The Zombification of the Public Forum
What exactly do we mean by the public forum? The public forum (sometimes called the public sphere or public square) refers to individuals coming together to discuss matters and exchange opinions of social importance. This is often seen in the form of economic, political, or cultural debates, discussions, speeches, etc. Jürgen Habermas famously describes it as “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state” (1992:176). It is normally understood as a place where all people have access and public opinion is formed. Habermas views the public forum as democracy in work: “through the vehicle of public opinion, it put the state in touch with the needs of society” (1992:31). This democratic nature of the public forum is important because it assumes an openness among the citizenry. The public forum is not exclusive to only certain citizens, rather all can equally participate.
In the modern world, societies with open democracies are generally considered to have the most robust and active public spheres. For example, the United States is well- known to have lively and contentious debate on issues ranging from abortion to gun rights to the death penalty, and everything in-between. The fostering of these debates and discussions are because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing in part the freedom of all people to express themselves and collectively protest. Every day across the United States there are public demonstrations, mass protests and speakers in streets, sidewalks, and parks; there are public discussions to decide policy within town hall and school board meetings; and there are speeches and intellectual debates that can take place anywhere from community centers to university classrooms. In the ideal form, rational discourse and honest dialogue between individuals underpin this modern, public forum.
Habermas recognized this modern, or bourgeois public forum as historically unique. While there have been other, distinct instantiations of the public forum from antiquity to the Middle Ages, none have had the crucial element of open and public discussion that we experience today, divorced from the authority and supervision of the state or sovereign (Habermas, 1992). In contrast, the public forum in modern society is characterized by “private individuals assembled into a public body” which often have the effect of criticizing authority (Habermas, 1992:52). This open and democratic nature of the modern, bourgeois public forum is the crucial difference that separates it from public forums in preceding historical epochs. This distinction can be best understood by a public criticism or mockery among the political leaders in society: a public speech openly criticizing a feudal sovereign would result in severe punishment and perhaps death, whereas the same public criticism aimed at any American president is legally protected and considered culturally important.
Habermas has a nuanced approach to modernity and the public sphere within it. While those before him often characterized modernity as a natural and systematic narrowing of human creativity, spontaneity, and self-actualization, Habermas accepts but also goes beyond this critique. He contends that modernity naturally leads to a “colonization of the lifeworld”, whereby the bureaucratic logic of capitalism comes to intrude on people’s innate sense of their environment (Habermas, 1987). Of course, this intrusion is seen within the public forum, by the inauthentic discourse taken between people to disrupt dialogue. Conversely, Habermas’ idea of “communicative rationality” is the way to restore this dialogue to reach authentic consensus and knowledge in the public forum (1981).
Habermas explains communicative rationality as the “…central experience of the unconstrained, unifying, consensus bringing force of argumentative speech, in which different participants overcome their merely subjective views and, owing to the mutuality of rationally motivated conviction, assure themselves of the both the unity of the objective world and the intersubjectivity of their lifeworlds” (Habermas, 1981:10). This is an ambitious attempt to work within the constraints of modernity to bridge lifeworlds and establish genuine communication.
For Habermas, this process for establishing reciprocal understanding underpins the foundation of civil society (Flyvbjerg, 1998) and as a result, a successful public forum. Thus, Habermas sees the need to work within modernity to overcome its discontents. This, to Habermas, is democracy in action: where the public forum is ruled by uncoerced deliberation and rational discourse. However, Habermas’ ideal public forum is not without its critiques. For example, with their elevated social position, the bourgeois public forum has historically been dominated by men, largely leaving women subject to the public forum’s consensus, in which the deliberation of they were excluded (Fraser, 1990).
But this modern formation of the public forum, characterized by democratic participation and organic opinion forming, also has concrete problems. The public forum in modern decades marked by consumer capitalism has lost some of its democratic ideals. For instance, the formation of public opinion on any given issue has undergone tremendous change: from an open and democratic forum, where ideas are discussed and debated among many, to a small number of special interest groups which carry a disproportionate influence on the outcome of public opinion. Mass media, advertising, and lobby groups have all coopted the public forum in some way to benefit small interests, divorced from the process of democratic, public discourse.
In this way, the public forum has become corrupted. Among matters of social importance, there is no serious deliberation among the public, and thus public opinion becomes distorted, reflecting something other than what true public opinion is (Savigny, 2002). As Herman and Chomsky (1988) note, the wealthy and powerful control over the means of communication in society ensure the public debate is not always steered by reason, but rather by capital interests. For example, talking points on televised political debates are not necessarily decided through public interest, but rather a result of how candidates wish to appear to their campaign donors and strategically necessary political constituents. And in the advertising industry, commercials are always generated for a desire to sell products, regardless of whether there is a public need for the product.
Therefore, public opinion, and the discussion which precedes it, is warped to the core by capital interests. Far from an upgrade, the effect of this on a democratic, public forum in modern society is regressive. It is commonplace for powerful individuals to recast their own private interests as general, public interests. People are being transformed from political citizens to corporate consumers. The rise of consumer culture thus represents a re-feudalization of the public forum (Habermas, 1974). Despite these problems, Habermas has hope. He notes that contemporary liberal capitalism has all the resources and structures needed to fulfill the promise of the public forum, and that deliberate democracy is a matter of whether people can find a way to communicate on a fundamental level (Habermas, 1992).
The Digital Realm
Characteristics of the public forum have different qualities depending on the society in which they are seen. But what about the physical, concrete setting of the forum? As demonstrated, modern streets, sidewalks, community centers, as well as pre- industrial salons and coffee-houses have all fostered public debate and discussion. No matter what the setting of the public forum is, it nonetheless exists in a material space and time. When engaging within the public forum, there is no surprise or unknown element. Every setting and actor are laid out for all participants and observers to see, hear, and know. However, with the invention of the internet, and particularly social media platforms, the nature of the public forum has fundamentally changed.
As technology advances, every aspect of social life follows suit. The nature of the public forum is no exception. In the last few decades, humanity has undergone a paradigm shift with the use and spread of the internet. For the first time in human history, it is not only possible, but considered normal and expected to be able to instantly send and receive information between any two points in the world. And with the recent widespread usage of social media, human-to-human connections occur at the same efficiency, forever changing how people meet, interact, develop relationships, understand the world, and understand themselves. Never before in human history has a particular technological innovation like the internet and social media had such a consequential effect on the public forum in society, with the possible exception of Gutenberg’s printing press in 15th century Europe, responsible, in part, for spawning a radical socio-cultural revolution (Bawden and Robinson, 2000; Mun, 2013).
The internet and social media signal a momentous shift in the historical conception of the public forum. For example, anyone with access to the internet can participate in and observe political discussion online without leaving their home, or can even do so on the go, simply by using their smartphone. People can create and join online social media platforms and discuss political issues, debating with others whom they will never meet, see, hear, or connect with in any way, except for sending messages back and forth. With little effort, people can seek out and personalize what specific news and information they receive, and which forums they engage in, ranging anywhere from labor union conflicts in Indonesia, to civil war updates in the Central African Republic, to transgender political debates in the United States. Using social media platforms, people can create their own avatars, or digital projections of themselves, to interact and communicate with others, supplementing real-life connection or replacing it entirely.
This new digital public forum seen primarily in social media, but also the internet more broadly, exists in the context of the technological takeover of the human realm. In the same vein as Habermas’ understanding of how rationality transforms modernity – and thus the public forum, Jacques Ellul (1964) sees technology as fundamentally transforming civilization – and thus the digital public forum. “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity” (Ellul, 1964:17). Modern technology is, by definition, all-encompassing. There is no aspect of society or any social process untouched. Not only the public forum, but everything, including science, religion, health, politics, and education, is subject to the dominating logic of efficiency.
Ellul calls this phenomenon “technique”, and it is the defining feature of modern society. It is “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity” (Ellul, 1964:xxv). Not surprisingly, the digital public forum has been thoroughly shaped by this ruling milieu of technique. The internet and social media are predicated on efficiency. Instant connection and communication mark this new frontier, with their ability to simulate the traditional public forum but without the limitation of space and time. While it has no doubt made social life more convenient in many ways, the destabilizing effects on society and people are evident.
As such, the digital public forum should not be conceptualized as a tool that people create and use as a means to an end. Ellul joins Langdon Winner (1977) in understanding that technology is not a neutral force molded by people in a one- directional relationship. On the contrary, technique guarantees that people adapt to technology and re-organize society under the principle of efficiency. Thus, the assumed one-directional relationship is moreso the opposite way, where technique is not truly controlled by anything, but compels people to adapt to it. Winner calls this principle “autonomous technology”, and it is driving society toward what Ellul calls “technological determinism”, whereby efficiency has a totalizing effect on society, even to the point of defining humanity.
For example, participation in the digital realm is becoming more of a requirement if one wants to live and thrive in a modern world. It becomes increasingly difficult to gain employment, access information, socially connect and foster relationships, etc. if one chooses to live without the internet and cell phones. Thus technology, and in particular the digital public forum, is not a value-neutral entity. It compels social behavior while at the same time is naturally driven forward by itself. For instance, almost any scientific achievement or solution to a social problem comes alongside an increase in technology, not a step away from it. Ellul argues that “the present-day ideology of science is an ideology of salvation … Science alone holds the future to our society” (Ellul, 1990:182, as cited in Hanks and Hanks, 2015). Ellul’s strong opinions about technology’s impact on society are seen vividly with the prominence and totalizing nature of the internet. However, the digital public forum, ruled by technique and the value of efficiency, does not necessarily represent a defeat for humanity and its platform to communicate. The situation is nuanced, with positive and negative aspects working in a continuing contradiction.
The nature of this new digital public forum has profound implications for discourse in society. By mimicking the face-to-face, physical interaction of the traditional public forum, the internet and social media are marked by internal contradictions in ways that previous public forums were not. These contradictions fundamentally change the nature of the public forum in the digital realm. While appearing as an extension of the traditional public forum, with vibrant and sometimes controversial discussion and debate online, speech in the digital realm has lost the human element. The digital public forum is like a zombie, loudly masquerading as a new and improved self-created element of humanity not bound by space and time, but actually dead inside, marked by internal contradictions antithetical to human well-being.
The first contradiction is that this new digital public forum is seemingly democratic and open to all, allowing anyone with internet access the ability to participate in the World Wide Web and everything it provides. Yet this democratic ideal fails on two accounts: first, these online social media forums are privately owned and controlled, undemocratically constructing the parameters of acceptable speech and censoring speech or expelling speakers that fall outside these parameters; and the other failure is the simple fact that a large percentage of the global population does not have internet access and is thus excluded from participating in the new, public forum.
The lion’s share of the debate and discussion online occurs in a few social media platforms, namely Facebook and Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), WeChat, YouTube, Reddit (among others). All of these are private corporations resembling a public forum in some fashion. Each is tasked with setting appropriate parameters of speech that necessarily constrict the content of discussion and subsequent public opinion formed. To take a few important examples: every major social media platform uniformly banned then-President Donald Trump from their platforms for his perceived role in inciting violence and condoning rioters at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th, 2021. And in the height of Covid-19 pandemic, Twitter banned over 11,000 personal accounts for violating their policies regarding speech questioning the safety and efficacy of newly created vaccines, claims of fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election, and QAnon conspiracy theories (Thompson, 2022).
Despite the controversial nature of these kinds of speech, the parameters constructed, and action taken by a few individuals controlling these entities highlight the undemocratic nature of these digital forum platforms. The cooptation of corporate control of the public forum in this way echoes Habermas’ concept of re-feudalization. Social media corporations sell the idea of an open platform where discussion and debate are untouched allowing for some kind of social opinion to be formed, but this can only happen within the context of acceptable speech. Thus, social media corporations give the illusion of providing a public forum, but this forum is subject to the corporate logic of generating profit, as all corporations are. In addition, there exists no major digital public forum without this corporate logic – all recognizable social media are corporations. They monopolize the means of communication online, there is hardly an alternative for anything else resembling a public forum in the digital realm.
To be sure, there have always been alternatives that people create and seek out that are more open and democratic than hegemonic social media platforms like Facebook and X. But for any alternative platform to scale up and reach anything resembling a public forum, the costs involved require profit to be the driving motivator. Thus, out of the woodwork come content moderators, misinformation experts, and the entire apparatus of technocratic control which function to constrain speech at the behest of investors, shareholders, advertisers, even governments. If there is ever a bid to make a social media platform more open and democratic, profit is never on the chopping block; however, the converse is true, generating profit necessitates limiting undesirable speech and speakers. Outside of a time beyond capitalism, it is doubtful that reconciling the conflict between the promise of the public forum and the profit motive is even possible. What remains are a few monster social media corporations that dominate the digital public forum by sacrificing democratic ideals on the all-holy alter of profit.
Ellul echoes the anti-democratic nature of the technological society – and by extension – the digital public forum in what he refers to as the “the technological bluff”. Ellul broadly defines the technological bluff as “…the gigantic bluff in which discourse on techniques envelops us, making us believe anything and, far worse, changing our whole attitude to techniques: the bluff of politicians, the bluff of the media, the bluff of technicians when they talk about technique instead of working at them, the bluff of publicity, the bluff of economic models” (Ellul, 1990:xvi). The corporate control of not only social media platforms, but also for most activity on the internet, reveals the technocratic bluff of the digital public forum. So, while the promise of life in the digital realm is utopian-like, where democracy thrives in the abstract, it is in practice an exercise in “monitoring, predicting, and managing citizen behavior” (Hanks and Hanks, 2015:468).
But this technocratic logic of setting speech parameters in accordance with profit motive is not the only reason the digital public forum is undemocratic. Every person being able to participate is a major assumption of what defines the public forum, yet this is not the case in the digital realm. For instance, an attractive feature of a digital public forum is that it is assumed to be international, transcending the limitations of spatial and national boundaries by connecting anyone from anywhere in the world. Yet, of a global population over 8 billion people, only a little over half use the internet and social media, 5.18 and 4.8 billion, respectively (Petrosyan, 2023). In addition, this digital divide is not at all evenly distributed among different countries and cultures. For example, over 99% of the population in Saudi Arabia, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates, use the internet daily, while in the world’s most populous country, India, the number drops to around 50% (Petrosyan, 2023). And in North Korea, the internet is severely restricted with only a few thousand privileged members allowed access, leaving over 25 million cut off from the rest of the world (Burgess, 2023).
Despite internet access steadily increasing over the last few decades, there still remains billions of people completely excluded from online life. So, while the digital public forum is popularly advertised as connecting the global population into an open platform for dialogue and opinion forming, it is an inherent contradiction in that dialogue is necessarily constricted to conform with corporate logic, while the same time only those privileged with internet access can participate.
The second, and perhaps most consequential, contradiction of the digital public forum is the nature of connection itself. The internet – and social media in particular – allow for almost unlimited social connection. People can reach out and connect to those whom they’ve never met, in a place they’ve never known, and they can create and develop (sometimes) intense relationships online. But despite these incredible hurdles seemingly easily overcome, the nature of human connection is fundamentally altered in the digital realm.
Crucially, authentic social connection becomes increasingly difficult to attain the digital realm because by nature it precludes what George H.W. Mead calls “a conversation of gestures”. Mead refers to all human-to-human social activity as “gestures”, from specific words and vocal tonalities and expression to physical stance and hand gestures. In this way, people do not just respond to a social gesture from another, they act on possibilities.
Not only does this process give rise to communication, but in doing so it also molds one’s mind. Mead believed that the mind and the sense of self are not a priori prerequisites for communication, but rather they emerge from people engaging in the back-and-forth communicative process. (Blumenthal, 1973:7). Simply put, people can only know themselves by interacting with others. Thus, authentic social connection thus arises from the back-and-forth social process, i.e., a conversation of gestures.
However, this crucial communicative process is largely absent in the digital realm. The back-and-forth process necessary to construct the digital public forum is completely mediated by technology. The normal way of connecting, namely by face-to- face verbal and non-verbal communication, has been replaced by on-screen videos, or text-based messages or posts that people create, read, and send often at their leisure. The traditional act of communication is in real time a back-and-forth “game” that in the search for truth and understanding has an inherent “risk” to it (Gadamer, 1960). This game has its own dynamic nature to it, generated from, yet independent of, the participants involved (Vilhauer, 2013). Our own perspectives of the world and of ourselves are at risk of changing when we play this communicative game. This is what makes communicating in real life so profound. One cannot escape the game; it is the foundation of all traditional communication.
Digital communication, on the other hand, is devoid of face-to-face interaction, and as a result, a conversation of gestures or the risk of the game. This means people are instead disembodied. This disembodiment is characterized by a fundamental separation between oneself and others. The back-and-forth game is gone. In its place is a simulacrum, a synthetic copy of the original communicative process. While this digitally mediated communication can be seen as a much more efficient version, it lacks the fundamental, organic nature of how humans have traditionally communicated. Still, the distortion is powerful and compelling. It increasingly blurs the distinction between actual and virtual reality and marks the desire to transcend the limitations of the physical realm (Buongiorno, 2019). This distortion between space/time and organic bodies not only transforms how people interact with one another, but also how they develop a sense of self. And as activity in the digital realm grows, so does its effect on people.
This synthetic type of human connection is most impactful on the youth, who grew up alongside the growing internet and social media and many have rarely experienced a world outside the digital realm. For example, in a 2022 Pew survey, 97% of U.S. teenagers report using the internet daily, including 46% reporting using the internet “almost constantly”, compared to the same survey given in 2014-2015 which reported 92% of teens using the internet daily and 24% almost constantly. In addition, 95% of teenagers now own smartphones, compared to 73% in 2014-2015 (Vogel, Gelles-Watnick and Massarat, 2022), a trend highlighting the ease of ability to access the digital realm in mere seconds.
The rapid immersion of society – particularly youth – into the digital realm can have serious and problematic consequences. Much concern has been raised about the impact of the internet and social media on psychological well-being, with many seeing this technology as a major factor in mental distress. For instance, in a systematic review of both qualitative and quantitative studies, Karim et al. (2020) found that using social media platforms can have a detrimental effect on the psychological health of its users, particularly depression and anxiety, often seen resulting from the positive relationship between social media use and perceived social isolation (Primack et al., 2017). The psychological distress felt from socializing (or attempting to socialize) in the digital realm can’t be taken lightly.
At an extreme level, social media may even play a role in suicide, especially among the youth. For example, suicides among those aged 10 – 24 years old increased 62% from 2007 to 2021 after no significant change from 2001 to 2007 (Curtin and Garnett, 2023). This hike in suicide coincides with the beginning of widespread smartphone and social media use – especially among teenagers. However, a causal link between social media use and suicide has never been established (Romer, 2019). There is no consensus on whether the internet and social media use have a direct or indirect effect on suicide, but some suggest that it may play a role in facilitating suicide via a social contagion-like effect (Benson, 2021). In a systematic review between the relationship of overall internet use and suicidal behavior, Marchant et al. (2017) find there is significant potential for this relationship but at the same time potential to exploit the internet’s benefits to ameliorate suicidality through crisis support, outreach, etc. (Robert et al., 2015 comes to a similar conclusion), highlighting the contradictory nature of connection in the digital public forum.
The evidence supporting the relationship between digital technology and mental suffering has prompted the American Psychological Association to release a health advisory on social media use in adolescents (APA, 2023) and the United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to release a report citing surveys showing youth feelings of sadness and hopelessness skyrocketing in the last decade (Surgeon General Advisory Report, 2023) and calling social media use among adolescents the “defining public health issue of our time” (Ritchel, 2023).
This grim possibility makes the participation in the digital public forum very consequential, especially for the youth. Sherry Turkle (1984) notes that there is a distinct difference in the use of computers between adults and youth. The youth use them in the “process of world and identity construction” (Turkle, 1984:165). Thus, the digital realm has an enormous effect on how youth perceive the world outside their own experiences, how they learn to connect and interact with peers, and how they understand themselves. Whereas adult’s identity and world views are more settled, the youth are more malleable and subject to these outside influences such as digital technology (what it provides as well as its own effect).
To teenagers, learning to socialize within this digital technology may seem like a normal stage in their own development into adulthood, a maturing process that everyone goes through, naively assuming the technology is mature (Turkle, 2011). But of course, this isn’t the case. The internet, and especially social media, are in their infancy when compared to any other technology that has historically changed society to the same degree. What people experience when participating in the digital public forum is not and has never been normal.
Ironically, however, participation in the normless digital public forum is becoming increasingly normal. Turkle recognizes this contradiction in what she calls “realtechnik”. What can cause a disconnect from humanity can itself be a normalized platform for connections. Turkle makes note to be skeptical about linear progress – for good or bad – with new technology, and always reconsider and reassess the effect it has on society. She is in line with Habermas (1974) and Ellul (1990) in stating that technology, and more broadly modernity, cannot be reversed. People must work within the milieu they find themselves in, not withdraw from it or tear it down.
In this vein, this analysis suggests reconsidering the nature of the public forum in the digital age. Of particular importance is the zombified process of how the public forum died and was resurrected into something few could have imagined, a powerful version of itself marked by internal contradictions, existing only in the abstract, digital realm. This monster has the body of the public forum; it has become a major place for people to discuss and debate political and social issues worldwide, to form opinions and in the process, to form identities. But it crucially lacks the human spirit. Through no fault of their own, billions are excluded from participating, and it is corporately owned and controlled, dictating what is or what is not acceptable to say. And it fundamentally changes the way humans connect and interact, upending hitherto normal communication. To make any progress in the public forum, society needs to recognize and navigate around this monster carefully.
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