The public arena

5. The public arenaΒΆ

Democratic societies need spaces in which people and political elites become visible to each other, develop shared agendas, and settle on collectively binding decisions. These spaces need to be open to people from all walks of life and from all groups in society. They need to feature the voices of the privileged as well as those of the marginalized. They need to provide people with the information they need for self-governance and enable them to control elites. They need to provide elites with the information they need to govern and represent the people. And although these spaces will fall short of these needs, as long as they are transparent of their workings and allow for critique and subsequent improvement, they can be made to work for people and their pursuit of the public good. These spaces are the public arena.

The public arena is a space of structured tensions. Different people from different groups with different interest encounter each other, compete for attention, and try to shape politics and society. The public arena is a space in which political elites perform their competition for attention and power and which they use to learn about the people and their concerns. These encounters and competitions are noisy and at times come to violate norms and established practices.

Tensions within the public arena come to the fore especially in times of structural shifts within the institutions and organizations hosting the public arena. We are currently witnessing such a shift driven by the digital transformation. Digital technology is deeply transforming and challenging institutions that formerly held a near monopoly for hosting the public arena, the news media. Digital media weaken the economic foundation of news, they transform modes of information delivery and consumption, and they allow for the emergence of new information providers who do not necessarily share the commitment to the same institutional norms and practices of news organizations of the past. At the same time, we see new types of structures emerge that become as important to hosting the public arena as news media were in the past, digital platforms like Facebook, Google, TikTok, or Twitter. Here, we need to understand their role as structures of the public arena and develop norms and rules for their contribution taking into account their differences from former structures of the public arena.

The digital transformation of the public arena is one of the most important challenges democratic societies face today. Associated opportunities and hopes, but also dangers and fears, feature prominently in public discussions. In this chapter, we discuss the public arena, its democratic functions, and challenges introduced by digital media. This discussion is just getting started, so be prepared to leave with more questions than answers.