6  Public arena

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.1

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.

6.1 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 & Schroeder (2022), 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. 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. This shift has impacted deeply 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.2

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.3

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.4

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.5

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.6

6.2 The public arena and its functions 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.7 Here, we will focus on three contributions:

  • Visibility and representation;
  • Group formation; and
  • Supporting collective problem solving and collectively binding decision making.

6.2.1 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.8

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.9 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.

6.2.2 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.10

6.2.3 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.11

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.12

6.3 News media as structures of the public arena

From the eighteenth century onward, news media have been crucial structures hosting the public arena in Western societies. They provided information, made elites visible to publics, and publics visible to elites and to each other. In this, they never functioned without fault or were completely free from power structures in society. Their role, beneficial and detrimental, in hosting the public arena and serving democracy over time and in different countries has been well established. But for our purposes here, we will focus on three features of news media that matter strongly for the contemporary public arena:

  • The role of news media as an institution;
  • The economic foundations of news; and
  • The emergence of alternative news media in the public arena.

6.3.1 News media as institutions

Looking at news media from an institutional perspectives reveals their functions and inherent tensions in their contribution to the contemporary public arena. As we we have discussed in the section on institutions, journalism can be understood as an institution. Journalism can be understood as a binding set of rules for organizations and people belonging to the institution. These rules can relate, for example, to the selection of news items, the representation of political factions in a society or the quality assurance of coverage. Violations of these rules are punished either within newsrooms and media houses, by professional associations or in public. Violations of rules can lead to the exclusion from newsrooms for individual journalists or to punishment by professional associations or the public for media organizations. In extreme cases, particularly intense violations of the rules and regulations can lead to a general population-wide loss of trust, which can also be associated with a general loss of legitimacy for the institution journalism.13

Traditional journalism in the Anglo-American mold is characterized by a shared set of institutional norms among media organizations and individual contributors. This includes commitment to the impartial coverage of politics and societal conditions, a clear division between coverage and commentary, and reliably policed quality standards. Importantly, this does not mean that news media had to remain neutral and impartial on issues or accept politicians at their word. It simply means that there is a commitment to impartial coverage of events and facts while comment and opinion remain in clearly marked sections. These principles set normative goals for what journalism is supposed to achieve. They are institutionally maintained and transmitted within organizations, education programs, and professional associations.14

While specific articles, journalists, or outlets might fall short of these norms and ideals, these publicly communicated norms formed the basis for public debate, critique, and contestation of news items or news media. This made clear what people could expect from media infrastructures and enabled challenging specific outlets or individuals if they were seen to be deviating from these norms.

Challenges of news media and their contribution to democracy abound. These challenges run the gauntlet from succumbing to economic pressures, dumbing down political coverage, sensationalism, or excluding marginalized voices and groups. Looking closely, at these critiques we would find various signs of what Offe (2006) has characterized as crisis and conflict of institutions. Later, we will discuss signs of crisis, a mismatch of foundational principles and conditions of the institution news media with current economic conditions in the contemporary public arena. But first, let’s focus on conflict, a mismatch between established institutional values of neutrality and impartiality and a growing sense that news organizations and journalists need to take clear position in societal conflicts.15

The norms of impartiality and separation of neutral coverage and opinion are not necessarily shared by new entries in the digitally expanded public arena. Instead of one type of news organization, sharing the same set of norms and aiming to more or less appeal to the same mass audience, we find a plentitude of different news organizations with different normative goals and target audiences. There are news organizations explicitly aligned with political factions and dedicated to providing partisan coverage, news organizations funded by nonprofits or philanthropists supporting specific societal goals, news organizations that exclusively follow a for-profit logic with no further consideration of their democratic or societal impact, and news organizations run by volunteers dedicated to shared goals or issues. These diverse organizations and their staff follow different economic incentives and societal missions. While many important news organizations still follow the norms and practices associated with the institution journalism, many new organizations do not and even would negate the validity of one binding approach. Instead of one journalism with globally adhered to norms and practices, we have many journalisms competing in the public arena for attention.16

One such rift within journalism as an institution is the growing conflict about the normative bindingness of neutrality or impartiality in the coverage of events. Multiple societal and political crises and norm violations have contributed to a growing call for journalism to take sides in political and societal conflicts. This is especially true among young journalists. Drivers are experiences during the presidency of Donald Trump in the US and the growing sense of global dangers following unmitigated climate change. Instead of an objective and neutral journalism, there are calls for a journalism that takes a clear position on social, moral, and political issues, a journalism based on moral clarity.17 Proponents of this position use digital media to advertise this normative reorientation and to illustrate its broad societal acceptance.

While the calls for greater advocacy within journalism is most prominent among contributors to new digital born outlets, it is increasingly also carried into traditional news organizations that, institutionally, would feel more aligned with the traditional norms of impartiality or neutrality. As legacy news organizations adapt to the new business of news in digital environments, they start to learn from digital-born competitors. And as they start to hire from the pool of contributors to digital born outlets, conflicting views of the role of journalism have come to feature within these traditional organizations. This normative shift away from news organizations as structures committed to the goal, however imperfect, of impartiality in political and societal competition and toward open advocacy raises questions concerning their role in hosting, enabling, and adjudicating discourse and political competition in the public arena.

The institution journalism finds itself challenged on multiple fronts in the contemporary public arena. For one, the multiplicity of different organizations providing information in the public arena makes it difficult to develop, maintain, and police a common set of shared norms, rules, and procedures that would form an institutional basis. Also, established norms from the past, such as the primacy of impartial and neutral coverage, are also contested by new entries among news organizations as well as young practitioners who feel that traditional institutional norms do not conform with the political and societal conditions they find themselves in or their own professional goals and aspirations. These shifts raise the question in how far and under which conditions news organizations can be understood primarily as hosts of the public arena and not as participants or competitors. In other words, do news media still function as what Müller (2021) has called intermediary institutions for democracy or are they better understood as competitors in social or political conflict? And what implications does this have for their fulfillment of the democratic functions supporting self-rule discussed above, such as visibility and representation, group formation, and collective problem solving?

6.3.2 Economic foundations of the news

One important feature of the contemporary public arena is the weakening of the economic foundations of news production and distribution. Traditionally, commercial news organizations worked as two-sided markets. News organizations sold bundled information to audiences while at the same time selling access to these audiences to ad customers. This was a highly profitable business.18

News organizations very actively constructed their audiences and thereby strengthened their value to ad customers by allowing for the targeting of ads. For example, news organizations aiming for undifferentiated mass audiences provided a set of broadly relevant information, catered to mass tastes, and used a broadly accessible and compatible style. Examples include tabloid newspapers, such as the German Bild. News organizations like this were of interest to ad customers who wanted to reach large audiences and the broad public.

In contrast, other news organizations construct specific subsets of people by focusing on specific information that is relevant to specific sections of the public. Examples include trade publications, newspapers like the Economist or The Financial Times targeting audiences with comparatively high income and education, or newspapers like The Guardian targeting a politically and socially aligned audience. By providing ad customers with access to thus constructed and known slices of the population, specialized news organizations allowed ad customers to focus their ad-based appeals and ad-money on audience segments of interest to them. While in light of today’s fine-grained digital targeting opportunities, these approaches to targeting might seem quaint, they provided the economic basis that made news such a lucrative business up until the nineteen-nineties.

One of the driving factors behind the success of digital media companies is the promise of ad display in digital communication environments. The empires of companies like Alphabet/Google and Meta/Facebook are built to a large extend on their ability to sell ads to customers with the promise of providing them with just the right kind of audience at an comparatively cheap prize. Digital media build on the promise of customized audiences offered by news organization but do so at a much higher granularity. While news organizations in the past could offer coarse targeting, digital media companies promise access to much more precisely tailored audiences. By using information they have about their users, companies like Alphabet/Google and Meta/Facebook can offer ad customers access to audiences who share specific demographic characteristics, live in specific geographic areas, or share specific interest.19

This has clear advantages for ad customers. By restricting the audience for an ad to specific audiences, people can spend their ad budget with much greater focus. This brings advantages not only to business. Instead, many societal and political actors can now increase their reach to people through targeted ads who were not able to do so in the past. Think of your local blood bank reaching out to people in your area through Google or Facebook ads to alert you about an upcoming donation drive. Or think of your local party alerting people to an important council meeting in which an important local policy issue is discussed. By giving actors with small budgets access to people, digital ads can contribute to a strengthening of local political activity.

Yet, in public debate negative visions of digital targeting dominate. Some fear that allowing political actors to target ads too precisely would allow them to run dark campaigns that remain invisible to outside observers. The associated fears are that in these dark campaigns selected publics are promised different and potentially conflicted outcomes. Or that politicians use dark campaigns to attack minorities or other political factions while appearing conciliatory in the main campaign visible to all. Going further, others believe that targeting would allow the identification of psychological traits making people more susceptible to appeals specifically designed for their psychological weaknesses. Campaigning would thus shift toward psychological manipulation instead of argument driven persuasion.20

While these dangers are forcefully argued, there are good reasons to expect the promises of digital targeting to be exaggerated by digital media and digital ad consultants, concerning its reach as well as strength of its effects. Still, the promise alone has led to the development of large data collection and aggregation efforts in the background of digital communication environments. While the expectations of broad surveillance economies might be overblown, there is good reason for regulators to restrict these ill-regulated and intransparent efforts.21

Overall, the shift of ad dollars to digital platforms and the shift in the delivery mode of information from physical to digital media has weakened the economic position of news organizations considerably. The associated challenges put every news organization to the test. But while large international news brands like The New York Times or those with a strong identity and loyal readership like The Economist, The Financial Times, or The Guardian can weather these challenges and potentially even emerge strengthened, other organizations will struggle or go under. This clearly impacts the quality and breadth of the public area.22

Structurally, the public arena will be fine if some national news organizations go out of business. After all, other organizations will pick up the slack and cover national news. But on the local and regional level, the weakened economic basis of news is more troubling. While on the national level, there might be a set of competing and more or less comparable news sources available, on the local or regional level, there probably is only a limited set of sources available. The economic basis for producing and distributing news in these contexts is fragile anyway and through the digital transformation might break the few remaining sources available, thereby negatively impacting the basis for local or regional democracy. In the US this has been discussed under the term news deserts.23

Overall, digital media have introduced shifts to the economics of traditional news organizations. This raises questions how societies can ensure the reliable and continuous production and distribution of information relevant to the pursuit of the public good and self-rule in democracies irrespective of its commercial viability. These developments reinforce the importance of models allowing for the public funding of news media, such as public service media in Germany.24

6.3.3 Alternative news media in the public arena

Digital media have also impacted the position and role of news media as structures of the public arena. By lowering the costs of information publication and distribution, digital media have enabled new actors to provide information in the public arena. The motives and business models of these new entries vary, but all are challenging the former monopoly of traditional news organizations.

The emergence of these differently motivated sources providing alternatives to the coverage of traditional news organizations fundamentally weakens the powers of traditional news organizations to act as gatekeepers to the public arena - deciding what actors, voices, or agendas to allow access to the public arena and to compete for collective attention. This can have positive as well as negative consequences. On the one hand, more and alternative news providers can provide more and more diverse access points to the public arena. This can give voice to marginalized groups and agendas in society. This could improve the representation of societies’ different groups and agendas within the public arena. On the other hand, some voices and groups are marginalized for a reason. Discriminatory, hateful, or incendiary voices are excluded from the public arena for a reason. But new and alternative news providers offer these voices access the public arena as well. This contributes to a deterioration of discourse within the public arena. Be it by actively attacking people supporting other political factions or societal groups, by knowing invention or careless distribution of misleading or downright false information, or by actively attacking the participatory rights of others these actors weaken democracy and contribute to political competition in the public arena turning hostile and antagonistic, potentially leading to the withdrawal of others from political information and exchange.25

New providers of news in the public arena come in different shapes and sizes. There are new entries that resemble traditional news organizations and share their commitment to institutional norms and practices, examples for these digital born organizations are Politico internationally or The Pioneer in Germany. These organizations pursue news as a business and hope to provide alternatives to established news organizations by running a smaller and more nimble and independent organization or through providing more in depth coverage of niche topics of little interest to mass audiences but that nevertheless have an audience willing to pay a premium for information that otherwise might remain unavailable.26

In authoritarian regimes and transitional democracies, digital media have also led to the emergence of independent news organizations critical of the regime and its willing executors in news organizations aligned with the regime. These organizations fulfill a crucial function for the public arena in their society in providing critical information on the workings of regimes and pursuing independent investigations into important but neglected issues. Unfortunately, this service is not always rewarded by the public and often editors and journalists contribute to these organization under considerable professional and personal risks. An example for an organization like this is the Rappler from the Philippines.

Other organizations might be funded by philanthropic foundations or individuals. Usually, these are pursuing societal goals. Be it the coverage and investigation of otherwise neglected topics, like the US organization ProPublica, or the explicit support of specific factions or societal groups. These organizations can contribute positively to the public arena by extending the scope of covered voices or agendas. But there is also the risk of these organizations becoming uncritical executors of the interests and goals of their funders. In these cases, they are less structures of the public arena but more active participants in the competition for attention and power. And of course it takes a truly courageous person to put their fate in the hands of benevolent billionaires.27

But of course, there are also openly partisan news sources in digital communication environments. Countries with primarily commercially funded news are no strangers to openly partisan news organizations. The most prominent example for openly partisan news organizations can probably be found in the US and their openly partisan news channels, like Fox News or MSNBC. But the comparatively open digital communication environments provide even more options for the establishment of openly partisan news organizations. Again, the US offer the most striking examples for this with news sources like Breitbart News or Jacobin. Again, sources like these can probably be understood more as participants of political competition in the public arena, than as neutral structures. These media are not hosts for the public arena, to make society and political factions visible to each other, and to allow the exchange of views and negotiation of the public agenda. Instead they are actors actively pitching for one side or the other.

A striking example for the instrumentalization of partisan news organizations in campaigns can be found in the role of Steve Bannon first as executive chairman of the far right news site Breitbart News and later chief executive of Donald Trump’s 2016 run for the US presidency. The site was instrumental in pushing stories in open support of Trump and his agenda and contributed to shifting the coverage of other news outlets like Fox News and even mainstream coverage during the campaign to converge on Trump’s agenda. Cases like these illustrate the danger that openly partisan news outlets can pose for the public arena by imitating the style of traditional news while being only interested in pushing the agenda of selected political factions. In the extreme, this can also escalate to the fabrication and distribution of false or misleading information, further contributing to a deterioration of the public arena and legitimate political competition.28

The broad extension of sources in digital communication environments challenges the role of news organizations as structures for the public arena. For one, there simply is more information available – reliable or not – this weakens central control over access to and content in the public arena – for good or bad. But the increase of news sources might also further weaken journalism as an institution as it will become increasingly difficult for all news organizations and their contributors to agree on a binding set of shared norms and practices. The contemporary public arena is therefore more diverse and noisy than its past manifestations. This will take some getting used to for journalists, political elites, and the public.

6.4 Digital structures of the public arena

Digital media have not only challenged the position of traditional structures of the public arena. Digital media have also led to the emergence of new structures hosting the contemporary public arena in digital communication environments.29

This includes sites like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube that allow people and competitors within the public arena to publish information and to reach large audiences. But this also includes companies that provide the means for people to run their own sites contributing information and commentary to the public arena. This includes services that allow the comparatively cheap hosting of sites or Apps – like Amazon Web Services – allowing people to run their own sites. Or services that provide them with the opportunity to monetize information or services – like PayPal or Patreon. Also services facilitating the hosting of digital ads contribute to the digital extension of the public arena. Digital ads contribute to the monetization of sites by allowing the owner to host ads and get payed for impressions and clickthroughs. They also support the new structures by allowing their owners to run ads themselves and create easy access points to their sites and information on sites like Facebook, Google, or Twitter, where their information might otherwise not have been able to reach an interested public.

These new structures are important for the new digitally extended public arena. But in their characteristics they deviate from structures that formerly hosted the public arena, news media, and follow different rules. This raises challenges in developing normative goals and binding governance rules assuring their contribution to the public arena strengthens instead of weakens it. In this section, we discuss some of the most pressing challenges raised by the digital extension of the public arena.

6.4.1 Responsibilities of digital structures for the public arena

Digital media have become important structures hosting the public arena. People use Google to search for news and information, they get news on their Facebook feeds and publicly comment on it, they post links to news items on Twitter and interact with others, or they post links to news items in messenger groups on WhatsApp or Telegram and discuss them with friends and family. In fact, news sites increasingly rely on social media and messenger services for people to find their content and visit their sites. The affordances, usage practices, and algorithms of digital media thereby increasingly shape the way people find, interact, and share news. They are crucial channels for the flow of information through the public arena.30

These sites might not have started out with the goal of hosting the public arena, but by now they certainly do so. Accordingly, they have to accept the associate responsibility and accept for regulators and the public to hold them accountable. But this is easier said then done, while we have settled on what to expect from news media as structures hosting the public arena, digital media deviate from news media in decisive features and therefor bring specific challenges that need to be addressed if we want to understand or regulate their roles hosting the public arena.31

Crucially, if we look at former structures of the public arena, they usually combined information production and distribution functions. News organizations combined editorial desks producing information and distribution units that transported information products to points of sale or sent it over the airwaves. Digital media are nearly always only information distributors. Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp do not produce information but merely point people to it or give them the option to point others to it and to allow them to comment on it. This matters in our discussion about the role of these structures in the public arena.

The institutional norms, we discussed above for news media as structures of the public arena nearly always focused on information production, editing, and curating. The distribution function was taken as a given. But what are the rules for structures that do not produce information themselves but host it? Here, a set of thorny questions arises regarding information quality, the policing of behavior, rules for representation and balance, and the transparency by which information gets displayed and distributed. Let’s quickly have a look at each of these issues.

One foundational principle in the American regulatory framework for digital media is that companies are not directly liable for the content its users post on their service. They only become liable once they have been informed about illegal content or content infringing the rights of others and refuse to take it down. This was the foundation for platforms being able to grow quickly and host staggering amounts of content without having to exercise prior editorial or curational control. The flip side of this is that digital media host and provide access to large amounts of uncontrolled and unchecked content.

This of course negatively impacts the public arena. While in the past information was checked by journalists or editors before widespread circulation in the public arena, today unchecked or downright false information can travel widely through digital media before it is checked. Even debunking false information will not stop its circulation through digital media. This has given rise to widespread fears of disinformation running rampant on digital media. It is obvious that platforms hosting information vital to the pursuit of the public good need to address the challenge of information quality.32

This being said, it is unclear how this should look exactly. It is far from clear that platforms themselves are the best arbiters of truth, deciding which piece of information might be correct and which misleading or false. It is also difficult to exclusively rely on content produced by established news organizations and exclude information from up until then unknown or unverified sources. Imagine you living in an authoritarian country. How comfortable would you feel if digital platforms were exclusively hosting content from official media organizations aligned with the regime, while excluding voices and sources critical of it?

Also, related to that question is the challenge of moderating and policing speech. It is clear that platforms have a duty to protect their users from harassment and discriminatory or hateful attacks by others. But in practice this has turned out to be difficult to implement, especially in the context of political speech. Not all political speech is civil or polite, especially when directed at elites. We can regret this, but there is a reason that even impolite or uncivil political speech is protected. Often, especially with marginalized groups, impolite speech is part of their challenge of elites or majority groups in society. Deciding which impolite or uncivil speech to block, or users to deplatform is difficult and demands for clear criteria and processes. Having companies making these decisions on the fly without transparent and clear criteria risks damaging their legitimacy as hosts of the public arena or even the public arena as a space for political competition as a whole. This problem is only exasperated since most companies running digital media crucial for the public arena are based in the US or China and strangers to the political culture, legal systems, and contexts of the countries they have to make decisions about. This should give anyone pause trying to outsource these decisions to digital platforms.33

There is also the question of meaningful representation in digital spaces. In the past it was easy to look at the output of news organizations or the output of a select set of news organizations to assess the degree to which societal groups were represented or not. This is more difficult to do for digital media. For one, it is unclear what to focus on. Should representation be established on the aggregate level, looking at what groups find representation in all content available on digital platforms? Or should representation be established on the level of content visible to each specific user? In other words, are we satisfied with different societal groups being represented in aggregate or must this be true for the content each and every individual does actually see?

Beyond the conceptual question, what kind of representation of society we expect from platforms, we also have to address the challenge of limited transparency. Platforms are inherently opaque to outsiders. So how can the public or even governments assess the contribution of digital platforms to the quality of the public arena? Clearly, there remains much to do to establish transparent principles and procedures that make digital platforms assessable with regard to their contribution to the public arena. This is an important ongoing debate for academics, regulators, journalism, and the public to establish normative goals and practical procedures to establish integrity and trust for digital structures of the public arena.

6.4.2 Algorithmic shaping of user behavior in the public arena

The importance of digital media as structures for the contemporary public arena also introduces the question after the role of algorithms. Digital structures of the public arena – such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter – use algorithms to determine which content to show their users and in which order. Algorithms thereby potentially shape the visibility of information crucial or detrimental to the functioning of the public arena. At the same time, the precise workings of these algorithms are unclear and their impact on information distribution uncertain. But in this discussion a series of questions have been raised that provide interesting anchor points for future research.

Probably the most well-known expectation about how digital media might algorithmically shape people’s behavior is the filter bubble. At around 2011, the political activist Eli Pariser (2011) looked at his Facebook feed and found suspiciously many posts that supported his political viewpoints, while seeing almost none that contradicted them. This got him to formulate the filter bubble thesis.34

His reasoning was simple and compelling: Digital media, like Facebook, were interested in having their users to spend more time on the service looking at content providing the company with the opportunity to display and sell ads. To do so, they need to show people content they are likely to to be interested in or to interact with. Since many people like to see content they agree with, the companies developed algorithms identifying content supporting people’s prior held beliefs or attitudes. For politics, the consequence was that people would only see content supporting their political beliefs. By using algorithmically shaped services to access the public arena, people would thus move into an algorithmic cage free of surprises only showing them information they were likely to agree with or support. This would be bad news for the public arena. Instead of making people visible to each other, digital structures of the public arena would hide them from each other. This reasoning proved to be as intuitively compelling as difficult to support empirically.

By now various studies have shown that people who use algorithmically shaped digital media to access news do not necessarily have narrower diversity of news exposure than those who use other services. In fact, in a by now classic study, the economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro found for the US that people who were getting their news online were moving in ideologically less segregated information environments than those who talked about politics personally with others (Gentzkow & Shapiro, 2011). Digital communication environments might thus actually contribute to broader exposure to political others than previous communication environments. Looking at the available empirical evidence more broadly does gives little indication that algorithmic shaping would capture people in algorithmic cages exposing them only to politically uniform content.35 However, there are other potential ways that algorithms might negatively impact the public arena.

Other contributions argue that digital media would try to increase time users spent by algorithmically selecting for highly controversial or emotionally impacting information. This could be sensationalist content or content likely to increase negative reactions, be it in form of critical comments or sharing. Algorithmic shaping of information environments might thus harm the public arena not by showing us too little of the political other but instead too much.36 Again, looking at information making the rounds on popular digital media, one might be inclined to agree. However, it pays to keep in mind that this diagnosis is still mostly based on speculation about the workings of algorithms and the reach of information. Other than the filter bubble, this expectation is only beginning to be systematically examined empirically. The jury is therefor still out on this.

Finally, another approach looks at the potential impact of algorithms on the radicalization of users. While arguments like the filter bubble focus on population wide effects, this argument focuses on the experiences and effects on select users who encounter extremist content. Here the argument goes that people in algorithmically shaped environments like YouTube might encounter mildly deviant or controversial content, such as content in support of the far right or terrorism, and through the recommendation algorithm might get sucked into rabbit holes of increasingly extreme content. For some people, this then might constitute a content journey into radicalism. Empirical studies have shown that the YouTube algorithm suggesting content of what to watch next could produce comparable patterns, pushing people to increasingly more radical content. While algorithms might therefore not have the population wide effects of tearing apart the shared public arena, they certainly can have detrimental effects on select and vulnerable people, thereby strengthening extremism on the margins of society.37 Clearly, more research is needed here. For example the recent rise of TikTok as a channel for information and news and its heavy reliance on algorithmic content selection points to interesting challenges going forward.

An important challenge for all research in this area is that both the workings of algorithmic shaping within digital media and its effects are highly opaque for academics and the public. This has given rise to far reaching speculation of the hidden workings of digital media and their supposed effects. This opaqueness has also contributed to intuitive but empirically elusive speculations, like the filter bubble, have achieved wide prominence that does not correspond with the empirical evidence. Opaqueness therefore legitimizes speculations while weakening the discursive strength of empirical evidence. Bad ideas therefore exit the field much more slowly than one could wish for. Some academics have reacted to this opaqueness by demanding broader access to data from digital media. While of course more data for academics is always a popular demand among academics, it remains dubious that data alone will solve the challenges presented by algorithmic shaping. Also, companies running digital media have to weigh the interests of their users with the interests of academics. Overall, research addressing patterns and effects of algorithmic shaping on digital media might profit from better and broader data access. But actual progress in the field might depend even more on creative research designs addressing the heavy logical as well as conceptual challenges that characterize this research area.38

6.4.3 Geopolitics of digital structures

Digital media hosting the public arena have also introduced questions not usually asked in discussions about traditional structures of the public arena. Digital structures make it necessary to talk about the geopolitics of the public arena. Here, one question looms large. Increasingly societies have to figure out how to adjust to digital structures that host their public arena being run from countries different from their own.

In the past, structures hosting a country’s public arena were run by organizations based within the same country. This gave governments direct control over, access to, and knowledge about structures hosting the public arena. This is still true for most media organizations. But it is decidedly different for digital structures. People from Germany are using Google to search for political news. People from the UK use What’sApp to coordinate protests. People from the US use TikTok to learn about politics. The public arenas of most Western democracies rely crucially on digital structures run from other countries. Most of those are hosted in the US. Services like Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube are crucial features of public arenas all over the world. But Chinese services start to figure prominently as well, be it TikTok or WeChat are increasingly used outside China while China remains closed to most Western structures.

By relying on digital structures hosted in other countries, countries open themselves up to potential interference or influence. Not surprisingly, once the geopolitical mood shifts from cross-border cooperation to competition, these dependencies of crucial societal structures become risks. Already in 2013, the NSA scandal revealed that the US government worked closely with digital technology companies to spy on allies. More recently, the growing worry about relying on foreign structures could be seen in the blocking of 5G network technology provided by the Chinese telecommunication company Huawei in many Western countries. The shut-down of Russian propaganda television station Russia Today in Germany following Russia’s unprovoked attack on the Ukraine and the Russian blocking of access to Western digital media provide other examples for these fears.

But probably the most striking attempt at controlling foreign digital structures can be found in China. Here, the government has implemented a firewall that shuts off China from the Western internet and digital media run by Western companies. In the beginning, the Great Firewall was not taken seriously by the West or technology companies. But over time, the Great Firewall created a space that protected Chinese companies from Western competition, so that local structures could emerge that were open to regime control. Over time this has allowed China to develop a set of digital media that can compete with those coming from the US and that at the same time offer governments greater degrees of control. These structures promise a greater independence from the US while of course at the same time creating greater dependence on China. In the potential re-emergence of geopolitical blocks in the aftermath of the Ukraine war of 2022, this is an important development. Especially since already before the war, China was exporting its digital media to countries in the context of its international infrastructure and trade initiatives. Some have spoken of this as the Digital Silk Road.39

Looking closely, we can thus identify three types of interdependency emerging from important structures of the public arena being hosted abroad. One is the direct dependence on structures that are potentially open to interference and access of a foreign government. This is the sort of risk made painfully clear to Western democracies in the context of the 2013 NSA scandal. When the world learned that technology companies hosted in the US provided the US government with broad access to its user data allowing it to spy on them. This is the same sort of risk leading various countries to block local infrastructure projects relying on technology provided by Chinese firms.40

The second interdependence is the influence of laws and regulations. This influence can go one of two ways. The first route is that laws and regulation from the country providing a digital structure travels to the country using said structure. This is what Erie & Streinz (2021) describe as the Beijing Effect. Countries relying on digital media from China have to accept Chinese approaches to digital governance and data regulation. The other route goes the opposite way. Here, the country using digital structures from another country can set rules and regulations to allow market access. If its market is attractive enough, this can indeed lead to local laws and regulation being able to change laws and regulation in the country of origin of the digital structure. This is what Bradford (2020) has called the Brussels Effect. As the name suggests, the primary example for this sort of influence stems form the EU. Examples of how EU regulation starts to reign in US companies and to influence even regulation in the US itself are the Data Governance Act (DGA), the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the Digital Services Act (DSA), or the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).41

The third type of influence concerns information flows and probably can be best characterized as a form of soft power. This is the kind of influence China and Russia are primarily afraid of and is the reason why they block access to the Western internet. Here, the fear is that people can get information from without autocratic regimes and might in turn become critical of said regime. But also the West is afraid of this type of influence. Here, the fear is that autocratic regimes use media structures to spread their propaganda beyond their borders. To mitigate these dangers, Western governments have for example closed down local stations of Russia Today, an international television station financed by the Russian state. Recently, similar fears have been raised with regard to the potential influence of the Chinese government in Western democracies through the digital video service TikTok, which becomes increasingly popular among young people in the US and other Western democracies.

Overall, these observations show that geopolitics start to matter in the discussion of the public arena, once digital media become important structures hosting it. Questions of mutual dependencies and influence through digital media will become even more important than they are already. Here, the geopolitical fault lines of the international system will come to shape the discussion of the public arena. Mounting or relaxing tensions will increase or decrease the importance of these fault lines.

6.5 The public arena examined

As we have seen, the public arena is a crucial element of democratic societies, linking communication to political competition and democratic representation. It comes as no surprise then to find that the concept has inspired massive research activity. The digital transformation of the public arena has featured very prominently in recent research. The diversity of interests, approaches, and methods in studies on the contemporary digitally extended public arena mirrors the richness of the concept and its related areas. Prominent topics include:

  • the detailed examination of structures hosting the public arena, their constitution, contextual embeddedness, and shaping power for discourse and political competition;
  • shifting and competing norms and practices among actors within the public arena;
  • changing patterns of political competition within the digitally extended public arena and the emergence of challengers to the status quo;
  • patterns of exchange and interaction within the digitally extended public arena.

This short list is not complete by far but it sketches some of the rich research opportunities within the public arena. To get a better sense of it, we now turn to three studies that address related questions empirically.

6.5.1 Limits to attention

The big challenge in the contemporary digitally extended public arena is the question of attention. By now we have repeatedly discussed that the contemporary public arena is no longer limited by access or the volume of information. Instead, its limits are set by the limits of individual and collective attention. Winning in the intense competition for attention is of crucial importance for actors within the public arena.42 While academics, need to understand the underlying dynamics and associated limits. A recent study by Rauchfleisch et al. (2023) illustrates how one can do so.

In their article “How COVID-19 Displaced Climate Change” Adrian Rauchfleisch, Dario Siegen, and Daniel Vogler examine whether attention to one issue of grave societal importance - climate change - was replaced by attention to another issue of great urgency – COVID-19 – or whether attention to both issues and the associated challenges persisted. They examine this by analyzing the presence of both topics in media coverage and on Twitter in Switzerland between April 2019 and October 2020. They collected news coverage on news websites, newspapers, and transcripts from TV and radio newscasts which left them with 1,060,820 articles during the relevant time span. Of those 56,128 stories referred to climate change and 174,407 to COVID-19. 6,431 stories referenced both debates. For the analysis of Twitter, they relied on a tracker covering the whole Swiss Twitter-sphere during the time frame (this includes 296,553 users who posted 92.7 million tweets during the relevant time span). Through a set of topical keywords, the authors identified tweets referring to either topic, leaving them with 407,626 tweets referring to climate change and 3,214,483 mentioning COVID-19.

The authors built two time series of news and Twitter attention to both topics. To identify the causal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the attention on climate change in the public arena, they use the data from April 2019 to January 2020 and predict based on the underlying trends how attention to climate change would have developed from February 2020 to October 2020 if COVID-19 had not happened and the underlying dynamics of the previous year would have continued. By identifying the difference between both, their prediction and the actual coverage dynamics, they can identify the impact COVID-19 had on attention toward climate change in the news and on Twitter.43

As expected, the authors found that after February 2020 attention in both news and on Twitter toward COVID-19 increased while attention toward climate change clearly decreased. Still, some events related to climate change created attention peaks in both the media and Twitter and overall Twitter attention toward climate change was strongly correlated with news attention. These findings echo earlier research, indicating a strong and persistent link between news coverage and Twitter attention to current events or politics (Jungherr, 2014).

Comparing actual attention toward climate change with predicted attention, the authors show that COVID-19 clearly had negative effects on attention toward climate change. For both news coverage and Twitter reactions, the authors find substantial negative effects, lowering news attention to climate change 46% and attention on Twitter by 55%. This is clear evidence for the limits of attention in the public arena overall, where the prominence of a new topic – COVID-19 – comes at losses for another – climate change – irrespective of its continued relevance to society. This is clearly troubling news from the perspective of climate activists or politicians intend on keeping continuous attention on the topic in order for society to keep focus on maintaining efforts in fighting climate change.

In a further analytical step, the authors show through the analysis of co-occuring hashtags that climate change activists reacted to the decrease in collective attention by trying to link the issue of climate change with the issue COVID-19. Here, they find that only 0.5% of tweets contributing the COVID-19 debate referenced climate change, while 11% of tweets within the climate debate referred to COVID-19. This and looking closely at the connecting hashtags, leads the authors to conclude that climate activists tried to tactically adjust to the new circumstances and connect their issue of relevance – climate change – with the issue of the day – COVID-19.

In its use of both, time series analysis and the analysis of hashtag co-occurances, the study by Rauchfleisch et al. (2023) provides a helpful template for further research. Their study shows how one can approach issue attention and attention drifts in empirical research as well as examine tactics by actors within the public arena to mitigate or profit from shifts in collective attention.

6.5.2 Digital shaping of behavior

Another strand of research looks at the behavior of people contributing to online discussions about politics and current events. Often these studies focus on the hostility of contributions in online environments and explicitly or implicitly connect a perceived tendency toward hostility with specific conditions of online discourse. For example, digital environments would allow people anonymity, low accountability for their actions, and physical distance to others. In combination, these factors would activate people’s negative impulses and turn them into trolls, ready to engage others in a hostile fashion or even to harass them. In short, the internet might turn people into trolls. This set of expectations has been called the “mismatch hypothesis”. If true, this of course would provide bad conditions for the digitally extended public arena. Luckily for us Bor & Petersen (2022) put this thesis to the test.

In their article “The Psychology of Online Political Hostility” Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen present a series of comparative studies, in which they test the effects of conditions found in digital communication environments on people’s behavior in discourse. To do so, they ran a series of surveys with respondents from the US and Denmark, to test whether expectations from the mismatch hypothesis would correctly predict correlations in their surveys.

In the words of the authors, the mismatch thesis states that:

“(…) this class of effects imply that the”perfect storm” of novel online features (e.g., anonymity and rapid text-based communication) induces fleeting psychological changes that increase the likelihood of certain psychological states that undermine civil discussions (…). Simply put, when people log online their level of empathy is reduced or they become more aggressive than usual.”

Bor & Petersen (2022), p. 2.

The authors contrast this expectations with the connection hypothesis:

“Online environments are unique in creating large public forums, where hostile messages may reach thousands including many strangers, could stay accessible perennially, and may be promoted by algorithms tuned to generate interactions (…). From this perspective, online environments do not shape how people are motivated but shape what they can accomplish given a specific set of motivations. The hostility gap may thus emerge as a direct consequence of the larger reach of those already motivated to be hostile.”

Bor & Petersen (2022), p. 2.

This is an important distinction. While people might experience discussions in online environments as more hostile than those offline, this might not be due to people turning into ogres online but simply due to that those behaving badly are more visible online than offline. The underlying problem would then be primarily psychological and motivational, not technological. So, how do Bor & Petersen (2022) test this?

In a first set of three studies, the authors survey respondents from the US and Denmark to find first evidence. They find that respondents in both countries perceived online discussions to be more hostile than those offline. Respondents themselves did not express differences in their own behavior that one could consider hostile between online and offline discussions. And they find that the personality trait status-driven risk seeking is no stronger correlated between self-reported hostile behavior on- or offline.

They build on these findings in a fourth study by using a more comprehensive scale to measure self-reported hostile behavior. They ran this study with respondents from the US. Again, they find no difference between self-reported hostile behavior on- or offline. In combination these studies do not support the mismatch hypothesis.

The authors continue to refine their findings and test different aspects of the mismatch thesis in three subsequent experiments. We skip these studies to focus on their test of the connectivity thesis. Let it suffice then, that the experiments also do not provide evidence for the mismatch hypothesis.

In a final study, the authors test the connectivity hypothesis. For this they survey people from the US and Denmark on whether they had witnessed attacks against self, friends, and strangers in on- or offline environments. Here, the respondents clearly reported to have witnessed attacks more often in online instead of offline environments, with the strongest difference being reported for attacks on strangers.

In combination, the authors see their findings as rejecting the mismatch hypothesis:

“(…) our research suggests that people do not engage in online political hostility by accident. Online political hostility reflects status-driven individuals’ deliberate intentions to participate in political discussions and offend others in both online and offline contexts. In large online discussion networks, the actions of these individuals are highly visible, especially compared with more private offline settings.”

Bor & Petersen (2022), p. 16.

The article offers an instructive example for the challenge of identifying the drivers between perceived hostility and deviance in digital communication environments. While it is tempting to attribute digital technology causal effects on people’s deviant behavior, it might simply be that digital make more of hostile behavior visible. That alone does not solve the problem of hostility in the digitally extended public arena, but it helps us to identify its drivers and to design interventions.

Beyond the substantive interest, the study offers also an interesting template for careful empirical work presenting a set of carefully designed studies first translating broad expectations into testable hypotheses allowing for the identification of different mechanisms leading to similar outcomes.

6.5.3 Contesting narratives

The public arena consists of spaces that hosts discourses in which societal actors compete for attention and dominance. The digital manifestations of this competition offer us a detailed view of the content, patterns, and tactics of this competition. Especially, the microblogging service Twitter has proved to be a promising research environment to better understand the competition between actors for attention in the public arena. But other digital environments, such as Instagram or Reddit, also start to feature more strongly in research.44 One example for such a Twitter-based analysis is a paper by Knüpfer et al. (2022).

In their paper “Hijacking MeToo: transnational dynamics and networked frame contestation on the far right in the case of the ‘120 decibels’ campaign” Curd Knüpfer, Matthias Hoffmann, and Vadim Voskresenskii analyze the #120db campaign on Twitter. In late January 2018, members of the Austrian and German far-right Identitarian Movement launched a social media campaign. The goal of the campaign was according to Knüpfer et al. (2022):

“According to their German website, their core goal is the conservation of an ‘ethno-cultural’ identity, in what is referred to as ‘the age of mass migration, globalization and one-world-propaganda’.”

Knüpfer et al. (2022), p. 1012.

In this, the activists encouraged women to

“use social media posts to ‘talk about your experiences as a female with foreign infiltration, harassment and violence’.”

Knüpfer et al. (2022), p. 1012.

In the campaign far-right actors latched on to the momentum and frames established by the feminist #MeToo campaign. But this association is merely rhetorical and stylistic – for example through videos imitating the style of grassroots testimonial videos. This is a shift from tactics of the past, where far-right activists might have actively and openly challenged successful frames presented by left or feminist activists. Here, instead of openly challenging or contesting the frame, they try to co-opt it and refocus attention away from the original goal – exposing and challenging sexist behavior and practices condoned by a patriarchal social system – to their own political goals – painting migrants as a broad societal threat.

“The campaign did so by drawing explicit attention to acts of violence against women perpetrated by ‘foreign’ men or recent immigrants. This form of strategic frame contestation is not characterized by an outright dismissal of the original framing effort but, rather, by a narrowing of the original problem definition and the propagation of a different set of policy demands.”

Knüpfer et al. (2022), p. 1014.

This tactic is what the authors term “hijacking”.

To analyze this tactic, they collected tweets containing the campaign hashtag #120db through the Twitter streaming API between January 30 and May 31st, 2018, the run of the campaign. During that time, they collected 172,972 tweets from 44,834 unique user profiles. Of the tweets mentioning #120db roughly ten percent were also mentioning #MeToo. The authors see this, and specific temporal and language patterns, as evidence that the originators of the campaign very actively tried to use the attention on #MeToo to launch their own campaign and inject their contesting frame within the larger #MeToo debate. One tactic to achieve this was the attempt to inject their specific regional claims within a larger international debate.

The authors continue their analysis, through a qualitative look at the content of messages using both hashtags. Here, they look for the occurrence of three tactics:

“First, agenda surfing is characterized by encouraging and progressive/feminist messages, usually referencing #MeToo without evaluation. Second, re-framing/undermining features a critical evaluation of #MeToo, accentuating the seemingly more accurate problem definition of #120db. Third, critical/anti-120db tweets included negative evaluations of #120db, and sometimes also of #MeToo.”

Knüpfer et al. (2022), p. 1021.

The authors handcoded 123 tweets containing both hashtags that were posted during the first 48 hours of the campaign according to their correspondence with these tactics. Here, the authors found that tweets with co-occuring hashtags were dominated by a critical stance toward the #120db as well as those trying to actively reframe #MeToo following the far-right agenda. Mere agenda surfing tweets were in the minority. This shows that activists from the far-right as well as from the original #MeToo movement actively engaged in frame contestation around the concerned hashtags. With far-right activists pushing into the campaign and attention space generated by #MeToo and activists in that space pushing actively back and defending the movement from this attempt at hijacking attention and momentum.

Of course the study by Knüpfer et al. (2022) addresses other questions as well. But for our purposes, this is enough. The study is an interesting close look at the tactics used by activists within the public arena in their competition for attention. It is also interesting as it presents a case for Twitter-based and discursive activism from the far right. Often, these tactics are discussed with a focus on left leaning groups. But as Knüpfer et al. (2022) show these tactics can be successfully employed from the political right as well, weakening the argument that campaign tools or styles can be owned or associated with specific factions on the political spectrum. Associated imbalances in the literature are more likely due to skewed attention by researchers than by actual differences between tactics or approaches between different political factions.

6.6 The contemporary public arena

The contemporary constellation of the public arena looks different from the past. Digital technology has weakened traditional structures, introduced new one, and led to much soul-searching and norm-shifting for actors providing structures of the public arena and competing within it. These shifts mean that both public and society need to adjust their expectations of and practices within the public arena. But also academia needs to adjust to these new constellations.

While these shifts are associated with great fears for our democracy or the quality of discourse, they also bring tremendous research opportunities. Empirical research is challenged to examine the nature, functions, and power relationships between structures of the public arena old and new. How do news media differ from new digital platforms or how do they resemble each other? What can we learn from the study of one type of structure about others?

Also, empirical research needs to find ways to examine patterns of information flow, discourse dynamics, and interaction behavior within the contemporary public arena. How does information flow between structures old and new? Do new features of structures influence the way discursive competition happens between actors in the public arena or can we observe shifts in power? Or how do people behave when engaging in political exchanges in structures old and new?

Finally, empirical research also needs to focus on outcomes. What are the effects of the new constellation of structures within the public arena. Do digital media contribute to polarization within society? What does algorithmic shaping do for information exposure and attitude formation? And is there evidence for more or different paths to radicalization in the new public arena?

But of course, we do not only need empirical research. Maybe the primary task right now lies with the development of theoretical or normative concepts of what to expect from the contemporary public arena. What are the functions and normative goals we demand from news media or digital platforms hosting the contemporary public arena? What do we expect from political elites competing under the changed conditions of the contemporary public arena? And what do we expect from the public? The contemporary public arena brings many opportunities for people, elites, and society. But to capitalize on them, we need to have a better understanding of its shape, dynamics, and effects. Here, there is clear need for creative but empirically grounded conceptual, theoretical, and normative work.

Importantly, this goes beyond easy critiques in the mode of supposed deterministic societal decline, as for example in the mold of surveillance capitalism. Too often work like this is empirically ill founded and follows a critical stance that sees capitalism or for-profit companies as the source of all evil. These works tell us little about actual changes within the public arena, its effects on individuals and society, and ultimately do not offer much of a way forward. Besides of course abolishing capitalism. Instead, we need to become better at understanding what is actually happening (in other words establishing meaningful transparency for structures of the public arena old and new) and surfacing and negotiating tensions that exist within and between structures of the public arena (old and new) and actors competing within it.

The new structures of the public area are here to stay. As we have seen, they mitigate some of the ills of previous constellations within the public arena but at the same time introduce some new ills and inspire new worries. It is up to society to figure out the norms and practices allowing us to pursue the public good under these new conditions. Turning back the clock is not an option! Neither should it be, given the well-understood but currently often ignored ills of a public arena dominated by a few powerful structures heavily aligned with the powers-that-be in economy, politics, and society. The current structural transformations of the public arena are noisy, contested, and surface very real political and societal tensions and fractures. But engaged constructively and creatively, these transformations can be used to strengthen societies by engaging these tensions and fractures instead of weakening it by trying to ignore and to hide them.

6.7 Review questions

  1. Please define the term public arena following Jungherr & Schroeder (2022).

  2. Please define the term filter bubble following Pariser (2011) and describe its underlying mechanism.

  3. Please discuss the three different from of geopolitical interdependence in the contemporary public arena.

  1. For a discussion of the contemporary public arena and its tensions see Jungherr & Schroeder (2022).↩︎

  2. For the link between technological change and media institutions see Bimber (2003); Müller (2021). For the ongoing shift within news as an institution see Williams & Carpini (2011). For a practitioner’s perspective on recent changes within news see Rusbridger (2018).↩︎

  3. For the concept of power and influence an public arenas relying on digital media see Jungherr, Posegga, et al. (2019). For the concept of amplification see Phillips (2018). For limited attention in the public arena see Schroeder (2018).↩︎

  4. On the multiple interconnected uses of structures of the public arena see Schroeder (2018). On fan cultures shaping digital communication environments overall see Phillips (2015); Tiffany (2022). For specific learnings of the Trump campaign from fan cultures see Green (2017).↩︎

  5. For the formation of new groups and identities see Bourdieu (1990).↩︎

  6. On the contemporary digitally mediated public arena see Jungherr & Schroeder (2022). On important historical accounts and different concepts of the public see Dewey (1927); Lippmann (1927); Habermas (1962/1990). For overviews see Taylor (1993); Taylor (1995); Hardt (2001); Ferree et al. (2002); Christians et al. (2009); Zammito (2012); Rauchfleisch (2017); Wessler (2018).↩︎

  7. For an alternative discussion for the functions of the public arena see Rauchfleisch & Kovic (2016).↩︎

  8. For a critique of news media and their democratic contributions see Keane (2013). For selection processes of news media see Shoemaker & Reese (2014).↩︎

  9. For digital structures of the public arena see Jungherr & Schroeder (2022).↩︎

  10. For the uses of digital structures for these purposes see Gurri (2018); Jackson et al. (2020).↩︎

  11. For Habermas’ account see Habermas (1962/1990); Habermas (1981). For an overview and development of his argument see Taylor (1993); Wessler (2018). For an influential critique foregrounding the role of conflict see Fraser (1990).↩︎

  12. For a contemporary account of the role of structures in enabling or hindering deliberative problem solving in democracies see Lafont (2020). For epistemic democracy see Landemore (2012); Schwartzberg (2015).↩︎

  13. For journalism as an institution, see Kiefer (2010).↩︎

  14. On traditional norms of journalism see McQuail (2013); Kovach & Rosenstiel (2021).↩︎

  15. For challenges see Keane (2013); Bennett (1983/2016); Usher (2021).↩︎

  16. For value shifts within news see Agarwal & Barthel (2015); Eldridge (2018); Scott et al. (2019).↩︎

  17. For moral clarity in journalism, see Gessen (2020); Lowery (2020); Wiedeman (2020).↩︎

  18. For news as a business see Nielsen (2020). On the economics of two-sided markets see J.-C. Rochet & Tirole (2003); J. Rochet & Tirole (2006).↩︎

  19. For the competition between news organizations and digital media see Auletta (2018). For a numbers driven account on the development of advertising dollars in the US see Evans (2020).↩︎

  20. For a classic discussion of negative aspects of targeted communication see Bennett & Manheim (2006).↩︎

  21. For an account doubting the promises associated with digital ads see Hwang (2020). For the likely hollow promises of psychological targeting see Hersh (2018). For a helpful critical overview of issues regulating digital information industries see Kapczynski (2020).↩︎

  22. For an insiders’ accounts of these transitions see Rusbridger (2018). For the current state of digital news consumption in international comparison see the annual edition of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report Newman et al. (2022).↩︎

  23. On news deserts see Abernathy (2020).↩︎

  24. On the challenges of funding news media in democracies see Pickard (2020).↩︎

  25. On the role of news media as gatekeepers to the public arena see Shoemaker & Vos (2009). For an account of how digital media strengthen challenges to the status quo in politics and society see Jungherr, Schroeder, et al. (2019).↩︎

  26. On different motives, models, and challenges of digital born news organizations see Nicholls et al. (2016).↩︎

  27. On journalism driven by foundations see Wright et al. (2019).↩︎

  28. For more on Breitbart News and Steve Bannon see Green (2017).↩︎

  29. For a discussion of digital media and functions of the public arena see Rauchfleisch & Kovic (2016).↩︎

  30. For the state of the digital news environments see Newman et al. (2022). For the importance of digital platforms for referrals to news content see Nielsen & Fletcher (2022).↩︎

  31. See Jungherr & Schroeder (2022).↩︎

  32. For an account of the risks of contemporary information environments see Bennett & Livingston (2018). For a discussion of the limits of digital disinformation see Jungherr & Schroeder (2021).↩︎

  33. For the challenges of regulation digital platforms see Keller (2018); Gorwa (2019); Douek (2021). For the dangers of over-zealous speech regulation see Kaye (2019); Strossen (2018). For the effects of deplatforming see Rauchfleisch & Kaiser (2021).↩︎

  34. For more on the filter bubble and its cousin the echo chamber see Jungherr et al. (2020), p. 85–92.↩︎

  35. For empirical attempts at measuring the filter bubble in different contexts and environments see Flaxman et al. (2016); Möller et al. (2018); Kitchens et al. (2020); Scharkow et al. (2020); Stier et al. (2022). For reviews of the available empirical evidence see Borgesius et al. (2016); Guess et al. (2018).↩︎

  36. See for example Settle (2018).↩︎

  37. See for example Kaiser & Rauchfleisch (2019); Kaiser & Rauchfleisch (2020).↩︎

  38. For different suggestion see for example Jürgens & Stark (2017); Munger & Phillips (2022).↩︎

  39. For the Great Firewall see Griffiths (2019). For growing international reliance on Chinese digital media see Erie & Streinz (2021); Hillman (2021).↩︎

  40. For the risks of growing international interdependence see Farrell & Newman (2019b); Drezner et al. (2021).↩︎

  41. For the influence of EU data laws and regulation see Farrell & Newman (2019a); Bradford (2020). For growing international reliance on Chinese laws and regulation see Erie & Streinz (2021).↩︎

  42. For the competition for attention in the public arena see Schroeder (2018).↩︎

  43. For more on the underlying time series model see Brodersen et al. (2015).↩︎

  44. For an US-focused overview of discourse competition on Twitter see Jackson et al. (2020). For a comparison between Twitter tactics in the US, Spain, and Greece see Theocharis et al. (2015). For Germany see Jungherr & Jürgens (2014). For an analysis based on Reddit data see Jungherr et al. (2022).↩︎