Can the Internet Properly Support Democracy and the Public Sphere?

Examining Citizen Journalism, Corporate Influence, and the Public Interest

By: Kevin Chao, Staff Writer

When you think about it, the Internet is an amazing tool. Connecting to a friend overseas has become instantaneous. Revolutions have been incited by tweets. Users are never trapped by their geography, but free to explore the online web. We go online for news, for entertainment, for conversation, and for information. You use the Internet to do your work, and leaders use it to run the world. It’s more than just media; it’s the backbone of a digital world.

The Internet’s potential influence raises an important concern: does the beloved Internet necessarily support the ideals of freedom, the public interest, and democracy? For many reasons, the immediate reaction is often “yes”. Social media has forever changed our ability to speak out, free speech is an online right, and the digital world provides us a voice in the global conversation.


Courtesy of ilamont.comv

However, at the same time, powerful brands and media conglomerates have vast amounts of online leverage, and can use the Internet to manipulate us. Many critics allege that online news sources have descended to delivering sensationalist and uncritical infotainment, whereas others suggest that advertiser’s expectations have undermined the potential of investigative journalism. How much influence do the media industry’s power-players have in the open web? Do media conglomerates use the Internet to further their private interests, and can users respond by capitalizing on the web’s potential to democratize our media?

The Internet is not a restrictive and authoritarian medium, nor is it the wonderful and free source that we often claim it is. In our increasingly digitalized world, it is crucial to at least consider the public interest, our democratic values, and our potential to shape our media. 

A Healthy Online Public Sphere?

In any thriving democracy, the people are given a chance to hear news, discuss it with others, and form positions. This is what philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the public sphere; he defined it as “a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed”. While this public discussion may have previously occurred through newspapers and cafés, now the Internet can satisfy all of our democratic needs for information and conversation. Blogs, forums, news articles, and social media all provide new opportunities for citizens to retrieve and relay knowledge in the open web.

[pullquote]now the Internet can satisfy all of our democratic needs for information and conversation[/pullquote]

Our media hasn’t always been so free; in fact, six companies control 90% of all American media. These half a dozen media conglomerates – GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS – hold the lion’s share of media, distributing nearly all the news, movies, television, and music that us consumers receive. Though this concentration of power into six companies is the reality of the market, the centralization of influence in a democracy hardly suggests an open public sphere.

The media’s influence manipulates Canadians, too. For example, the day after 131 First Nations declared their disapproval of the Enbridge pipeline, the Vancouver Sun ran two front page stories about “Dog Rescuers” and “Problem Gamblers”; the next day, when one lone Gitxsan Nation native independently and incorrectly stated that his nation would accept a bribe, the paper’s front headline proclaimed “Gitxsan Supports Enbridge Pipeline”.  The media’s authority truly does impact public opinion and political discussion.

Has this excessive corporate influence breached online media? That’s a matter of opinion.  Most of the news we consume online still comes from sources owned by the same Big 6 who dominated the television age.

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