Media activism and the public sphere (Part 2)

In Part 1, I have described the main concepts central to the public sphere and digital networks. Part 2 analyzes how the civic tech activist groups’ practices and imaginaries can offer useful insights into constructing the public sphere. In the conclusion, I will suggest the agendas for further study of the public sphere from the media and data activism perspective.


Reflections on civic tech activists’ enacting the public sphere

Civic tech activists in this paper refer to those that aim to use technology to empower citizens, accelerate social change, or advance advocacy. While there are various genres in civic tech including hacktivism, open source movement, open data movement, citizens’ media which have different agendas, goals, means and methods, an analysis of their common ideas and concepts would help to understand how these communities are shaping the configuration of the public and public sphere.

According to Habermas, the key members of the public sphere are civil society groups who act as a form of sensor, playing an important role in initiating, organizing and steering critical debate on matters of public interest.

“Civil society is composed of those more or less spontaneously emergent associations, organizations and movements that attuned to how social problems resonate in the private life spheres, distill and transmit such reactions in amplified form to the public sphere. The core of civil society comprises a network of associations that institutionalizes problem-solving discourses on questions of general interests inside the framework of organized public spheres (Habermas Between Facts and Norms 367).” 

However, the civil society, without formal authority, can only influence the political system “through the filters of the institutionalized procedures of democratic opinion- and will-formation and enters through parliamentary debates into legitimate law-making” (371). This argument may not always hold true for two reasons. First, a number of grassroots civil society groups have rejected policy processes and sought to initiate critical public discourse and challenge the practice of the state not through established or legitimate means (such as elections) but through their own medium or arguably illegal tactics. For example, hackers and radical tech activists deconstruct existing technology (e.g. the Chaos Computer Club reversed engineering governmental surveillance software like the Federal Trojan in Germany)[1], or build alternative communication infrastructure to facilitate the development of unrestricted public sphere (e.g. Tor network servers, Indymedia)[2]. Hackers’ and radical tech activists’ practices thus effectively challenge the notion of public sphere as legitimate social institutions as opposed to the gatekeeping function of publishing in mainstream press. In this case, legitimacy of public opinion is not earned through dialogue with institutions. In fact, to the hackers and civic tech activists, legitimacy is less important than contestation which is exercised through protest and disruptive action. Therefore, I argue that Dean’s neodemocracies model provides a better foundation to understand the goal and means of the radical tech activists’ engagement in democratic politics.

Second, tech activists have proved to produce efficient public debate by the bottom-up approach instead of entering through institutionalized public sphere. For instance, projects like “The Setup method”[3] scraping the birth data of all Dutch citizens in order to set up a fake birthday gift service provide a good starting point for debate on data and privacy issues. Using the bottom-up approach, grassroots tech collectives bridge the realms of public and private and stimulate discussion on subjects of general interests while touching on the private life spheres. To civic tech activists, especially the activists in the open data movements, the bottom-up approach means providing access to data and software to all citizens so that they can make their own interpretation of raw data (data as collected) and thus generate their own knowledge (Baack, Datafication and empowerment 3). At the heart of bottom-up approach is the vision of citizen empowerment practiced through breaking the monopoly of public and privatized institutions in the control, collection, and distribution of knowledge (5). The bottom-up approach is, however, mainly operated at a local level because it requires close collaboration and engagement between individuals, and a focus on the immediate issue to produce efficient public debate.

From the open data movement perspective, data meaning-making as a collective practice include recognizing the roles of actors whose may have been neglected in the constitution of the public sphere, especially non-human actors. They perceive the infrastructure of public sphere as relations of people, machines, software, protocols, processes, and that it is important to uncover these relations to the public. Examples could be found at the projects by Share Lab[4], which have conducted investigations into the global data surveillance, unravel the invisible infrastructure of networks and make it comprehensible to ordinary citizens. The outcomes of their projects opened up questions about the transparency of media infrastructure, privacy issues, immaterial labor, data discrimination, free access and exchange of knowledge, information and technology. But more importantly, they emphasize the roles of non-human actors, algorithm and infrastructure, in our daily public and private communication. This finding echoes Peters’s and Couldry’s argument on the erosion of the public and public sphere in the increasingly fragmented, scattered environments and personalized communication networks. A significant contribution of the civic tech activists is highlighting the importance of transparency of the media infrastructures in enabling open, inclusive, and critical public debate.

It is important to note that while the civic tech activists are passionate about social and political issues that they promote, their practices tend to focus more on providing the infrastructure for formulating public debate rather than participating in the debate itself for a longer-term. In most cases, they engage in the public discussion to raise awareness of the issues, initiate the debate or assist the advocacy of organized institutions and other activist groups. It could be explained that they see their expertise as more useful in helping the mobilization of the public sphere than organizing and maintain it. Interview with the group members of the project mySociety also confirms this understanding: “What we do is present the facts…. It is then up to other people to do with that what they will, which might well be using to promote a cause (cited in Baack, Civic Tech n.p).

Conclusion

It can be concluded that while most of Habermas’s understanding of the public sphere as a democratic ideal is still valuable, consensus and legal, rational procedures are not necessarily the only goal and medium for constructing the public sphere. In some cases, it is organized through contestation and conflict. Acknowledging the inevitable antagonism of political life is important to avoid the traps of the “counterfeit” public opinion in the forms of referendum or polls and the refeudalization public sphere in the forms of publicity/public relations. Learning from the practices of civic tech activists, public sphere model should also include the bottom-up approach and the transparency of non-human actors.

Since the public is a space emerging as an effect of power relations, there are different publics in different contexts. This essay focuses on conceptualizing the public sphere produced by civic tech activists in Western countries. Further research could look into how the activists in other civil societies accelerate public debate. Other questions to examine could be: How do power relations in datafied publics affect the constitution of the public sphere? How data discriminiation and digital divide affect the practices of civic tech activists in constructing the public sphere? What are the implications of assembling public around issues through the use of big data?

References

Baack, Stefan. “Datafication and empowerment: How the open data movement re-articulates notions of democracy, participation, and journalism.” Big Data & Society 2.2 (2015): 2053951715594634.

Baack, Stefan. “Civic Tech at mySociety” How the Imagined Affordances of Data Shape Data Activism.” Krisis Journal for contemporary philosophy 1 (2018). Access at <http://krisis.eu/civic-tech-at-mysociety-how-the-imagined-affordances-of-data-shape-data-activism/>

Couldry, Nick. The myth of ‘us’’: digital networks, political change and the production of collectivity.’ Information, Communication & Society. 18.6 (2015): 608–626.

Dean, Jodi. Why the Net is not a Public Sphere. Constellations. An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory. 10.1 (2003): 95–112. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8675.00315

Habermas, Jürgen .”The Public Sphere.” Media studies : A Reader. Ed. P. Marris. (1996)

Habermas, Jürgen. “Between facts and norms (W. Rehg, Trans.).” Cambridge: PolityPress (1996).

Peters, John Durham. “God and Google” in The Marvelous Cloud: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015, 315-369.

[1] See Kubitschko, Sebastian. “Chaos Computer Club: The Communicative Construction of Media Technologies and Infrastructures as a Political Category.” Communicative Figurations. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018. 81-100.

[2] See Milan, Stefania. (2016). Three decades of contention. The roots of contemporary activism. In Social Movements and Their Technologies. Wiring Social Change (pp. 19–48). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

[3] Read more about the project at https://www.tijmenschep.com/the-national-birthday-calendar/

[4] Read more about the projects at https://labs.rs/en/

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