It is undeniable that Social Media is increasingly becoming an important element of modern social and political life both as a means of communication and as well as a public platform. With the rise of US President Donald Trump, an avid user of social media particularly Twitter as a means to communicate both his own personal views and policy and the impact of global social and political campaigns such as the #MeToo movement, which have been launched and maintained almost completely through social media, it is evident that social media platforms are becoming an important public space for discussion and debate.
However, is social media taking over as the new public space in which public opinion is being formed and what does that means for our understanding of the traditional Private/Public divide.
The Virtual World and “Public Space”
As part of a recent article, Sharon Coen highlighted that discussions around the role of social media in public debate are often grounded in the “theory of public space” by Jurgen Habermas (Coen, 23rd January 2018). Habermas stated that the public space is “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed” (Habermas, 1974, p. 49). “The public sphere as a sphere which mediates between society and state, in which the public organizes itself as the bearer or public opinion, accords with the principle of the public sphere” (Habermas, 1974, p. 50).
At the time of writing, Habermas was talking about “newspapers and magazines, radio and television are the media of the public sphere” and arguably these are still important, however with advances in communication technologies, social media can be understood to be an extension of this media (Habermas, 1974, p. 49). The development of the public space, historically, Habermas argued, was connected to the process by which distinction was made between the public and private spheres (Habermas, 1974, p. 50).
In my opinion, it is clear to see that the distinction between the two spheres have become increasingly blurry over recent years as the virtual world in which social media exists, straddles both spheres in the sense the private lives of individuals are lived out within the public space of social media.
Social Media as the Modern Public Space
The #MeToo Movement will likely go down as a watershed moment in more ways that one. Emergence of the #MeToo Movement in October 2017, firstly on Twitter, before spreading to other social media sites, such as Facebook, in which women shared their personal stories of sexual violence and harassment. Its impact is yet to be fully outworked but immediately attention to the issue of sexual violence and harassment at every level of society and be illustrating clearly that these issues were not just about the remote culture of Hollywood but affect your sister, your colleague and your best friend (Lawton, 28th October 2017).
What has made the #MeToo Movement a watershed moment in terms of the role of social media is that it was born and exists almost solely in the virtual world and thus it is on public space of social media that movement’s future direction will be played out. The separation of the private lives of individuals and the public space has been has been shattered as, with boldness and bravery, women share their stories and others, both men and women, call out very publicly, those to whom they have been victims.
As social media becomes the focal point for discussion and debate on this subject, it is highly likely that social media will be the location in which public opinion on this issue will be formed. Given the growing and broader impact of the #MeToo Movement on issues of the abuse of power and position for example the action of members of Oxfam in Haiti, we may well see social media taking a more central place within society as a platform and forum for debates, discussions and as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed” (Political Worldview Podcast, 22nd February 2018: Habermas, 1974, p. 49).
However is social media, in becoming the modern public space, slowly killing off cross-cutting debate in favour of polarisation of public opinion and virtual popular rule in which questioning dominant opinions or ideas is actively blocked? A question to ponder.
Coen, Sharon, The Wire (23rd January 2018), “Margaret Atwood: Tried on Social Media, Convicted by the Press” available at: https://thewire.in/216633/margaret-atwood-tried-social-media-convicted press/ [Accessed on 6th February 2018]
Habermas, Jurgen (1974) “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article” translated by Sara and Frank Lennox, New German Critique, 3, pp. 49-55 available at: http://www.socpol.unimi.it/docenti/barisione/documenti/File/2008-09/Habermas%20(1964)%20-%20The%20Public%20Sphere.pdf [Accessed on 6th February 2018]
Lawton, Georgiana, The Guardian, (28th October 2017), “#MeToo is here to stay. We must challenge all men about sexual harassment” available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/oct/28/metoo-hashtag-sexual-harassment-violence-challenge-campaign-women-men [Accessed on 24th March 2018]
Political Worldview Podcast, (February 22nd 2018), “Oxfam, Aid and Exploitation Edition” Episode 42. available at: https://soundcloud.com/political-worldview/ep-42-oxfam-aid-and-exploitation-edition [Accessed on 24th March 2018]
Article by David Wilcox