Social Media as a Public Sphere: Where it is Heading?

Photo credit : 'Social News Daily'

By Shamsher Alam

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has given a concept known as ‘Public Sphere’. He defined the public sphere as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens”. Initially, the public sphere was related to the spatial context. Habermas had disused the important of coffee houses in the production of public opinion. With the advent of the printing press, it changed its forms. Later on, with the arrival of modern technology, the public sphere further extended its ambit. It came on the virtual edifice. Social media is an extension of the same. He argued that the public sphere is equivalent to public opinion. To him, the success of the public opinion/sphere depends on the following factors. First, the degree of autonomy of the public sphere; second, access to the public sphere; third, rejection of the hierarchy and fourth, the quality of participation. Here, it is an attempt to contextualize these four characteristics in present-day social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter etc.). By doing so, it tries to understand its role in the generation of vibrant public opinion, which led to the formation of healthy and vivacious democracy.

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The Degree of Autonomy of the Public Sphere

This is one of the important characteristics of a good vibrant public sphere. The degree of autonomy can be understood in terms of freedom from coercion. Autonomy required freedom not only from the state but also from other factors. In other words, how free is the public sphere, where an individual can express his/her opinion? The nature of control depends on the content of the opinion and its reaction by the dominant ideology. To put it differently, who is making an opinion against whom. In recent time, it has been found that the moment anybody openly criticizes the ruling party or government, then the same tries to put those argumentative or dissented voices under surveillance and sometimes booked. For example, one of the political personalities is being sacked for his opinion during the Corona pandemic. Assam MLA arrested for his social media post on Covid-19. He said that “quarantine camps are worse than detention camps”. Sometimes, the disagreed voices on social media were sacked with the sedition and other charges. Delhi Minority Commission chief Zafarul Islam Khan is the perfect example. He has been charged with the sedition case for his so-called inflammatory and provocative remarks on social media. His post on the same landed him into controversy. However, to his mind: ‘I have always been vocal about the problems in our country like any other country…’.

However, the controversial post social media or tweets are undermined if these are coming from the ruling party or ideology. Rajat Sharma gives communal colour when he tweeted about the gathering of stranded labourers near a mosque in Bandra, Mumbai, actually they were outside the Bandra Railway Station. There was also a communal tug of war amid the pandemic of Coronavirus, particularly in the context of Tablighi Jamaat. Social media poured with the hatred and communal messages against the Jamaat. These people were given a new name, Corona Bomb. It has also been argued that they were spreading Corona Jihad. In this regard, no person has been sacked or detained by the state apparatus. As these kinds of remarks were also provocative and increasing enmity between socio-religious communities.

In the absence of free and autonomous press and media, the role of social media as a public sphere is having worth potential. However, after analyzing the present scenario, it can be argued that although social media is free from control, it is not free in an absolute sense. If anybody will criticize the ruling government, then the troll army will not spare. The state would also try to intimidate those voices by using its apparatus. Although, it is free from the direct control of big corporate media houses, whose main agenda is to make a profit, instead of disseminating true and unbiased news; it is not free for the sake of creating the public sphere for constructive healthy public opinion. It is dominated by those who adhere to dominant discourse and ideology. In the absence of autonomy, the public opinion is not being formulated and articulated to make the bridge between state and common people. Due to absence of autonomy, the democratic ethos is being curtailed and minor voices are not being heard, particularly of Muslims and Dalits.

Access to Social Media as a Public Sphere 

The access to the public sphere can be understood by the domination of single caste, class and ideology. As far as the control in terms of ownership of social media is concerned then, it is free from the purview of upper-caste Hindu unlike the mainstream media, which is largely owned and dominated by them. However, the domination of social media is done in a tacit way. Like mainstream media, it is also conquered by the current leading ideology. There are IT cells of different political parties, particularly of right-wing ideology, to hackled and intimidate the dissenting voices. In this way, the major dominant arguments are perpetuating and new opinions are not getting space. The accessibility can also be understood from the using capacity of social media. The availability of social media is easy and affordable to the urban middle class. However, it is a problem for the poor and marginalized people of this country. Thus, a large section of Indian citizens is not being able to share their opinion. The opinion of the urban middle class is being considered as the opinion of masses. Therefore, it can be argued that social media is available, but all people are not able to get access to the same. The voices of poor and backward people are not appearing at the surface, therefore, their concerns are not being listened and considered. If a few opinions are coming, then their views are also refuted by leading ideology.

Rejection of the Hierarchy

It is concerned with the participation of every single individual in the public sphere. It also defines how much open space is available for the common people to express their opinion. This defines the nature and vibrancy of the public sphere. It is also related to refutation and modification of dominant ideology and discourse. If we contextualize these ideas into the present social media platform, then it is evident that social media is being used to propagate the particular kind of ideology. The people are expressing their opinion with their embedded ideological orientations. It is not free from the ideological discourse. It is a place of ideological tug of war. This virtual place is diving people on the ground in the name of ideology. It is also cherishing the dominant discourse with dis embedded fashion. In the absence of a critical evaluation of any dominant ideological orientation, democracy could not strengthen. The social media could have served this purpose, but the same is also coloured with the government’s ideological orientation. Like the mainstream media, this space is being used for the gratification of interests of their political bosses, propagating the dominant ideology and silencing the minority voices. It is ‘re-feudalizing’ the public sphere.

The Quality of Participation 

This is another important aspect for constructing public opinion through the public sphere. In recent time, people who adhere to the dominant ideology, are using very abusive language for dissenting voices. People were/are also using hate communal remarks against Muslims, particularly during the anti CAA protest and the crisis of Tablighi Jamaat amid Coronavirus. The public sphere which is supposed to be argumentative for the construction of healthy democracy is becoming the space for the venomous comment against the marginalized, particularly Muslims and Dalits. The quality of participation is also determined by the standard of news, opinion and other information. There is a trend of circulating fake news to create tension among different religious communities. Ideological driven blogs are being written to widen the gap between the two main religion, Hinduism and Islam. Postcard News is playing a very dangerous role in circulating fake news. This is ‘synonymous with misinformation in the grab of news, continues to post with impunity content which is communal in nature, provocative in tone and mostly untrue’ (Sidharth, 2018). In the absence of quality debate and proper information, social media is becoming a curse day by day. Hence, it is far from creating a healthy public opinion, which is the backbone of a healthy and vivacious democracy.

Where it is Heading?

Ideologically charged media is not performing its task. This failed to pose a question to the ruling party or state. This is the sign of deterioration of the fourth pillar of democracy. In such a situation, the social media was having enough potential to heal and strengthen the democratic ethos of our country. It could have become the alternative to venomous media, the Godi Media. However, social media is also showing the characteristics of mainstream media, even, it is carrying forward the agenda of the dominant discourse. Moreover, it is also ‘spewing venom’ into young and creative minds. It became a place for hate-mongering and creating communal tension.

In this way, social media is heading towards the decline, it is not generating the public opinion or repudiating the dominant arguments for the construction of healthy democracy. It is serving the interest of the dominant ideology. It is behaving like ‘Godi Media’. This is trying to smash the minority voices with the help of troll armies byhackling and intimidating them. It is moving away from the direction of generating a space for healthy public opinion, which is an important means to create vigorous and vibrant democracy.


Shamsher Alam is a PhD Scholar at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.