The Internet as the Public Sphere: Deliberative Democracy and Civic Engagement

The Internet as the Public Sphere: Deliberative Democracy and Civic Engagement

Jarice Hanson (Temple University, USA) and Alina Hogea (Temple University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-083-5.ch023
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The Internet has often been heralded as a tool for e-governance and public action because of its ubiquity, accessibility, and the ability for users to participate in online expressions of opinion. In this chapter we discuss the potential for the Internet to function as a public space for facilitating civic engagement. While we draw from the seminal work of Jurgen Habermas to identify the preconditions for the functioning of a “public sphere,” we address four distinctly different approaches to the discussion of the Internet’s role as an effective tool for deliberative democracy by highlighting the contributions of scholars and practitioners who engaged in a dialog on the topic at a symposium held at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 25, 2010.
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The topic of electronic governance often prompts scholars and pundits to theorize about, or offer anecdotal predictions about the impact of the Internet on democratic practices. Optimists claim that the Internet enhances civic participation as it provides open access to information and meaningful deliberation. Skeptics see the Internet as merely another commercial medium, where content is rather dictated by profit than public interest. On March 25, 2010, distinguished scholars, university faculty and students, and members of the public participated in a symposium at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to explore the impact thus far, of the potential of the Internet to facilitate civic engagement.1

This chapter summarizes some of the key perspectives of the notable speakers at the “Deliberative Democracy: The Internet and Civic Engagement Conference”, including Dr. Todd Gitlin,2 Dr. Michael X. Delli Carpini,3 Dr. Sina Odugbemi,4 and James MacMillan.5 We then draw from the perspectives of these scholars and practitioners to examine the potential for the Internet to fulfill a critical role as an active agent in allowing the public to form opinions that may facilitate civic discourse and the shaping of public opinion. Our chapter thus attempts to overcome the dichotomy of optimism vs. skepticism, and instead points to the structural preconditions which have to be given in order for the Internet to function as a positive tool for deliberative democracy. We take the role of interpreters of the presentations of the above-named scholars, and filter their insights through a prism of examining the role and potential of the Internet to address the following research questions:

  • 1.

    What are the possible structural impediments to deliberative democracy via the Internet?

  • 2.

    Which role does the use of the Internet play for deliberative discourse?

  • 3.

    What is the Internet’s current and future potential for facilitating, modifying, or distorting the mission and purpose of deliberative democracy and the resulting impact of the Internet on e-democracy and e-government?

We then apply these questions to two experiences of attempts to use the “deliberative democracy and the Internet” model in two diametrically opposed contexts. The first one is the experience of post-communist Romania, where communism fostered a period of censorship for 45 years and where the population has now to grapple with the extremes of press freedom in a digital era while the state has fallen into a crisis of legitimacy. The second one is the impact of the Internet fora on the mobilization of social movements in the United States, a country that prides itself as founded on democracy and a commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.



Deliberative democracy is a theory that emphasizes “the communicative processes of opinion and will formation” (Chambers, 2003, p. 308), which precede political action (e.g. voting). Therefore, the deliberative model focuses on discourse and negotiation, with the normative argument that the space for such deliberation should allow the power of the better argument to prevail over all other considerations. It maintains that such discourse can find solutions to problems through agreements, which are based on yes/no decisions. In this vein, freedom of expression is essential to aiding the type of public debate that shapes opinion formation in a public sphere of debate where reciprocal views are made known. The precondition for an ideal public sphere is that this deliberation is accessible to everyone, and that it shapes binding (though temporary) agreements of finding a solution to inherently incommensurate views of the consequences of political action. These deliberations have a moral component that respects different views (Guttman and Thompson, 2004, pp. 64-94) and that legitimizes subjects considered important and valuable for the public good (Fishkin, 1992, pp. 117-124).

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