Can Blogs Form a Public Sphere?
University of Colorado at Boulder
The issue of democracy within the Internet has been hotly contested and continues to be so as new forms of media technology are produced. Blogs have gained popularity as a communication channel, and have formed a new public space called the blogosphere. The blogosphere started in the 1990s and has exploded in recent years. The blog-tracking company, Technorati, Inc. reports that almost 40,000 blogs are generated per day (Lee, 2006). Some theorists argue that this represents a public sphere, a kind of digital “agora” where democracy is fostered. This paper will examine whether or not Daily Kos, a highly visited political blog, constitutes a democracy using Wiklund’s (2005) four conditions—generality, autonomy, power neutrality, and ideal role-taking—which are derived from Juergen Habermas’s notion of the public sphere.
Theory of Deliberative Democracy
Habermas laments the decline of what he calls the public sphere in the 20th Century. He is credited with forming a new critical theory of society based on a theory of communication. A key concept is communicative rationality, which consists of three aspects—communicative action, discourse, and ideal speech situation (R. T. Craig, lecture, April 2, 2009).
Communicative action means that consensus is freely formed by participants in interaction. Furthermore, “participants in discourse must make use of the same logical semantic rules; for example, participants may not contradict themselves and they must use expressions in a consistent way over time as individuals” (Wiklund, 2005).
The second element is discourse, in which participants are allowed to contest the validity claims embedded in all communication. Contestation is meant to question if a particular statement is true, the sincerity of the speaker, and if they have a moral right to make such a claim. Habermas also asserts that process rules should be implemented. For instance, “participants must state and defend only what they believe, and they must provide reasons to justify their opinions” (Wiklund, 2005).
Thirdly is the ideal speech situation, which describes the goal of allowing each participant the opportunity to express ideas freely and openly. This ideal situation would be absent of systematically distorted communication such as power relations.
Habermas is also concerned with ways in which deliberative democracy can be produced. Habermas’s discursive model of deliberative democracy was formulated by combining the most attractive traits of the liberal and the republican traditions in political theory. The result is a deliberative democratic model that is “understood to involve collective searches for common interests, as well as negotiation and bargaining between conflicting private interests” (Wiklund, 2005). Within a communicative framework, the goal is to construct meaning through an exchange of rational argumentation.
Wiklund (2005) derives from the Habermasian theory four conditions by which deliberative democracy can be evaluated online. These conditions include generality, autonomy, power neutrality, and ideal role-taking. Generality means that the decision making process should include those who will be affected by it. Autonomy refers to the capacity of participants in contesting validity claims. Power neutrality means that a level of equality among participants is present, whereby no one is swayed by power. Wiklund (2005) claims that power can be administrative, economic, or cultural. The fourth condition is ideal role-taking, which involves participants taking on an attitude of reciprocity and impartiality. This is the standard of deliberative democracy that will be used to analyze our selected blog, Daily Kos.
Application of the Theory to a Political Blog
Daily Kos is a political blog that was created by Markos Moulitsas on May 26, 2002. They claim to have daily traffic between 2-4 million visits. Daily Kos has eight paid staff members and sixteen contributing editors, which makes it a relatively popular political blog on the Internet. Daily Kos identifies itself as follows:
From the fact that Daily Kos claims to be a partisan blog, we can already anticipate how this is problematic to the Habermasian notion of public sphere. More will be discussed later, but first we will apply Wiklund’s four conditions of deliberative democracy to discover possible democratic characteristics of the blog.
In terms of generality, technically anyone who has access to a computer and creates an account can post comments. Also Daily Kos, like most blogs, is free for users. While these structures are important for democratic practices, the question of access always poses a problem for democracy. There are still many people without access to the Internet, the problem of the “digital divide” (Lee, 2006).
As for autonomy, it seems as though participants of Daily Kos have the right to argue against validity claims. However, from the few blog posts that I reviewed, there has been no evidence of any argumentation at all. The lack of disagreement should not be surprising though, as most of the members appear to be Democrats. Many of these blog posts are about injustices in parts of the world that may not be well-covered by popular media. Some posts serve as platforms for criticizing Republicans, as is evidenced by posts titled “Crimes That Deserve Punishment” (which criticizes the Bush administration) and “Pat Buchanan Doesn’t Know his Religion.” Most of the responses to such posts seem to express agreement. Due to the partisan nature of the blog, I imagine that participants with deviating opinions would feel unwelcome to express themselves.
In terms of power neutrality, the fact that the blog administrators are the only ones with the power to delete posts creates a problem for deliberative democracy. In the “Frequently Asked Questions” FAQ section, there is a question in regards to the First Amendment. Here is the answer provided by Daily Kos:
Clearly this creates an unequal power relationship between the members and administrators. There are even certain topics that are forbidden from being discussed. For example, the FAQ also states that participants are not allowed to refer to claims that American, British, Israeli, or any government assisted in the 9/11 attacks.
With regards to ideal role-taking, there are serious problems for democratic practices in the sense that this is a partisan blog. Habermas asserts that consensus building should occur between participants with diverse ideas and opinions. Also, Wiklund suggests that participants in a deliberative democracy should have public identities. Members of Daily Kos, however, are anonymous. Based on these four criteria of evaluating the democratic potential of this blog, we would have to conclude that this is not a public sphere because there exists several conditions that limit the possibility of building mutual consensus.
Critique of the Deliberative Democratic Framework
Since our society is becoming increasingly pluralistic and interdependent, Habermas’s deliberative democratic model can be very useful if we wish to construct creative solutions that mutually satisfy parties with different perspectives. Being aware of contexts that have systematically distorted communication is key to understanding power relations. Once we achieve awareness of this, we can try to construct a system that counters the distortion, and thereby producing more free and open communication.
While there certainly are strengths to Habermas’s theory, there are some weaknesses, too. For instance, Best (2005) argues for a completely different conception of democracy, one that attempts to define democracy as something cultural and experienced in the everyday. A major criticism of traditional models such Habermas’s deliberative democracy is that they’re rooted in a transmission model, and limit democratic communication to a recognizable public space. Best believes that the Habermasian notion of public sphere fails to take into account “important characteristics of contemporary democratic practice and experience” (Best, 2005). In other words, Habermas’s version of democracy may be too limiting. Best names media technology as contributing the fragmentation of society, and argues that democracy can be practiced in multiple ways. In addition, different democratic subjectivities can be formed.
In this light, it is quite possible that there are more democratic practices occurring on Daily Kos than was originally given credit. For example, many blog posts draw upon all sorts of political material presented in popular news media, which is interacted with by other users. This kind of participation may constitute the type of lived democracy that Best refers to. While this view of democratic communication may help us better understand how democracy can be experienced in contemporary contexts, admittedly, Daily Kos still may not be a very good example of what Best is talking about. According to Best (2005), “democracy is also essentially cultural, continuously defined, contested and redefined not merely through reasonable discussion, but also through struggles over values and meaning associated with its overall cultural resonance and component parts.” In the case of Daily Kos, there appears to be little evidence of this struggle over values because virtually all the participants agree with each other.
As the blogosphere continues to grow larger, there lies a question of what this means for society, and what does this mean for democracy? Habermas theorized new media technology’s potential to produce a new public sphere, in which mutual consensus would come out of rational argumentation of diverse opinions. Wiklund’s four conditions of deliberative democracy have allowed us to evaluate the democratic potential of Daily Kos. Based on this framework, it is clear that the partisan nature of this blog may represent a public space, but not a public sphere.
This paper only examined one political blog. Future research should examine a wider range of political blogs, and analyze how they differ in terms of their democratic potential. Such analysis may provide newer insights as to how democracy can be facilitated in contemporary times.
Best, K. (2005). Rethinking the globalization movement: Toward a cultural theory of contemporary democracy and communication. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 2(3), 214 - 237.
Lee, J. (2006). The blogosphere and the public sphere: Exploring possibility of the blogosphere as a public sphere. Conference Papers -- International Communication Association (2006 Annual Meeting). Retrieved April 5, 2009, from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Moulitsas, M. (2002). Daily Kos. Retrieved on April 9, 2009 from http://www.dailykos.com/
Wiklund, H. (2005). A Habermasian analysis of the deliberative democratic potential of ICT-enabled services in Swedish municipalities. New Media & Society, 7(5), 701-723.