In 1962, Jurgen Habermas described his vision of the public sphere. It was a theory that the essential ideas of the day could be understood and discussed by the public and, through conversation, could eventually become public opinion. As a man of irony, Habermas endeavored to describe this phenomenon in text so dense that only a dozen critical theorists could endure it.
But if you think he was stating the obvious, you would be wrong. According to Habermas, before the French revolution, ordinary people didn’t know about and therefore couldn’t care about the political decisions of the state. While lords and kings discussed war, law and the economy within the palace rules, the peasants outside debated which species of toad constituted the best form of plague-era personal protective equipment (PPE). Basically, those who were powerful discussed politics while the rest discussed survival, and there was no such thing as public opinion.
Habermas explains that this all changed when the printing press, mass literacy and the coffee shop conspired to give ordinary people the chance to understand and discuss current affairs. At the time of the French revolution, Paris was home to over 200 privately published journals.
Eventually, market forces would shake out the press into a handful of influential papers in each country which were usually written by and for an upper-middle-class elite. Habermas would call this the “bourgeois public sphere.” Soon it was complemented by tabloid newspapers, radio and eventually television. Even when there were multiple platforms with different positions, the media industry was still a clique, and so the range of opinions on offer was narrow. The public, by and large, would skim newspapers edited by members of the clique and watch the same half-hour of television news every night. There were disagreements between the left and the right, authoritarians and liberals, but they took place within the confines of a generally agreed-upon reality. There was an equality of information among the public and a widely held perception of accountability within the sphere.
Today, the idea of a public sphere seems quaint. Social media and the ease with which it lets us share information has allowed every political community to create its own unique public sphere, each accountable only to itself and each with its own established norms and conventions.
But who benefits from this? Well, everybody and nobody. Oppressed and disenfranchised people who were largely ignored by the old bourgeois public sphere can now share their experiences and empower one another. If you are discriminated on account of your sexuality or the color of your skin, it’s now easier than ever to find a like-minded support group and organize for better conditions and representation.
The same, however, is true for the reactionaries who aim to keep them down. Bigots can coordinate, strategize and justify their beliefs in online safe spaces devoid of diversity and critical thinking. Victims of racism and sexism may feel less alone thanks to social media, but so do racists and sexists.
The other beneficiaries are those in power. When voters stay in their own little mini-spheres, the old public sphere becomes meaningless. Incumbent politicians benefit from a fragmented discourse because it allows them to evade accountability. When elections come round, governments can use micro-targeted advertising on social media to hit individual voters with user-specific messages. Imagine a world where instead of making speeches in front of an audience, politicians walked through auditoriums and whispered a message into the ear of each voter that nobody else could hear. You’ve just imagined the power of the Facebook News Feed, and like every other flaw in our democracies, it can only be reformed by people who have already profited from its existence.
Micro-targeting like this allows incumbents to circumvent the press and ignore the scrutiny of, and questions from, informed critics. So while we squabble amongst ourselves in our customised echo chambers, the conversations that matter return to the inner sanctums of the citadels.
Another feature of the media landscape that helped enable populism was the luxury of detachment that allowed too many of us to follow politics as a form of entertainment. The news has been competing in an attention economy for decades while our interactions with the state have receded. The most valuable audiences in the attention economy are the upper and middle classes, predominantly people who rarely come into serious contact with government policies. (If America declared war with Iran tomorrow—the worst story any of us could have imagined as recently as January—you wouldn’t find many New York Times readers in foxholes.)
For many of its most important consumers, news was entertainment and savvy television executives knew that the best way to monetize it was to cover it like football, with colorful sets and instant replays of winners and losers described by professional pundits. If we didn’t like their perspective, dozens of others were available and if they weren’t good enough algorithms on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could generate billions of dollars by serving us with infinite reiterations of our favorite opinions and reactions on a moment by moment basis.
COVID changes everything
But the news isn’t always a game, especially when your life and your freedom are in danger. As the Coronavirus infected headlines across the world, people stopped watching and reading the news to score points and avoid boredom. Now there were more important questions. What are the symptoms? Where am I allowed to go? How much is this going to cost? Attention quickly migrated away from partisan news websites and towards authoritative and measured coverage.
But not everyone in power was paying attention when the public started paying attention.
In late May, Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to Boris Johnson, was asked by a mob of journalists why he had breached the UK’s lockdown rules by driving his sick family to his father’s farm, 270 miles from London. Cummings had masterminded the campaign to leave the European Union, where he triumphed by microtargeting Facebook users with diverse, divisive, and often contradictory, promises of what Britain might be like after leaving the EU.
Now Cummings was being asked why he had broken his own rules in the middle of a deadly pandemic. In line with the populist playbook, Cummings refused to apologize: “it doesn’t matter what you think,” he told the press. Cummings saved his job by persuading the Prime Minister that only remainers who already hated the government would care about his transgression and the story wouldn’t “cut through” to the public.
He was wrong. The scandal dominated the news for almost two weeks. According to YouGov the British government, fresh from a landslide election victory in December, now has the joint-lowest approval rating worldwide for how they have managed the coronavirus.
A few weeks later, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, knelt on the neck of George Floyd for nine excruciating minutes. Floyd died an agonising death. Those who saw the sickening footage, captured by horrified onlookers, were enraged. They quickly organised protests across America and throughout the world.
But if some people, myself included, were surprised by the scale of the response we could perhaps be forgiven for being somewhat jaded. When police murdered Eric Garner in New York, nobody was prosecuted. Nor was anybody held accountable for the needless killings of Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling or Michael Brown. In each incident, it seemed, the left tweeted “black lives matter”, the right tweeted “all lives matter,” and nothing changed.
But this time, it didn’t just blow over, the pandemic has pulled our society back together and the internet can briefly function as the great digital equaliser that was sold to us by the tech utopians of the 1990’s. Protests have hit almost every city in America, and many capitals in Europe. This time it’s making a difference to public opinion as mobile phone footage of police brutality breeches the perimeters of the liberal enclosure. For the first time, Americans—who live in the international epicentre of partisan polarization—support the Black Lives Matter protests by a staggering 28-point margin. Another poll, by Monmouth University, found that 76% of Americans consider racism and discrimination a “big problem,” up 26 points since 2015.
Sphere and trembling
In the short term, a fractured public sphere is in the interests of the powerful, who can game the lack of accountability to govern in the safety of the courtyard without having to think about entrenched public opinion. When large sections of society are presumed to oppose you at every turn, it becomes easy to reframe every criticism into a question of motivation.
But gravity always wins because without accountability governments, institutions and people fall into a state of decay. Institutions and elites become increasingly and irreversibly unresponsive until a crisis brings them back to earth and forces all of us to pay attention again. And so the fragmented media landscape may be just as unsustainable as the top-down hierarchy that preceded it. If so, we must find a synthesis, combining the unity of the bourgeois public-sphere with the diversity and inclusivity of new media.
For now, we have found ourselves back in the public sphere. Habermas has burst through the graveyard soil and is roaming the streets with a vengeance. The real test of his power will depend on the legacy of this febrile moment. Will the world have experienced long-lasting and meaningful change or are we destined to believe whatever we believed at the start of the year with reinforced conviction? Will the angry summer of 2020 be cathartic or merely therapeutic?
In the meantime, let’s hope that Habermas’s resurrection reminds us what is possible when we’re all looking in the same direction, as well what we miss out on while we’re looking down at our feet.