Introduction means that disinformation can spread quickly to

Introduction
to Media Theory – Essay

Essay Title:   Habermas saw the
public sphere as a space for the creation of consensus through reasoned public
debate. Critically discuss the proposition that, through disinformation,
distraction and the destruction of privacy, the internet has made reasoned
public debate impossible.

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In
the late 1990s, the world was changed by the emergence of the economic,
entertainment, and social powerhouse that is the internet. The internet rapidly
overcame all rivals as the place for any and all public debate, unfortunately
over time the internet has been monopolised by large internet media companies
who exploit open spaces for debate with personalised and targeted advertising.
This leads to places for public debate being transformed into consumer spaces.
Distracting the public from the original purpose of these open spaces. ‘Fake
News’ is a recent phenomenon within the world of media that has been
popularised by the current U.S. President. In reality it is just a childish
word for the deliberate spreading of false, often harmful information.  Which due to the internet’s far reach, its
speed, and the ease of publishing it gives: means that disinformation can
spread quickly to a global audience. Finally, the destruction of privacy within
the spaces in which we have any form of reasoned public debate, means the
public are afraid of ‘big brother’ this concept of being watched at all times
and having all your activity tracked, they are not without reason. Not only
that but the destruction of privacy leads to the lack of any ability to be
anonymous, any right to anonymity is for most part waived when you enter these
spaces and as such many people are reluctant to offer their opinions in case
their opinion proves controversial or contrary to ‘mainstream’ beliefs.
Recently ‘mob mentality’ has begun to occur within most major public spaces,
where the opinion of the majority is suddenly considered fact. For these reasons, I believe that through
the destruction of privacy, distraction at every point, and the spreading of
disinformation, reasoned public debate and the creation of consensus or
compromise politically or socially is made nearly impossible.

            Distraction
and the consumerisation of the platforms that facilitate the majority of
reasoned public debate.  Facebook is
widely considered the most used and successful social media in the world, when
Facebook was first started its aim was to connect the world, and gradually, it
achieved that goal. But with that goal came the hundreds of millions of people,
and with them came their opinions. Opinions met with contrasting opinions and
Facebook grew to become the largest ‘forum’ on the internet. With this Facebook
established itself as a part of the public sphere, where reasoned public debate
of politics and social problems took place. Mike Westling, in his 2008 article:
“Expanding the Public Sphere: The Impact
of Facebook on Political Communication”. Argues that “Facebook combines the best features of local bulletin-boards,
newspapers, and town hall meetings and places them in one location that is
available at any time in practically any location” (p.4). The year this
article was published is important. In 2008 targeted advertisements had not yet
begun to dominate the online market. Over the course of the last nine years consumerism
has slowly crept into Facebook, and also social media as a whole has become
more of a consumerist market. With the new ‘marketplace’ feature recently
introduced to Facebook the final step in their conversion from major part of
the public sphere and utility to reasoned public debate, to a website where
every page has nearly a quarter of said page dedicated to personalised
advertising. A big reason for this change in goals for Facebook is of course
the influence of large multi-national corporations. At time of writing
Facebook’s average monthly user base is over 2 billion people. That makes it
the largest userbase to be held on one platform in history. Naturally that
would attract all large companies. And so, the influx of advertisement revenue
for Facebook played a major part. As of 2016 advertisement revenue made up 96%
of Facebooks total revenue at $26.9B, up from $764M in 2009. This also shows a
major shift in their business model from “connect” to “advertise”. This lack of
work on promoting reasonable, free, and healthy debate is more obvious now than
ever as they focus more and more on advertising.

Twitter: a
social media site based on the idea of being able to post messages with a
limited amount of characters, (240 characters as of 7th November
2017). It is considered at the forefront of quick and instant news and debate
on the internet due to its easy-to-use nature and short posts. It’s userbase,
while being significantly smaller than Facebook’s 2 billion, is still a respectable
320 million monthly active users (Statista). The interesting statistic however
is the number of tweets (posts) per day, that number stands at over 500M a day.
Of which 41.2% are either conversation (Politics) or news related
(PearAnalytics 2016). Over the course of four days, before, during, and days
after the U.S. Presidential election, there were over 1 billion tweets related
to the election. Additionally, 80% of journalists use twitter to find out about
news, while 60% directly quote it as their source for articles. (Indiana
University, as cited by Bell 2015 P.36). There can be little doubt that Twitter
is another major part of the public sphere and is a platform for reasoned
public debate both socially and politically. In fact, Bell’s 2015 article ‘It’s time we fought back’ argues
strongly that twitter is a place for debate and news. However, Twitter has
begun to follow the same business models as Facebook in recent years. When
Twitter was first launched in 2006 it featured very little advertising, it was
never designed to make money, however in recent years Twitter financially
struggled due to the lack of outside investment and advertisement based revenue
that other platforms relied on. This has led to the introduction of ‘sponsored
tweets’, a service that twitter provide whereby you can pay Twitter to show
certain tweets (normally advertising-related tweets) to an audience that did
not explicitly state they wanted to see posts from that account. Financial
problems have also meant that ‘Twitter Ad Campaigns’ has been developed. A
service where business’ can pay Twitter to turn all their tweets into
‘sponsored tweets’. Through all of this we can see the business model changing
to be more like Facebook, with consumerism being at the forefront. The
intrusions of these advertisements in Twitter are leading to a decrease in the
conversation being had as your timeline (or the Facebook Newsfeed) is cluttered
with advertisements. These two internet media monopolies make up a large part
of the platform on the internet where reasoned public debate can happen, but
these platforms are showing less and less focus on designing themselves to
promote healthy debate and more to maximise advertisement revenue.

Reasoned public
debate cannot happen when the destruction of privacy and anonymity can lead to
dangerous consequences. The internet has been, since its explosion into
popularity in the early 90s, somewhere where you can voice your opinions
anonymously. Being able to anonymously express your political or social opinion
online is, and always has been, a major part of reasoned public debate.
However, over the last 5 years, social media has become (as shown above) the
largest place for public debate. If you want to register to a social media site
(such as twitter or Facebook) you must input personal details about who you are
and what you like and the such. Even if you input the least amount of
information possible to register an account to the site chances are there is
some sort of identifying personal information on you somewhere within said
account. Even with this small amount of identifying information you lose the
anonymity that some people crave or even need to express their opinion online.
With the incredible amount of debating and opinions online, there can be no
doubt that at times this debate can become malicious. Through this the idea of
‘doxing’ was created (And was coined a term by the Oxford Dictionary). Doxing
can be incredibly harmful to a person and their social and political interests.
These tiny bits of identifiable information that social media sites require you
to have allow anyone who disagrees with you to use these small bits of
identifiable information to find personally sensitive or secretive information.
Unpopular opinions can therefore be actually physically dangerous to express on
the internet as the threat of doxing is forever hanging over the head of anyone
who does not agree with the public narrative. Keith Hampton et al coined the
term “the spiral of silence” in their
2014 report ‘Social Media and the Spiral
of silence’. They argued that this idea could also be extended to mean that
someone was afraid to express beliefs to friends and family as well. They also found
that “In both personal settings and online settings, people
were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed
with them”. As
such it can be strongly argued that reasonable and proper public debate cannot
happen on any platform where privacy and anonymity do not exist as not all
views can be expressed. In terms of ‘doxing’ Twitter is the platform where this
has been a genuine problem, to the point where ‘report a doxing’ is an option
in their report and block feature. When Twitter was in financial trouble in
mid-2016 prospective buyers were unwilling to buy the company due to the
widespread harassment that was (perceived to be) on the site, the absolute
majority of this harassment is due to users expressing their socio-political or
political views.

Reasoned public
debate cannot happen online when disinformation is rampant, and the general
public do not rely on more than one source for their news. The introduction of
Twitter and Facebook as platforms for the public sphere and reasoned debate has
led to journalists using these websites as platforms to distribute their news
and articles. Along with this a new trend of ‘Citizen Journalism’ and amateur
journalism has taken hold, where untrained (or uninformed) users write articles
in the guise of them being hard news or verified and fact-checked stories, the
lack of gatekeeping allows disinformation to be produced and distributed. Seth
C. Lewis, et al in their study ‘Thinking
about citizen journalism’ argued that: ‘user contribution to the news product has
been around for far longer than the Web itself (e.g., in the form of letters to
the editor), but in the online environment something fundamentally different
has emerged: the ease of accessing, creating, and sharing digital information
has created the right conditions for commons-based peer production across a
range of media’. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of
citizen journalism Seth C. Lewis et al found that community newspaper editors
are finding it more and more difficult to gatekeep the content that goes into
their newspaper. This unfortunately leads to some citizen journalists having
the ability to deliberately spread false information, avid readers of an online
newspaper are quick to accept and adopt the views expressed within said
newspaper without checking their sources to check if what is said in the online
newspaper is accurate or factual. Multiple studies conducted have come to the
general conclusion that a reader is very likely to instantly believe what they
are told by an online newspaper or news site.  Another problem with the spread false
information is newly popular phrase ‘fake news’. Whether or not the media that
the U.S. president refers to is actually fake news is a subject large enough
for a dissertation. But the idea of fake news is itself a prominent problem.
Many popular news sites online have an obvious and malicious political bias and
deliberately distribute media and articles to their subscribers/readers that is
politically biased. (An example of this is the controversial right-wing
‘Breitbart’ website). Reasoned public debate and any form of compromise or
agreement is difficult on the internet when so many users enter a debate with
the steadfast approach of “This newspaper/news site I read told me ‘this’ and
as such it is right”.

In conclusion, compromise
and agreement on the internet is becoming increasingly more difficult to
achieve as these different factors come together. Distraction and the
consumerisation of public platforms for debate leads to advertising invading
the space where discussion is had. The lack of anonymity and increased
harassment online means that people are less willing to express and debate
their opinions for fear of opening themselves up to harassment or danger should
the majority disagree with them. And that the deliberate spread of false
information through civilian journalism, or news sites purposefully publishing
misleading articles and politically or socially biased posts, means that online
readers entering debates are not equipped with the right information.  The expansion of public platforms on the
internet shows no signs of slowing down, if these trends continue we will see
the lack of compromise show more and more. Already signs are showing on major
public platforms such as social media that expressing of an opinion that
deviates from the opinion of the majority. Steps need to be taken to: reform
the public sphere so that expression of all ideas and opinions is accepted;
protect privacy and anonymity on the internet; and to discourage the deliberate
spreading of misleading information.

Reference List

1.     
Westling, Mike. ‘Expanding the Public Sphere: The Impact of Facebook on Political
Communication’. Available at: Article.
Viewed 06/12/17

2.     
Tucker, Catherine E. “Social Networks, Personalized Advertising, and Privacy Controls.”
Journal of Marketing Research 51, no. 5 (October 2014): 546–562. http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/99170

3.     
‘Facebook
Ad Revenue 2009-2016’ (2016). Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/271258/facebooks-advertising-revenue-worldwide/
(Accessed: 06/12/2017)

4.     
‘Number of
monthly active twitter users’ (2017) Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/282087/number-of-monthly-active-twitter-users/
(Accessed: 06/12/2017)

5.     
Pear Analytics (2009) ‘Twitter Study’ Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20110718135114/http://www.pearanalytics.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Twitter-Study-August-2009.pdf
(Accessed 06/12/17)

6.      Bell
E.  (2015) ‘It’s time we fought back’
British Journalism Review, pp.  34-41
DOI: 10.1177/0956474815575453

7.      Oxford
Dictionary ‘Definition of Doxing in
English’. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/dox (Accessed
06/12/17)

8.      Hampton,
K, et al. (2014) ‘Social Media and the
spiral of silence’ Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/
(Accessed 07/12/17)