5.1. The public arena and its functions for democracy

5.1.1. The public arena

Societies need spaces for groups to make themselves visible to each other, to settle on the most important problems of the day, exchange different alternative approaches to solutions, and settle on collectively binding decisions. These spaces are the public arena.

In our book "Digital Transformations of the Public Arena" the sociologist Ralph Schroeder and I define the public arena through the following three characteristics:

(1) The public arena consists of the media infrastructures that enable and constrain the publication, distribution, reception, and contestation of information that allow people to exercise their rights and duties as citizens. (2) This excludes how people use these infrastructures for private life or for commercial purposes except when these uses come to bear on people's rights and duties as citizens. (3) These infrastructures mediate the relation between citizens or civil society on the one hand and political elites or the state on the other.

[Jungherr and Schroeder, 2021] p. 3.

This definition points to four important characteristics of the public arena. First, the public arena consists of structures that make people visible to each other, document and make visible current events, allow for a public negotiation of meaning, and exchange of alternative interventions. In modern societies, these are predominantly media infrastructures. These media infrastructures consist of institutions - such as the news media - and technologies - such as print, radio, television, or the internet. As we have discussed in the previous chapter, shifts within available media technologies impact media institutions. One important impact is the shift from broadcast technologies - such as print, radio, and television - to digital media technologies. As we have seen, this shift deeply impacted the economic and moral foundations of established news media institutions. The consequences of this impact are still not settled and contribute significantly to the current state of public insecurity and fear about the impact of digital media on democracies.

Second, media structures are not neutral but instead come with specific features that enable or constrain - or at least incentivize or disincentivize - specific activities and behaviors. Different structures - as in institutions and technologies - of the public arena will therefor enable or constrain different patterns in publication, reception, and contestation of information. A public arena relying on mass media and broadcast technology will feature a limit set of few powerful gatekeepers that decide about what actors and topics to allow access to the public area. In contrast, a public arena relying on digital media with widely distributed access points will feature less control of gatekeepers about which actors, voices, and topics gain access. In digital communication environments, access is not the limiting factor. Instead, it is attention. Power in public arenas depending on digital media therefor lies with actors who can amplify selected actors, voices, and topics within the public arena and provide collective attention for them. Other than in the past, power is no longer about merely providing access to the public arena. Instead, it is about having others pay attention.

Third, the structures of the public arena always feature more information and activity than that directly connected with the pursuit of the public good. This was true in the past and stays true today. But associated consequences need to be kept in mind. For one, the public arena is hosted on structures provided by actors with commercial interests. This was true for radio stations, television stations, and newspapers and is also true for digital structures, such as platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Societies need to figure out how to align the interests of these commercial actors hosting structures with the functions these structures hold for society. Associated tensions cannot be resolved but need to be surfaced and publicly negotiated. Also, usage practices of structures used for recreational, entertainment, and commercial uses will influence the uses of said structures for public purposes, such as the discussion of politics. In the past this was critiqued in the context of a perceived commercialization of news. Today, we see this with practices coming from fan cultures in digital communication environments to start shaping patterns in the discussion of political or societal issues and controversies. Not always for the better.

Fourth, the public arena mediates the relationship between citizens and political elites. It makes people visible to each other. This provides the opportunity for mutual recognition or conflict within the bounds of ordered political competition. Beyond this, it also allows for the formation of new groups of people with shared interests and the construction of new shared identities, providing the potential for new lines of political conflict to emerge.

The public arena also makes people visible to elites and elites visible to people. The structures hosting the public arena are therefor crucial elements in democratic representation. Their internal workings shape who and what becomes visible to elites and therefor provide the mediated reflection of society elites react to and that shapes their perceived option space. A public arena constituted by structures that foreground groups in society who already are privileged, will incentivize political elites to react to their interests more strongly than a public arena that features many competing voices, some traditionally privileged, some freshly formed from traditionally marginalized groups. The public arena and its structures therefor matter a great deal with regard to who gets seen and represented in society and the opportunities provided for groups with shared interests to find each other and articulate shared interests and demand representation.

The structure, and structural shifts, within the public arena are important. They shape political discourses, public beliefs, conditions of political competition, the representation of social groups, as well the option space for collective action within a society. This makes the structural conditions of information environments, their transformations, and consequences into important objects of study for sociologists, communication scholars, and political scientists. The increasing importance of digital communication environments and the associated increase in digital data traces of contributions to and interactions within the public arena makes it also an important topic in computational social science. Conversely, computational social science offers interesting new perspectives to larger theoretical discussions about the public arena, its structures, and dynamics.

5.1.2. The functions of the public arena for democracy

The public arena and the structures hosting it are a crucial element in democracies. They provide the basis for people to inform themselves about politics and society, to meaningfully engage in discourse, and ultimately exercise their rights to self-rule. Accordingly, the structures of the public arena are routinely interrogated with regard to their enabling or detrimentally effecting democratic functions. Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of - sometimes conflicting - normative prescriptions for how the way structures of the public arena should function. Of those, a recent account by Jan-Werner Müller fits our discussion:

"They should be widely accessible; access should not turn into a privilege for those already advantaged. They should be accurate; that is to say, political judgments and opinions (...) must be constrained by facts, even if (...) facts are always fragile. They should also be autonomous - that is to say, not depend on more or less hidden actors in a corrupt way. They must be assessable by citizens. And, as a result of all of the above, they can be accountable."

[Müller, 2021] p. 139-140.

While Müller talks primarily about parties and the media, we can extend his prescriptions to the structures of the public arena more broadly. Paraphrasing Müller, for the public arena to function, the structures hosting it need to provide access to people irrespective of their societal position or status. Information hosted should be accurate, in other words bounded by facts. This being said, especially in politics facts and their meaning are subject to public contestation and a collective negotiation of meaning. This boundedness can therefor not be established purely through narrow fact checking. Instead it demands for broad commitment of political and societal elites and factions. Also structures of the public arena need to be independent of existing powerful actors or interests in society, be it financially or structurally. Finally, these structures need to be transparent in order for people and regulators to be able to critically interrogate them regarding their inner workings, dependencies, and their impact on the democratic functions of the public arena.

Is with any normative prescription, the one proposed by Müller needs interpretation and qualification if applied to the assessment of specific structures in the public arena. While single structures might fail in specific instances - for example digital platforms being primarily used by people with easy access to digital devices and not by others or some partisan media being closely aligned with political factions - as long as the set of structures provides broad access and features different voices and viewpoints, one might feel not too troubled. But if the structures of the public arena as a set would systematically exclude people or legitimate (as in bounded by facts) opinions then worry about the democratic contribution of the public arena is warranted.

Before we go further and discuss specific structures hosting the contemporary public arena, let us quickly examine the functions the public arena serves for democracy. Here, we will focus on three contributions:

  • Visibility and representation;

  • Group formation; and

  • Supporting collective problem solving and collectively binding decision making.

5.1.2.1. Visibility and representation

A prerequisite for meaningful self-rule is visibility. Visibility of people to each other and to elites. Visibility of elites to people. And visibility of events and conditions of importance to the public. Structures in the public arena provide this visibility to different degrees and through different mechanisms.

News media, the structures hosting the public arena before digital media, primarily produce and distribute information about the state of society. Trained journalists go out and report the news, pursue deeper investigations into selected topics, or comment on events. In this coverage, people and their voices feature and become visible to news audiences and elites. News media also provide elites with a platform to reach people, for example through interviews or guest contributions. This coverage, its selection choices, and representation of different people and voices is subject to interrogation and critique.

Other structures - such as digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube - do not produce information themselves but provide actors with the opportunity to publish information and reach people. This could be people, who post their opinions and reactions to current events or report on events they witness on their public social media profiles. This could also be politicians or parties who publish information on their profiles. Or this could be traditional news organizations and journalists that use social media platforms to increase the reach of their coverage.

While the role of news media in the public arena has been well established and the lines of interrogation and critique are well established as well, those for digital platforms are currently established and negotiated. By now it is clear that platforms need to accept responsibility for the content they provide access to and that they distribute. The exact rules by which this is about to happen are still contested, though. Currently, there needs to be a balance established between users' speech rights and users' protection from harm through false or misleading information or harassement. Currently, this is a topic of great academic and industry activity. This is true for both the crafting and assessing of governance rules and policy, as well as the empirical identification and measurement of harmful content and its effects.

5.1.2.2. Group formation

An important corollary to visibility is the role of structures of the public arena in providing the basis for the formation of politically aligned groups and their representation. As we have discussed in the previous chapter, a crucial feature within politics is the formation of politically meaningful groups:

"The power of imposing a vision of divisions, that is, the power of making visible and explicit social divisions that are implicit, (...) [bringing] into existence in an instituted, constituted form (...), what existed up until then only as (...) a collection of multiple persons, a purely additive series of merely juxtaposed individuals."

[Bourdieu, 1990] p. 138.

Jan-Werner Müller goes further in describing this process:

"Here representation is not conceived as substantively or descriptively reproducing something that already exists. It is not a matter of mechanical reproduction. Rather, it is a process in which individuals offer to a possible constituency an image of themselves based on so far unrecognized ideas, interests, or aspects of their identities. As a result, citizens might perceive themselves and the politics they need in a novel light. A constituency is not so much reproduced, or even revealed, as talked into existence and, as a result, uses its political freedoms in novel ways."

[Müller, 2021] p. 79-80.

Structures hosting the public arena, provide spaces that allow for - or hinder - these processes of collective group formation. Processes corresponding with these expectations could be observed with #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, or #FridaysForFuture. These groups formed around grievances made public on digital media. People posted and bonded about experiences, formed collective identities, and coordinated political protest. The variety of causes concerned and international occurrence shows that this is neither a feature specific to select causes or locals, instead it appears to be a crucial function of digital media in the formation of new political groups and mobilization. The associated dynamics and effects merit much further attention.

5.1.2.3. Problem solving

A further democratic function of the public arena is its support in the formulation and solving of problems relevant to the public good. This features very prominently in the work of sociologist Jürgen Habermas. In his conception of Öffentlichkeit - or public sphere in the English translation - the structures allowing people to meet and discuss politics can be assessed by the degree to which they allow for broad access, rational exchange of facts and alternative solutions, and disinterested evaluation of options with the goal of reaching best outcomes. Not surprisingly, empirically structures of the public arena tend to fall short of these ideal characteristics. Also not surprisingly, the normative goals presented by Habermas have been strongly contested. Most importantly, his account of rational problem solving through communication has been contested by approaches that see competition and conflict as a more fitting account of exchanges in the public arena.

But moving away from the by now mainly academic question of whether structures of the public arena allow for the communicative ideals postulated by Habermas, this perspective offers many important insights. For example, many academics are working on the development of specific structures - democratic innovations - that try to enable people to meet, exchange viewpoints, and find solutions to common problems. Here, the constitution and governance of mediating structures matter. Also, a subfield of democratic theory, epistemic democracy, focuses on the forms and conditions under which people can democratically define problems and contribute to solutions that are within the public interest and foster the public good. The structures of the public arena, old and new, can therefor also be interrogated with regard to their contribution to the formulation and solution of societal problems.