Democratizing the public sphere
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Democratizing the public sphere

By Philip Lee

Digital connectivity has transformed the notion of the “public sphere”. This is true at all levels: global, regional, national, community, and personal, where digital technologies have become ever more present and integral. Before digital, media and communication ecosystems that contributed to public awareness and agenda-setting were simpler and, in theory, easier to regulate and reform. In contrast, today’s digital communication domains revolve around complex technologies that make them difficult to regulate, creating opportunities for governments and big tech to control. In this context, how can civil society reclaim a public sphere that is credible, inclusive, and trustworthy?

The observable universe is estimated to contain some 225 billion galaxies that exert gravitational pull on their systems of stars, stellar remnants, interstellar gas, dust, and dark matter. Each galaxy contains black holes from which no matter escapes.

This paradigm of gravitational attraction (influence), light, darkness, and black holes, offers a conceptual model for today’s public sphere, where areas that exert powerful influence co-exist and interact with those exerting weaker influence, as well as with those into which information vanishes.

What is the public sphere? Philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas has spent a lifetime interrogating this question. He writes:

“The public sphere can best be described as a network for communicating information and points of view (i.e., opinions expressing affirmative or negative attitudes); the streams of communication are, in the process, filtered and synthesized in such a way that they coalesce into bundles of topically specified public opinions” (Habermas, 1996: 360).

In simpler terms, we could think of the public sphere as the network of spaces (traditional media, social media, messaging apps, university campuses, public gatherings, places of worship, and coffee shops) where citizens have an opportunity to make sense of issues that affect them and their societies, influence public awareness of those issues, and contribute to agenda-setting processes that ultimately lead to legislative, policy, and practical responses.

In contexts where such communication networks are functional and transparent, democratic debate and freedom of expression are usually taken for granted. Others struggle with issues of accessibility and affordability, diversity and plurality, ownership and control, privacy and security, representation, and misrepresentation. Still others face censorship, repression, and murder.

“These political, economic, social and cultural obstacles to full inclusion in society impact lives and livelihoods – in particular those of marginalized, underserved and excluded men, women, young people and children in many countries of the world” (Lee & Vargas, 2020: 1).

A recent example during the Covid-19 pandemic is the impact that the “digital divide” has had on people’s lives and livelihoods. In country after country, those with limited or no access to information and digital technology – the poorest and most marginalized – suffered disproportionately.

The public sphere is fluid and porous

Public spheres are not fixed entities. They interact in complex ways; they transform themselves in relation to the political, social, and cultural ideologies that make them up and the technological infrastructures that underpin them. In theory, the media in the dominant public sphere oversee political and social accountability, with a formal public service remit supposedly guaranteed by financial independence and government non-interference.

Such “public service media” provide content intended to inform or of cultural value, as opposed to commercial media, whose content aims to attract a large audience and thereby maximize revenue from advertising and sponsorship.

But even that distinction between public service and commercial media is blurred. For example, in the United Kingdom, Channel 4 is publicly owned but largely commercially funded. It programmes a lot of entertainment while being subject to a public service remit under which Channel 4 News has established an enviable reputation for reliable, factual coverage of national and international events.

Public service media also facilitate the implementation of cultural policies aimed at uniting disparate parts of a country. For example, Canada is committed to bilingualism (English and French). As a result, its national public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is publicly funded, employing translators and journalists who speak both official languages and encouraging the production of cross-cultural material.

Interestingly, TV Ontario (TVO), one of the CBC’s provincial counterparts, describes itself as “Ontario’s public educational media organization and a trusted source of interactive educational content that informs, inspires, and stimulates curiosity and thought.” It often faces a struggle to secure enough funding to enable it to continue its mission of “Empowering people to be engaged citizens of Ontario through educational media.”

In the UK, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) also supports multiculturalism and diversity. In New Zealand, the public broadcasting system supports broadcasting for the country’s Maori people, with the aim of improving their opportunities, maintaining their cultural heritage, and promoting their language.

In contrast, the “alternative public sphere” – community media, blogging and vlogging – is markedly different, today vastly extended by the Internet and digital platforms and offering its own form of journalism. Guy Berger, director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, has made the point that:

“Citizen journalism and blogging challenge the status of institution-driven journalism, as well as the occupational ideology of professional journalists and journalism. At large, the internet decentralises the privileged position of the media to interpose itself between source and user. It also alters the spatial horizon of community or nationally based media” (Berger, 2010: 560).

How, then, do such different media constellations and clusters exert a gravitational pull on public awareness of issues that impact people’s lives? How can they help shape public opinions that encourage positive political and social change?

Towards mutual understanding through trust

The theory of “communicative action” expounded by Jürgen Habermas explicitly recognizes the dignity of all human beings. It asserts that systematic discussion can reveal universal truths and codes of conduct that enable those involved to reach agreements from which they can all benefit. As such, communicative action is a political, economic, and social tool of immense value. However, it depends on the capacity of everyone to dialogue and their willingness to try to understand each other’s perspectives. In this way, they can agree actions that have just consequences for all. Trust is crucial.

A starting point for moving towards mutual understanding is engaged dialogue – the kind that involves the desire to hear and understand what other people are saying and how they see the world. It is what behavioural scientist Adam Kahane calls “deep conversation”. He describes four models of talking and listening. The first is “downloading”, consisting of polite, socially acceptable, conventional exchanges in which people do not listen carefully and nothing new is explored. The second is “debating”, when people actively search for new information or perspectives and engage in argument.

The third model is “reflective dialogue”, characterized by placing oneself in the position of another person and listening to oneself through his or her eyes and ears. The fourth and most powerful is “generative dialogue” in which two or more people experience a sense of common purpose and are fully engaged with what is taking place and its potential for change. The premise is simple:

“The way we talk and listen expresses our relationship with the world. When we fall into the trap of telling and of not listening, we close ourselves off from being changed by the world and we limit ourselves to being able to change the world only by force. But when we talk and listen with an open mind and an open heart and an open spirit, we bring forth our better selves and a better world” (Kahane, 2004: 4).

Engaged dialogue, particularly its “generative” form, is the most democratic, in which everyone takes part on an equal footing, and everyone is listened to. It is reminiscent of the talking circle, a traditional instrument for dealing with conflicts, misconceptions, disagreements, or deeper problems that interfere with the everyday concerns of a person or a community. Talking circles enable people to search for new directions, making amends, righting wrongs, and creating new pathways toward conflict resolution and the possibility of reconciliation.

Independent media, alternative media, and social media can all contribute to communicative action, deep conversation, and generative dialogue. They can also challenge the hegemony of traditional mass media enterprises by providing information that is credible and reliable. However, the experience of the past decade has undermined transformational dialogue through unregulated public communication that has led to confusion and has adversely impacted human rights by spreading misinformation, sowing distrust, and inciting hatred.

In the 1970s, Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire argued for a new type of communication and education based on dialogue, one more conscious of social structure and which envisaged both sender and receiver as equal partners. It allowed learners to look at the world from their own perspective, escaping the ideological slant imposed by dominant groups in society (Diaz Bordenave 1976, quoted in Rogers, 2006: 111). As Freire himself put it, “being dialogic is not invading, not manipulating, not imposing orders…being dialogic is pledging oneself to the constant transformation of reality” (Freire, 1973, quoted in Huesca, 2003: 212). That is precisely the vision of the public sphere we should aim for.

A transparent, engaged, and dialogical public sphere is essential today in light of the many challenges brought about by digital communications. Fortunately, policy makers are taking notice. For example, recent discussions at the level of the European Union produced a report acknowledging “both the potential and the risks of new digital technologies, and that these risks have an impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms, not only at an individual level but also in a societal dimension. In this context, governance mechanisms and a regulatory framework are critical” (22nd EU-NGO Human Rights Forum).

The report went on to call for legislators “to make the digital space work for everyone: putting the dignity of people at the centre and safeguarding all human rights, from the right to privacy, to non-discrimination, to taking part in decision-making processes. This requires building extended coalitions where a plurality of actors should have a say.”

The information and knowledge that people need to govern their lives and make informed decisions comes from a wide range of sources, including public interest journalism, and affordable, transparent, and accessible communication platforms. These sources are vital both for democratic accountability and citizens’ participation in democracy. As sociologist Elisabeth Clemens has pointed out, they reinforce:

“A vision of rational individuals governing themselves through collective deliberation. By means of critical discourse, self-interested or private individuals reflect on common concerns and discover the nature of the public good, justice, and truth” (Clemens, 2010: 374).

In this spirit, in January 2021 the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression (CCDE) published the final report of a three-year initiative designed to offer insights and policy options that support Canada’s democratic and social cohesion. After nine months of study and deliberation, the CCDE identified a series of functional steps to enable citizens, governments, and platforms to deal with the matter of harmful speech in a free and democratic, rights-based society like Canada. As the report noted, “Along with a more open and accessible public square has come a less trustworthy and safe one. This represents one of the central paradoxes and challenges of our times.”

The CCDE based its work on the generally accepted principle that free speech is fundamental to a democratic society and that the Internet is a means of enabling more people to participate in public debates. At the same time, it saw the rise of hatred, disinformation, conspiracies, bullying and other harmful communications online as undermining these gains and having a corrosive impact on democratic expression in Canada.

The previous year, WACC Europe published Breaking Down the Social Media Divides addressing the proliferation of hate speech and negative narratives on online platforms, and suggesting ways to counter those narratives. The report noted that:

“All people have the right to live in dignity, free from discrimination. This applies everywhere, including in our online interactions. Unfortunately, intolerance and hate speech online are both widespread and dangerous in today’s world. Hate speech goes far beyond disagreement and threatens democratic societies because it attacks and silences people.”

Encountering hate and discrimination online can be distressing and hurtful. As social media have become a fixed feature of people’s lives, individuals and communities need to find ways to promote diversity and respect online. This is about what can be done to create a public sphere in which all people are able to express their voices in a respectful and dignified manner. As the report concludes:

“In a world that is increasingly divided, where people retreat into their filter bubbles and refuse to have conversations with those who do not share their views, there is a strong and urgent need to engage. We need to break down the divides we see on social media and in life and talk with each other.”

Digital justice and inclusion

In today’s world, it is relatively easy to suppress political and social dissent and peaceful activism by controlling access to the Internet and censoring social media platforms. Rather than a blanket response, civil society is calling for policies to combat online harms that are proportionate and that avoid the potential for over-censorship of content.

Regulating social media platforms calls for several measures. One is a statutory duty to act responsibly imposing an affirmative requirement on all platforms, including social media companies, personal messaging apps, search engines and other internet operators involved in disseminating user-generated and third-party content. In addressing harms, this duty must balance freedom of expression and opinion against hate speech and incitement to violence.

Another measure is to establish regulatory bodies, operating within legislated guidelines, that represent the public interest and remove content moderation and platform governance from the exclusive preserve of private sector companies. Such regulatory bodies would work in cooperation with a “social media council” serving as a publicly accessible forum to reduce harms and to improve democratic expression on the Internet. Civil society organisations would need to have a seat on both the regulatory body and the council to facilitate independent oversight and to prevent these spaces from being co-opted either by state or private sector actors.

Another idea gaining traction in some circles is that of creating public or non-profit alternatives to existing private digital platforms. These would be platforms that, much like public service media, operate outside the logic of the market and exist primarily to promote democratic debate, ensure transparent access to information, and guarantee freedom of expression.

Finally, neither regulation nor oversight can succeed without a functioning mechanism with the possibility of legal and financial redress to tackle complaints, resolve disputes, and take down content that presents an imminent threat to an individual or a community.

Today’s public communication sphere may depend on digital technologies, but the principles of balance, fairness, truth-telling, and respect for human dignity that underlay public service media still apply. As has been noted elsewhere:

“Social exclusion can only be overcome when principles of inclusion and participation form the bedrock of policies and actions aimed at ‘leaving no one behind’ (the mantra of the Sustainable Development Goals). The principles that underlie communication rights determine who participates and whose voices are listened to when decisions are made. This is a sine qua non, since the core of human rights standards is that their normative implications pertain to everyone: the very concept of communication rights implicitly demands concrete measures for the inclusion of all people everywhere” (Lee & Vargas, 2020: 19).


Berger, G. (2010). ‘Problematizing ‘media development’ as a bandwagon gets rolling’. In the International Communication Gazette, Vol 72, No 7, November 2010.

Clemens, E. C. (2010). ‘Democratization and Discourse: The Public Sphere and Comparative Historical Research.’ In Social Science History 34(3): 373-381.

Habermas, J. (1996). Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Huesca, R. (2003). “Participatory Approaches to Development Communication”. In Bella Mody, ed. International and Development Communication: A 21st-Century Perspective. New Delhi and London: Sage Publications.

Kahane, A. (2004). Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Lee, P. & Vargas, L. (2020). Expanding Shrinking Communication Spaces. Penang: Southbound.

22nd EU-NGO Human Rights Forum. Final Report (2020).

Rogers, E. (2006). “The Passing of the Dominant Paradigm”. In Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron and Thomas Tufte, eds. Communication for Social Change Anthology, South Orange: CSFC.

Philip Lee is WACC General Secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His publications include The Democratization of Communication (ed.) (1995); Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (ed.) (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (ed.) (2008); Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012); and Expanding Shrinking Communication Spaces (ed. with Lorenzo Vargas) (2020).

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