Comments in the Public Sphere
Research question 3: How does the increasing popularity of commenting on Facebook affect the public debate and democratic properties of comments on news articles?
This research has found that comments on comment sections more closely match the ideal requirements of the Habermasian Public Sphere
With the development of new electronic communication technologies, communities formed in forum-like environments online as early as the ARPAnet, the precursor to the internet from 1969 (Hubler and Bell 2003, 281). In 1973, The Community Memory public bulletin board system was set up in Berkeley. At the time, some authors saw the possibilities of generating a public discursive and deliberative structure offered by the Internet, which was seen as a way to revitalize democracy and stimulate public debate and social change (Gonçalves 2015, 1).
The early pioneers of the internet hoped that a new vitalization of democracy would take place as people connected digitally. It is difficult to say if the internet as a whole has been a democratizing force, or if public debate has improved because of it. This question is also too broad for this thesis, and I will focus on the democratic properties of commenting on news articles to answer my third research question: How does the increasing popularity of commenting on Facebook affect the public debate and democratic properties of comments on news articles?
Jürgen Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher who in his book, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, presented his theory about the Public Sphere. According to Habermas (1991), the Public Sphere was a result of the development of longer trade routes and capitalism, and the emerging press in the 16 th and 17 th century (15-16, 20, 23). The press started as a tool for traders and capitalists, as well as for the authorities, but it developed to become more independent and focused on reasoning, knowledge and science (25). Habermas claims that the public sphere grew out of the bourgeois, the new ruling administrational class of jurists, scholars, pastors and doctors (23). At the time, a distinction was being made between what was considered private and public (11), and the bourgeois public sphere was the conceived by Habermas as private people coming together in public, using reason to debate rules of commodity and labor. The public sphere, which was previously regulated from above, was now used by the new, enlightened class against the authorities (27). The center of this new civil society was the “town”, which held institutions like publicly accessible culture, such as theaters, museums ans concert halls (29-30). Coffee houses and salons became centers of literary criticism, and later political criticism (32). People’s status and class was disregarded in the coffee houses and salons, which functioned as forums for discussions that problematized areas that had not been questioned before. The discussions were general and open for anyone to participate (36-37).
As the figure above shows, the Public Sphere lies in the overlapping space between the private and the public. On one side, the Sphere of Public Authority contains the state and the royal court. On the other side lies the Private Realm, containing civil society with the exchange of commodities, services and labor, and the family. The Public Sphere lies within the Private Realm, but is the part of it that overlaps with the Sphere of Public Authority. It contains the political realms, the word of clubs and the press (the world of letters), and the “Town”, described as a market of culture products (30).
Through his theory of the bourgeois public sphere, Habermas has both described the state of public debate in a particular time period, and provided an ideal for democratically valuable discussions. It is important not to use Habermas’ public sphere to describe the internet as a whole. Habermas wrote that in the modern age, the public sphere has been in decline because of the refeudalization by the commercialized mass media (158-162). He is not much more positive about the internet, calling computer-mediated communication parasitical because internet-based communities have fragmented the public (Geiger 2009, 2). And several researchers has found that Internet users do not embrace opinion diversity and provide argumentation of little deliberative value (Edgery et al. 2009, 6).
It is not my intention to argue that comments or comment sections are equal to the idea of the Public Sphere. But by reading Habermas’ theory of the Public Sphere, we can find an ideal of public communication. Habermas presents us with three requirements for a good, democratically valuable public debate. These ideal requirements make it possible, not to judge whether or not comments are examples of the public sphere, but to make an assessment about which set of comments fulfill the most requirements – and thereby is closer to the ideal. Therefore, I will use these ideal requirements to answer the research question of how the increasing popularity of commenting on Facebook affect the public debate and democratic properties of comments on news articles. The three requirements are 1)Informed, rational-critical debate, 2) Open participation, and 3) A disregard for people's status
Informed, rational-critical debate
The first ideal requirement for a democratically valuable public debate is that the debate should be informed and rational-critical, and independent from authorities. This means that the participants should be open and willing to be persuaded by rational argumentation, and should make informed and rational arguments. Willingness to be persuaded is not something that is easily measurable. The only way I can think of that this can be observed is if a commenter writes that he or she has been persuaded, or have changed their minds based on rational arguments, in their comment. But no such comment has been observed while doing this research.
To make an assessment of how informed and rational-critical the debates on Facebook and vg.no are, we can look at the categorical differences found between the two sets. The website set showed a much higher number of questions, informative and argumentative comments than the Facebook set. These are all qualities that can be attributed to a more informed and rational-critical debate. Argumentative comments indicate a more argumentative form of communication – a requirement for a rational debate to take place, and questions and informative comments indicate an exchange of information. On Facebook, however, there are a lot more reactive and supportive comments. Neither of these indicate an informed debate, as both are interpreted to be emotional reactions expressed textually. There are also fewer replies found on Facebook, and shorter strings of replies, indicating fewer conversations – and fewer opportunities for an informed debate. Finally, Habermas wrote about the refaudalization by the commercialized mass media (1991, 158-162). While the mass media of Habermas’ book is what we now consider traditional media, such as TV, readio, and newspapers, scholars have considered powerful corporations such as Facebook, YouTube and Google as problematic for the Habermasian Public Sphere. These companies hold a disproportionate authoritative influence over information sources (Loader and Mercea 2011, 760). I consider Facebook to be a more authoritative power than any individual news site, and so a debate on Facebook is less independent from the authorities.
For a debate to be truly public, it needs to be open for anyone to participate. This means that the barriers for participating should be low enough for it to be reasonably expected that most people can participate, and that the debate takes place in such a way that people are welcomed to the debate. Which platform has the lowest barriers for participation depends on how reasonably it is to expect someone to have a Facebook account. A lot more people have a Facebook profile than who reads VG. And so it is tempting to think of Facebook as more accessible than VG, and that it’s reasonable to expect most people to be able to participate in a debate there. And for someone with a Facebook account, commenting on Facebook has been shown to have the lowest barriers. But, as discussed in chapter 6, the comment system on Facebook is designed in such a way that it does not encourage conversations and debate between commenters, or longer comments. The comment sections on vg.no is designed in such a way that previous comments are immediately visible, encouraging people to read and respond to previous comments. And because a public debate is dependent on people being exposed to each other’s arguments and opinions, this means that the comment section on vg.no is more accessible for people to participate in a debate – even if the comment system itself is more accessible on Facebook.
In the particular case of VG, the comment system on Facebook as a whole is more accessible, if one one focuses on accessing the comment system itself – not participating in a debate between commenters. The reason for this is that VG uses a built-in comment section plugin from Facebook for its comment section. This means that commenters on both platforms require a Facebook account to comment. And because the comments on Facebook are technically more accessible than on vg.no, Facebook is more open to participants. There is a problem, however, with claiming that Facebook is more accessible than comment sections in general. Not all comment sections are based on the Facebook plugin. If we consider someone who does not have a Facebook account, however rare such a person might be, a newspaper’s comment section is far more accessible than a discussion on Facebook – if that comment section is not a Facebook plugin. There is also a problem with making a Facebook account a requirement for participation in a public debate. As mentioned previously, Facebook can be seen as an authority that does not fit well with the Habermasian public sphere.
Another thing to consider when determining how open comment sections and Facebook is to participation is how welcomed participants are. If potential commenters who wish to participate in a debate are not feeling welcomed to do so, than that platform for commenting is not as open to participation as it should be. The presence of rude, uncivil and derogatory comments can make people hesitant to participate, even if they wish to do so. Davis (2002) reported that bad behavior online causes people to avoid online interaction. What constitutes a derogatory comment can be difficult to determine – such comments can be perceived very differently by the target of the comment and outside observers. Davis defines bad behavior as being determined by “the target person’s interpretation of the behavior” and if the behavior is contextually expected or not (2002, 2). The exact effects of derogatory comments, especially on potential newcomers to a discussion, is difficult to determine exactly. But what this research has shown is that there are more derogatory comments on vg.no than on VG’s Facebook page, which is in line with previous research (Rowe 2015). It is therefore reasonable to assume that the more frequent derogatory comments on VG’s comment section makes it, to some extent, less welcoming than VG’s Facebook page.
In conclusion, it is difficult say which of the two platforms more closely matches the requirement of open participation. While the barrier for commenting on Facebook is lower than on vg.no, and there are fewer derogatory comments, Facebook itself may be considered an authoritative barrier when compared with comment sections in general, because not all comment sections use a Facebook plugin. Also, the design of the Facebook comment system does not encourages commenters to debate each other.
A disregard for people's status
As mentioned previously, a public debate should be informed and rational-critical, and the arguments made should be informed and based on reason. This means that the arguments, and the arguments alone, should be considered by the participants. Someone’s status should not negatively or positively effect the weight placed on their arguments. Status can mean many things in this context. Habermas wrote about the new bourgeois social class, and the emerging freedom of speech. But this can be extended to economic status, ethnicity, sexuality and gender in the modern age – which should not be considered when arguments are being made. If the arguments of people of a certain class, ethnicity, sexuality or gender are considered, consciously or not, to be of more value than those of others, the democratic value of the debate declines as all voices are not heard or judged equally. In this research, I did not observe any comments where commenters were the victim of racial or sexist content.
Papacharissi claims that political and social inequalities can be reproduced online (2002), and gender stereotypes have been found to be prevalent in computer-mediated communication where participants do not expect to meet each other face-to-face (Heilman, Caleo, and Halim 2010). Because of the social nature of Facebook, and the fact that commenters may be commenting on an article because one of their friends did so, Facebook users are more likely to know each other in real life. Therefore, the findings about more prevalent gender stereotypes in computer-mediated communication should be more relevant on a news sites comment section, where commenters are not likely to know each other in real life. But a users identity, and status, is very visible on Facebook. Facebook users use the site as themselves, in an online social situation where their contacts are people they know. And so, the status they have in real life they will also most likely have on Facebook. commenters on vg.no also have to use their real identities because a Facebook account is required, so gender and ethnicity is often visible. But the information about the commenters is very limited, unless one choses to access their public Facebook profile – which can have limited information, depending on the person’s privacy settings. So on vg.no commenters are more likely to be stereotyped, but information about their status is not easily accessible. But as I have mentioned previously, comment sections on news sites can vary in their degree of anonymity. And so, comment sections in general have the potential of being a place where people’s status is unknown and disregarded. Facebook does not have that potential.