German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas was the first to coin the idea of the public sphere. He was concerned with the ideal conditions in which the public could debate public affairs and engage in rational discourse in order to form opinions which were informed.
Many of you will know that despite the technological advancements throughout time which have brought us to today’s world, in which one can tweet their opinions, engage in debates on forums and anyone can be a blogger, it is easy to engage in with people and discuss current affairs. But to have ‘rational discourse’? Not so much.
Recently I’ve become more aware of the fact that we all live in a bubble. Everyone’s bubble is slightly different, but with social media, we all have the ability to tailor our media consumption so that we hear and read what we already believe and only engage with people we generally agree with. This is a natural thing to want; to be reassured that or opinions are correct, morally sound and that other people agree with us, but it challenges the idea that we have a functioning public sphere.
The world of journalism, whether that be newspapers, magazines, broadcast news or radio, is hugely influential in forming public opinion. The Sun is the best selling newspaper in the UK, and whomever they support in general elections and referenda, seem to win, every time. This isn’t a coincidence. Newspapers have a huge effect on public opinion. They set the agenda by choosing what goes on the front pages and define what is socially accepted by what approach to a subject they take. For example, when Katie Hopkins referred to refugees as cockroaches on the Daily Mail’s website, something I and likeminded people found abhorrent, that sort of attitude towards the refugee crisis became normalised. We’re seeing it at the moment in the way the media are covering President-elect Donald Trump’s hiring of leading ‘alt-right’ figures in his team of advisors. Several media outlets are playing down the white supremacy of the ‘alt-right’ (neo-Nazis), and in turn normalising it. This, as well as everyone living in their own echo chamber, make the public sphere very hard to achieve in real terms. Although, it’s also worth noting that the magazine industry gives more niche and alternative opinions a platform. There will almost always be a magazine for your way of thinking, regardless of what it is. They are more likely to print what the newspapers won’t.
However, the fragmentation of the media, the fact that we only consume what we want to, and the limits of social media mean that having a public sphere in which we can all engage in ‘rational discourse’ is a bit of a stretch. There’s a long way to go yet.