The Public Sphere, New Media and Politics

On: October 6, 2011
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About Daan Fliervoet
I finished my BA Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam in the summer of 2011. I did research on how local political parties in Amsterdam are using social media (ie. Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Youtube) to get in contact with the citizen. Besides this, I was team leader of the Culture Vortex project at the MediaLab Amsterdam in the spring of 2011. We made a multi-player game based on images of the Dutch Institute of Sound and Vision and we launched our game in July on Festival Mundial. At this project I did research on how we can make more use of the Creative Commons licenses model. I am co-founder of the company SecuReceipt. We developed a mobile application and an online management system which companies can use to digitalizes their intern reimbursement process. Topics of interest: Gaming / Participatory Culture / Social Media / Politics / Society / Installations / Football


According to Metareporter, a student blog for BA-student Media en Culture about new media in newspapers, a lot of articles in Dutch traditional media are about new media subjects. The top 3 tags that are being used are:  Twitter, Facebook and social media ((  This was exactly a year ago as well when I wrote by BA-thesis. These new media subjects must be important than or not?

I read an article in De Pers about how Twitter is becoming this new platform of debating between politician and the public, especially how this new medium of short messages influences politics in general (( . With this in mind I started to think about this idea of what the potential of social media is for different parties in politics. Is it blurring the boundaries between politics and the public? Has the public more influence on politics by using this new medium? Is the political culture changing? Developing of a new public sphere? With these kinds of questions in mind Natta Frank and I started a research on; what the potential is of social media in the context of the public sphere, with the idea that social media offer new democratic options and is possibly changing our political culture.

We first started to argue, with the traditional theory of Jurgen Habermas, that media always played an enormous role in the public sphere. According to Habermas the public sphere emerged in the eighteen century in Western Europe because of the rise of the bourgeois as a new class in society. This new class operated independent trough public institution and engaged in debate of the public domain. They used this public domain for a critical and rational debate about subjects in society. One of the instruments that they used was the ‘critical newspaper’ wherein they could express critical nodes on the state. But Habermas saw a problem that this medium was accessible not only for the bourgeois but for the people as well. This meant for Habermas that the notion of critical debate was not possible anymore because only high educated people should participate in this debate. The result was an entanglement of personal financial and political interest from the private sphere. Social organizations and large companies are, for example, mixed with the policies of the state, and will invalidate not only the autonomy of the public sphere but also the public debate that accompanies it (Habermas 1974).

Habermas explains that the media has two functions, on the one hand it is meant as a source of information and on the other it is to disseminate information by criticizing. John Keane, professor at the University of Westminister argues that there were three phases of the public sphere. First there was notion of the public sphere as a counter weight to traditional power. Secondly, this public sphere was to the utmost extend commercialized. And as last the rising of the public broadcast system. This last transformation is the most important because it is a space where you can have a rational and universal political debate separate from the state and his economy. It offers a counter weight on the state and the commercial world by criticizing it (Keane 1995: p. 1‐3). The media thus overtook the public sphere by being the public sphere itself.

With this notion of the media is the public sphere we now can elaborate that new media, especially social media, might be the next public sphere. The web can support different kinds of participations because of its structure compared to traditional media like, newspaper and magazines. This new structure changes the speed, amount and intensity of communication in society. These changes lead to a new and open social space. According to James Bohman is has a positive and stimulating effect on a global form of democracy (Bohman in Crossley and Robberts 2004: p. 139). These interactive media connect citizen with the states (Melissen 2005: p. 4) and through these new technologies new social space are emerging. Instead of the classical public sphere of Habermas, these new spaces, or public spheres 2.0 have different properties. Dahlgren explains that the public sphere 2.0 has three new dimensions; a structural, because of its universal access, a representative, because of its interactive representation of informative and at last a interactive dimension, because of new forms of communication (Dahlgren 2005). And maybe the biggest change compared to Habermas’ public sphere is that there are many public spheres, according to Fraser and her idea about subaltern counter publics (Fraser 1990) or Keane’s idea about micro spheres (Keane 1995). The web broadens the public sphere into different spheres wherein time and money are not important; it creates social spaces where people can express themselves a have critical opinions.

Now we have discussed that social medial is a new public sphere, we can elaborated on how political parties can uses theses social media. Namely, it is important for political parties to contribute in these new public spheres 2.0 to stay in contact with their voters and followers. With the use of this table of Kaplan and Haelein, we can see the difference between the different social media in their social presence and self-presentation.

(source, Kaplan en Haelein 2009)

This table makes clear that political parties need to invest in different forms of social media. Especially, which social media requires more work and energy for the politic to work with them. These online and social networks are getting more and more important for political parties because, as Castells argued in his work: ‘Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies, and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power, and culture’ (Castells 1996: p. 469). Metareporter somehow confirms this statement because the top three of subjects on their site is about social media. Sevriens notices in her work that: “Social networks make it easier for politicians to get in touch with their constituencies, yet it is time consuming and can be risky because of loss of control over the campaign” (Sevriens 2009: p. 14). Citizens have the luxury to listen, politicians have the responsibility to respond to the public because it serves the people. If they do, this will increase the bond between the citizen in politics. This means that social media have a stimulating effect on the politicians as well as the citizen.

These networks and new engagement of politicians leads to a new forms of government. Social media are forms of new ICT’s that are used by governments to communicate with their citizen. E-Democracy is new form of government where they make extensive use of these ICT’s. According to Steven Clift (2004), ICT’s, including social media, have a democratic potential in them. He explains that ICT’s can help governments in: 1) Trust and responsibility, 2) Legitimacy and clarity, 3) Service Citizen and keep them happy, 4) Accessibility and equal access, 5) Effective representation and decision making, 6) Participation by deliberation and input, 7) Involvement and deliberation. Thus, social media are not only areas where public opinion is formed, it is also a channel for the state to citizens in political issues.

The municipality of Amsterdam consists of parties that make use of the different social media platforms. In our research we gave an overview which social media are used by the different parties. In this overview it is clear that most political parties are well present on the Internet but do they invest time and energy in different platforms. We monitored the websites, blogs and especially the Twitters of two parties, Groenlinks Amsterdam and PvdA Amsterdam, for a month and analyzed the results. We concluded that Groenlinks Amsterdam is not present on all the different online social media in the Netherlands that we think are important. There is a live Twitter-stream on their blog but only 1/3 of all the tweets related to politics, this means that they are using their twitters more for personal reasons. The PvdA Amsterdam is present on the social media platforms and has a bigger online community than Groenlinks Amsterdam. About half of the tweets that they send is related to politics this is namely the result of Lodewijk Asscher who is their political leader and is highly active on Twitter.

In general we can say that both parties use social media in a very conservative way. Citizens are invited to mingle in politics, they can react to news / blogs / videos but no one listens. One is lured to participate but then they are not open to input and there is no engagement and consultation, at least not online at the given social platforms (blogs, twitter). Despite new communication possibilities and growing interaction between state and citizen, there is thus hardly any use of the deliberative nature of social media and ICTs. Politicians are also aware that this is a tool that they must use to get in touch with citizens. The problem is that social media is not optimal used or in some cases not used at all. We believe that political parties are not aware of the democratizing potential of social media. They do not know how to deal with social media. Twitter is for example used mainly for private purposes and not political.

In this research we placed the use of social media, by local political parties in Amsterdam, in the context of a new public sphere 2.0. Wherein ICT’s, namely social media, play an important role to connect citizens and politicians. I think with this kind of research you get a better understanding on how these new theories about new media work in practice. By giving a context to a new phoneme it gives it an understanding on how these new media forms work. I liked to do more research in this field and work with the parties themselves. Especially on how these parties look to the use of social media for political reasons. We analyzed there online behavior from the outside but now I want to know their own reasons and motivations.


Castells, Manuel. ‘The Rise of the Network Society.’ Vol 1 of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Blackwell, Malden MA. 1996.

Clift, L. Steven. ‘E‐government and Democracy.’ (2003). 17‐12‐2010 .

Crossley, Nick, John Michael Roberts, red. After Habermas: New Perspectives on the Public Sphere. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Dahlgren, Peter. ‘The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation.’ Political Communication. nr. 22 (2005): p. 147-162

Fraser, Nancy. ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.’ Social Text. nr. 25/26 (1990): p. 56‐80.

Habermas, Jürgen On Social Identity.
Telos : a quarterly journal of radical thought Vol. 19 (mrt. 1974), p. 91 Jaar: 1974.

Kaplan, Andreas M., Michael Haenlein. ‘Uitdagingen en kansen rond social media.’ Management Executive. (mei/juni 2010): p. 18‐19.

Keane, John. ‘Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere.’ The Communication Review. vol. 1, nr. 1 (1995): p. 1‐22.

Melissen, Jan. ‘Wielding Soft power: The New Public Diplomacy.’ Clingendael Diplomacy Papers, nr. 2 (mei 2005): p. 1‐30.

Sevriens, Nadine. ‘Burger en politiek op web 2.0: Betekenisgeving aan lidmaatschap van politieke sociale netwerken’. Masterscriptie Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, 2009.


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