Social Networking Sites as a New Public Sphere: Facebook and its Potential to Facilitate Public Opinion as the Function of Public Discourse – A Case Study of the 2008 Obama Campaign

Smuts, Lize-Marie (2010-03)

Thesis (MPhil (Political Science))--University of Stellenbosch, 2010.

Thesis

In the 17th and 18th centuries the bourgeois public sphere emerged as the conceptual space between the public, with its enclosed institutions and organisations, and the circle of the private life. It is within this more or less autonomous space that public discourse took place and public opinion, as a function of public discourse, was produced. The public sphere was realised as a necessary precondition of deliberative democracy where it needed to manifest commitments to freedom and equality in the communicative interaction between those partaking in the deliberative process. Since the 17th and 18th centuries, the public sphere has undergone various transformations and, even though it is largely argued that the utopian public sphere as conceptualised by Habermas does not yet exists, it is regarded as a necessary precondition that all democracies should strive towards. Since the 19th century, media has been one of the main intermediary institutions of the public sphere. Initially, the earlier mass media of press and broadcasting were regarded as adequate and beneficial for the conduct of democratic politics and the facilitation of public opinion in the public sphere. Information flow was, however, vertical and the heightened commercialisation experienced within the media market lead to the neglect of democratic communication roles between the public itself and the leaders, institutions and organisations. These forms of mass communication thus limited access and discouraged active political participation and deliberative dialogue within the public sphere. In the 20th and 21st centuries, new media, especially the internet, have been hailed as a potential way to break away from the vertical information flow and to create new arenas for public discourse. One emerging contending form of new media is social networking sites (SNSs). Even though SNSs were not initially developed for political reasons, they have been utilised by political figures in an attempt to broaden voter reach and to enhance their campaigns. Amongst the SNSs available on the internet, Facebook has emerged as the largest, fastest growing and most popular SNS amongst internet users between the ages of 18 and 24 in the world. In the past, this age demographic has shown a disinterest in politics and has thus been recognised as the previously politically disengaged age demographic. American president Barack Obama realised the potential of Facebook and incorporated it in his new ii media campaign during the presidential election of 2008. Facebook enabled Obama to expand his voter reach and communicate with the previously politically unengaged age demographic. It also enabled him to create an arena where political information regarding the candidate, campaign and relevant political issues can be provided. This opened a communication flow between Facebook members and the president. Arenas for public discourse were also established and the potential of Facebook to facilitate public opinion was realised. In this study, the question is asked whether Facebook, as a SNS, can be seen as an adequate forum where public discourse takes place and public opinion, as the function of public discourse, is facilitated. This study will therefore aim to explore whether a Facebook, as SNS, can be seen as a public sphere. With the help of a case study of the 2008 Obama campaign, Facebook has shown the potential to allow for public discourse to take place. Thus the notion of Facebook as facilitator of public opinion is supported by this study.

Die burgerlike openbare sfeer, as die konseptuele area tussen die publiek, met sy ingeslote instellings en organisasies, en die private lewe, het sy ontstaan vanuit die 17de en 18de eeu. Dit is binne hierdie min of meer outonome area waar openbare diskoers plaasvind en waar openbare mening, as ʼn funksie van die openbare diskoers, geproduseer word. Die openbare sfeer is ʼn noodwendige voorvereiste van ʼn beraadslagende demokrasie waar dit nodig is om verbintenisse tot vryheid en gelykheid in die kommunikasie interaksie tussen die wat aan die beraadslagingsproses deelneem, te manifesteer. Die openbare sfeer het verkeie omvormings ondergaan en, al word daar geargumenteer dat die utopiese openbare sfeer soos deur Habermas gekonseptualiseer nog nie bereik is nie, word dit as ʼn noodsaaklike vereiste waarna enige demokrasie moet streef, gesien. Sedert die 19de eeu word media as een van die hoof intermediêre instellings van die openbare sfeer beskou. Die drukpers en uitsaaipers was aanvanklik voldoende en voordelig vir die bedryf van demokratiese politiek en die fasilitering van openbare mening in die openbare sfeer. Die vloei van inligting was egter vertikaal en die verhoogde kommersialisering van die mediamarkte het tot die afskeep van demokratiese kommunikasierolle tussen die publiek self en die leiers, instellings en organisasies gelei. Hierdie vorms van massakommunikasie het dus toegang tot, en die aktiewe deelname in die politieke en beraadslagende dialoog binne die openbare sfeer beperk en ontmoedig. Gedurende die 20ste en 21ste eeue is nuwe media, veral die internet, as ʼn potensiële manier om van die eenrigting kommunikasievloei weg te breek en nuwe arenas vir openbare diskoers te skep, erken. Sosiale Netwerkingswebtuistes (SNWs) is een van die opkomende kompeterende vorms van nuwe media. Selfs al was SNWs aanvanklik nie vir politieke doeleindes ontwikkel nie, was dit wel deur die politieke figure, in ʼn poging om kiesersomvang te verbreed en om hul veldtogte uit te brei, gebruik. Onder die SNWs wat op die internet beskikbaar is, het Facebook as die grootste, vinnigste groeiende en gewildste onder die internetgebruikers tussen die ouderdom van 18 en 24 jaar in die wêreld ontstaan. In die verelede het hierdie jaargroep belangeloos teenoor politiek opgetree en was hulle sodoende as die voorheen polities onbetrokke jaargroep erken. Die Amerikaanse president, Barack Obama, het die iv potensiaal van Facebook besef en dit in sy nuwe-media veldtog gedurende die 2008 verkiesing ingesluit. Facebook het Obama in staat gestel om se kiesersomvang te verbreed en om veral met die voorheen polities onbetrokke jaargroep te kommunikeer. Dit het hom ook in staat gestel om ʼn arena te skep waar politieke inligting oor die kandidaat, veldtog en ter saaklike inligting aan Facebook-lede beskikbaar gestel is. Dit het ʼn vloei van kommunikasie tussen Facebook-lede en die president geskep. Arenas waar openbare diskoers kon plaasvind, is ook skep en die potensiaal van Facebook om openbare mening te fasiliteer, is besef. In hierdie studie word die vraag gestel of Facebook, as ‘n SNW, as ‘n genoegsame forum waar openbare diskoers plaasvind en openbare mening as ‘n funksie van openbare diskoers gefasiliteer word, dien. Hierdie studie poog derhalwe om ondersoek in te stel of Facebook, as SNW, as ‘n openbare sfeer erken kan word. Met behulp van die gevallestudie aangaande die 2008 Obama veldtog, blyk dit dat Facebook die potensiaal het om openbare diskoers te fasiliteer. Die idee dat Facebook ʼn fasiliteerder van openbare mening is, word derhalwe deur hierdie studie ondersteun.

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/4209
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