Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Is the Internet really free?

Internet is a public sphere where one can speak out without intervention. At least that is what various platforms on the Internet are being  used as. But as public relations practitioners and students we have to understand that "gatekeeping" may not always come from the press.

Let us understand the term public sphere. "By the 'public sphere' we mean first of all the realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed... Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion - that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions - about matters of general interest... The expression 'public opinion' refers to the tasks of criticism and control which a public body of citizens informally practices... vis-a-vis a ruling class." (Habermas, 1964 quoted in Pusey, 1987: 89)

Habermas' ideal type of the public sphere is described as an ideal speech situation. Robert Alexy states rules for the ideal speech discourse based upon Habermas' work, of which the following below is the third one:-
3.1 Every subject capable of speech and action may take part in discourses
3.2 (a) Everyone may challenge any assertion
3.2 (b) Everyone may introduce any assertion into the discourse
3.2 (c) Everyone may express his/her attitudes, wishes and needs
3.3 No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his/her rights under 3.1 and 3.2
(Diskursethik, 1983: 99, quoted from

But is the media really free to use as one would want it? History has something different to say. The radio, invented by Marconi in 1895, is an apt example. Had it not been for the Sound Broadcasting Act of 1972 in Britain, anyone would be broadcasting a signal. The spectrum was soon licensed to commercial bodies such as the BBC, and any breach by any other entity was considered a criminal offense. But then these spectrums are not infinite and so restriction on radio and TV must have been seen coming. If we look at the other medium such as print it is not possible for each of us to start a newspaper or a magazine where one freely expresses one's opinion.

Such restrictions naturally leave the only option to be used - the Internet.

One cannot forget to mention Uses and Gratification theory when discussing the use of a medium. This theory states why people use a particular media rather than content. There have been plenty of studies on why people choose Internet over other mediums when given a choice.

But again,

"...The claim that the Internet can lead to a greater democratization of society is founded on tenets of unlimited access to information and equal participation in cultural discourse. But will this inundation of texts and voices lead to anarchic, rather than democratic, forms of communication?..." (2002, search google.groups for 'Internet Habermas public sphere')

Does the Internet encourage "Herd Behaviour" or the "Bandwagon Effect"? 

What do you think?

Bibilography and References:-

"A Social Cognitive Explanation of Internet Uses and Gratifications: Toward a New Theory of Media Attendance", LaRose, Robert PhD, Department of Telecommunication, Michigan State University. 

Calhoum, Craig ed. (1992) Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge (US): MIT Press 

Web References:-