Democracy on the Internet: Can Twitter be Considered a Modern Public Sphere?
Determining if a social media site is considered democratic requires analysis of many factors. Twitter can be seen as a democratic platform in terms of access, but a non-democratic platform in relation to the notion of a public sphere due to it’s unequal balance of user visibility, echo chambers, and corporate ownership. The concept of the public sphere within Communication studies has been set as a general guideline as to what is considered ‘democratic’. Therefore, this essay will define the public sphere and apply it as a measure of democracy within Twitter. Several cases of Twitter’s actions of censorship will be considered as case studies and then discussed as democratic or non-democratic actions in relation to the definition of a democratic platform.
The Public Sphere as a Democratic Marker
Jurgen Habermas first defined the public sphere in 1962 as an “arena” that is “distinct from the state” and “the official economy” that can promote conversations that are “critical of the state” (as cited in Fraser, 1990, p. 57). Fraser states that these distinctions are “essential to democratic theory” (1990, p. 57). In sum, the public sphere functions as a decent outline of the parameters of a democracy as it highlights the importance of the ability for citizens to critique the state fairly. Daniels (2014) describes Habermas’ public sphere as “rational consensus” (p. 301), and Dahlgreen (2005, p. 148) adds that it is a “space in society that… permits the formation of political will” (as cited in Colleoni et al., 2014, p. 318). Therefore an ideal public sphere would be separate from the economy and state that allows for effective, equal communication amongst citizens in which they are able to critique the state fairly and together form a consensus. In understanding these definitions, Twitter will be compared and contrasted as a modern public sphere.
Is Twitter a Public Sphere?
Several key factors of a public sphere must be analysed in relation to Twitter. One of which includes open access to the public. One could define a good democracy as open connectivity amongst citizens. Castells (2015) and Tufekci (2017) state that Twitter may promote communication “beyond the boundaries of [citizens] immediate communities” (as cited in Bouvier et al., 2020, p. 2-3). Essentially, any user with a public profile can interact with any tweet at any time. However, Twitter has a nature of hierarchy (ex. Bruns et al., 2013) that doesn’t permit equality when it comes to content dissemination (as cited in Bouvier et al., 2020, p. 4). Although many citizens have access to Twitter due to it’s accessibility in North American societies, it cannot be considered an ideal democratic platform given nature in terms of favouring popularity, shown in likes and followers. The fact that not every tweet will be seen by a varying amount of users makes Twitter an inadequate public sphere.
Another issue is the concept of echo chambers and the algorithms that support them. Echo chambers do not permit equal access to content or allow for effective communication by the public. Sunstein (2001) claims that social networking sites can act to “reaffirm” your political views (as cited in Colleoni et al., 2014, p. 318). This is a result of algorithms which are based on who a user chooses to follow, what kind of content they like or share, and what topics they engage with. Echo chambers exist on all social media platforms and anything that involves personalized content based on big data surveillance. Although, depending on the situation, Twitter is not purely an echo chamber. As concluded by Colleoni et al. Twitter in terms of news dissemination appears more like a public sphere than when it is analysed Twitter from a social standpoint (2014, p. 328). What they mean by this is when Twitter is being used as a news source it is less likely for users to be restricted to their own social bubbles. For example, trending news stories can be promoted to all users, opening echo chambers to comments and interactions from all users regardless of who they follow.
Twitter may be able to permit conversation amongst individuals from all backgrounds and political orientations in some senses; however, that does not mean that Twitter allows for meaningful discourse resulting in “rational consensus” (Daniels, 2014, p. 301). In fact, given the nature of social media sites, the ability to block or mute conversations means Twitter is often not the place for consensus.
Case Study: Twitter Censorship
There are two popular occasions in which Twitter censorship has become a trending topic. One is described by Siciu (2020) in this Forbes article. The New York Post released a story containing false information about Joe Biden and Siciu highlights how Twitter not only removed the story from algorithms but blocked users from being able to share the article and some of it’s contents (para. 3). Due to Twitter taking these measures to stop the spread of the story, the hashtag #twittercensorship began circulate thus provoking discourse on whether or not the actions taken by Twitter are considered censorship of freedom of speech or within their rights (Siciu, 2020, para. 4). As Foehl points out, “freedom of speech rights do not generally apply to non-governmental entities” like Twitter (as cited by Siciu, 2020, para. 10). Therefore, it isn’t directly, legally harming freedom of speech; however, it is understandable as to why this may be considered as censorship.
In addition to this, as of June 2020 according to this Washington Post article, Twitter has hidden over five of Donald Trump’s tweets with public interest notices, often stating that the particular tweet “violates its policy prohibiting abusive behaviour” (Lerman, 2020, para. 1-2). Other tweets that have been flagged include notices of verifiably false information or copyright strikes. Trump has gone as far as to initiate an executive order that strives to change a federal law in relation to this (Lerman, 2020, para. 6).
Regardless of political affiliation, the existence of fake news or misinformation is non-democratic as it can skew effective communication amongst citizens, a key characteristic of the public sphere. Therefore, the conversation about Twitter’s actions must take into account the fact that preventing misinformation within their legal means and upholding their own user agreement policies is well within their rights. A main issue with preventing the spread of misinformation is the concept of fact-checking. Remaining unbiased when fact-checking is necessary, but difficult. Since Twitter is owned and governed by a corporation, its bias can be questioned and become another complication of its democratic possibilities.
Regardless of the definition of the public sphere, Twitter cannot be truly defined as a democratic platform due to it’s nature of inequality and ownership with ability to censor.
Although Twitter has been working to prevent the spread of misinformation in order to promote it’s platform as a space for meaningful and democratic political discourse based on the truth, while the hierarchy, inequality and algorithms exist it cannot be defined as a true public sphere.
Word Count: 1159
Bouvier G., Rosenbaum J.E. (2020). Communication in the Age of Twitter: The Nature of Online Deliberation. In: Bouvier G., Rosenbaum J. (Eds.), Twitter, the Public Sphere, and the Chaos of Online Deliberation. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1007/978-3-030-41421-4_1
Colleoni E., Rozza, A., & Arvidsson, A. (2014). Echo Chamber or Public Sphere? Predicting Political Orientation and Measuring Political Homophily in Twitter Using Big Data. Journal of Communication, 64(2), 317–332. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12084
Daniels, G. (2014). How far does Twitter deepen democracy through public engagement?: An analysis of journalists’ use of Twitter in the Johannesburg newsroom. Journal of African Media Studies, 6(3), 299–311. https://doi.org/10.1386/jams.6.3.299_1
Lerman, R. (2020, June 23). Twitter slaps another warning label on Trump tweet about force. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/06/23/twitter-slaps-another-warning-label-trump-tweet-about-force/
Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, 25-26(25/26), 56–80. https://doi.org/10.2307/466240
Siciu, P. (2020, Oct 15). Twitter limited the sharing of New York Post story – is it social media censorship? https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2020/10/15/twitter-limited-the-sharing-of-new-york-post-story–is-it-social-media-censorship/#590ce61a18ec