Column: The future of the public sphere and civic engagement lies within the uses of the Internet


Kevin O Sullivan; The Social Imaginary


 Scrolling through the pages of comments underneath an online news article is often hilarious, but it also demonstrates something beautiful- the use and revival of an actual public sphere.

Sure, there are a lot of trolls online, and people who can’t quite spell or form coherent sentences, but sometimes there are some real gems that attack the article or support it with a personal story. The concept itself is glorious. It is a dialogue of the news, something pretty new in the U.S.

Imagine the distant past of America in 2000. The Internet was a mere seedling, used by few and enjoyed by none; in its place, the dominant medium holding more than one positions in most homes, the television. This is four years after the Telecommunications Act which basically gave news corporations the “do whatever, we won’t stop you” card.

By this point, 50 years after television’s overthrow of the radio, its viewers were well affluent with the vernacular of commercial advertising, of broadcast rhetoric and were equipped with a hardy fetish for commodities and seated entertainment.

The scene is this: it’s 1960. A camera pans down onto a living room; quaint, dim lights. A family of three is facing the camera, light flickering against their faces while they occasionally pull a fork or glass of milk to their mouths. The flickering lights are ABC’s evening news with Peter Jennings. He is airing a spiel about something to do with the economy, politics or some miscellaneous shocking story. The program is followed by a sitcom and the family’s resounding nod of “having been educated.” No questions asked.

Later, these folks will gossip with others, “Did you hear about such and such…?”

The news, as it was broadcasted over television–much the same as when it was broadcasted over radio– was equivocal of truth and truth was given through a one way boob tube. ‘Knowledge’ was given through rhetoric, not dialogue. Especially because 90 percent of the 2,700 TV and cable stations were/are owned by five corporations, this knowledge is not rounded enough to enable a viewer to deduce an objective opinion. Her or his opinion will be at the thrust of corporate values. As Chomsky has written, no news broadcast will express opinions that do not favor its parent corporation- he has examples, I’ll spare you.In this way, the public sphere is dominated by a one-way dissemination of knowledge. The viewers did not have direct access to sources and every conversation was limited to the repetition of values projected from one of the five corporate news outlets- which are often the same.

But, alas! Jump forward fourteen years, to the wet New Orleans winter of 2014. The Internet is in high glory, frequented throughout the day and loaded with variety; indi news, personal stories, commentary, independent footage, etc.

The Internet is revolutionizing news, taking the ownership of knowledge out of the hands of the elite and dispersing it into the public of Internet surfers.

Take, for instance, the classic – or soon to be classic – example of the Occupy Wall Street campaign. The movement was, for months, denied “legitimate” news coverage on television broadcasting.

If I remember right, The Daily Show was the first TV outlet that didn’t slander the movement and completely dismiss it as a directionless group of college kids with nothing to do. Most, if not all, of the major news networks completely condescended the movement up until the police brutality stage, but even then deflected the coverage from the movements very real intent.

At this time, however, Occupy Wall Street had its own website – Facebook was filled with updates, YouTubers uploaded videos from within the protests, revealing a dialogue calling for change.

The brutality could have very well gone unnoticed, Twitter was called into action, and at any point in the day anyone could watch a live feed and post live tweets directly to the movement. The Internet here served as reinforcement for the occupiers as well as a catalyst for groups to emerge in other cities. It truly gave free speech to U.S. citizens. It provided a “forum”- which gets its name from the Roman forums that served this very purpose; a tangible place for public discourse and action that never existed in the US- by which every American could join a discussion not mediated or disseminated from corporations. A conversation that has much more “truth.”

Still, even past the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Internet serves this function; probably the single most important function of the Internet- to allow space for unmediated public discourse.

Every day on Facebook a video pops up of someone filming police brutality from a bedroom window, holding the officer/s accountable in court for something that has most definitely been in practice for decades and passed undocumented.

If a news pundit- O’Reilly– or a reality TV star- Phil Robertson- says something bigoted, it is the backlash by the Internet community that causes their downfall, not the program’s code of ethics. Everyone belonging to or serving the elite are under constant surveillance by the Internet, and so bias, bigotry and flat out lies are no longer tolerated or accepted as “truth.”

The Internet is a tool, growing rapidly, for the people by the people to ensure free speech, direct access to knowledge, and an informed, autonomous public. Let the Big Five die- it’s about time.

Kevin O’Sullivan is a philosophy senior; he can be contacted at [email protected]