and representation. The notion that the local is shaped by the global awareness is not in dispute as the events of Tunisia not only reverberates through the Arab world but infects the neighbouring countries and beyond.
The image deduced from the Habermasian approach is one which is rooted in the classical doctrine, which sees the formation of praxis or action and a political community operating in the ambit of unconstrained communicative action. This is considered a necessary ingredient for the formation of reciprocal exchange of thought, speech or action. It also forms the basic feature of cultural life, the only space of appearance engendered by this form of reciprocity that human beings can reveal themselves as citizens through such interactions and deliberations using social networks courtesy information society.
Beyond the information communication technology and its impact through the new media, democracy is being reinforced using the concept of the public sphere per the redefinition of citizenship. By the application and interaction through social networking sites, the equality argument through consumption and rights to information without restriction has been enhanced. The media plays a significant role of providing citizens with a substantial part of information needed to navigate and develop informed opinions on an increasing number of issues. Consequently, political decisions concerning the structure and performance of media institutions. In activating citizens' participation, the new media for example is fulfilling a democratic theory of majority participation in the process in order to lend legitimacy to its practice.
The recent exposure of wikileaks, which hitherto demystified the secretive world of intelligence and international diplomacy, is owed to the active agency of public sphere and the liberal environment provided by democratization of communication. Without the unrestricted new media such as the internet and its ability to reach millions within seconds, the undercover exploits of the most powerful and how they view the ordinary and vulnerable groups would not have come to the fore.
It must be stressed that the new media, which has virtually become the central force in the contemporary public sphere is assisting democracy in practical ways. It has resulted in an important power shift from political to economic actors in the system of market globalization. The public participation of this shift of powers is also premised on the mediatization of politics and the process of individualization. The concept of the public sphere from the practical examples articulated offers a mixed opportunity to democracy, partially enabled by the transfer of power from political to economic actors, and partially driven by the transformation of power from material to symbolic codes. Participation, therefore, is extending from political to the civic realm. The actions in this civic realm are less standardized and coordinated, but more individually-based and personal in their origins.
On the whole, however, the opportunities offered by the new media through social networking and using mobile telephony as part of citizen journalism has shifted the ground from elite approach to reporting events to that of ordinary citizens taking part in communicative action, discussion and decision-making. It is becoming evidently clear that the essence of the public sphere role is no longer assumed by the mass media alone but by every individual using the coordinated discussion boards as the new form of participation. It is bringing democratic governance to the door step of the people and n matter the negative impacts of the new media, the information society as being defined by new social media is giving firm meaning and actualization to the concept of the public sphere.