The Spring Quarter started this week at the University of Washington. I will be teaching a class on the European Union where we will be looking, in particular, at how digital media are changing the EU. One of the issues we will be grappling with is something that often comes up at conferences and discussions in Brussels – the elusive “European public sphere”.
1 million tweets mention Cyprus
As I have been finalizing the preparations for my class over the last couple of weeks, it has been fascinating to observe the online interactions around the economic adjustment programmes for Cyprus that were discussed by Eurozone Finance Ministers on 15 and 25 March. According to topsy.com (see graphic) there have been over 1 million tweets mentioning Cyprus during the last month. The peaks in traffic on Twitter clearly correspond to the two meetings of Eurozone Finance Ministers.
The discussion on Twitter involved a wide range of contributors from different countries and different backgrounds (institutional actors, media organizations, journalists, bloggers, financial analysts, concerned citizens …). As Ralf Grahn commented on his blog, the quality of the conversation about Cyprus on Twitter has been variable:
“As a trending subject, the #Cyprus stream on Twitter is an amazing blend of pride and prejudice, professional reporting, sharp analysis and dauntless marketing, with or without relevance to the issues at hand.” (From the Grahnlaw blog)
Nevertheless, the Cyprus bailout is yet another example of the growing number of online discussions about the EU that are attracting an ever increasing circle of contributors.
The academic debate on the European public sphere
Most conceptual work on the notion of a “public sphere” draws inspiration from the work of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, particularly his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas describes the particular historic circumstances that led to the creation of a “bourgeois public sphere” in Europe (Germany, France, England …) as part of the development of liberal democracy during the 18th century. This bourgeois public sphere was underpinned by the emergence of a free press, as well as fora for public debate (salons, coffee houses …).
Habermas himself and other scholars (Claes De Vreese, Rudi Koopmans, Paul Statham, Thomas Risse …) have attempted to apply these principles to the European Union. The conclusion of much of this work to date has been that the EU lacks democratic legitimacy inter alia because there is no transnational European public sphere between decision-makers and citizens where European matters can be discussed. The media remain fragmented at national and regional level, notably for linguistic reasons. Attempts to create transnational media, such as Euronews, are considered to have been ineffective. When EU issues are discussed in national media, they are framed in national rather than European terms. Actors from the EU institutions and from other EU countries appear relatively rarely in national media.
It seems to me that this academic literature misses two important developments. Firstly, research has concentrated almost exclusively on traditional media (“quality” newspapers and, to a certain extent, television) and missed the huge increase in social media use over the last 3-4 years. Secondly, the financial crisis has politicized EU decision-making and projected EU issues up to the top of the media agenda. It is far more common to find European issues covered on the evening TV news or on the front page of the newspapers today than it was when much of the empirical research on the European public sphere was carried out (mainly during the 2004 and 2009 European Parliament elections).
Some scholars, however, have picked up on the new context created by digital media.
Lance Bennett from here at the University of Washington questions the privileged place that mass media have received in research on the European public sphere in a paper titled Grounding the European Public Sphere: Looking beyond the Mass Media to Digitally Mediated Issue Publics. He draws attention to the way civil society actors are beginning to use digital media to publicize issues, engage publics and contest competing policy perspectives.
In an article on the 2009 European Parliament elections titled Second-Order Elections and Online Journalism, Asimina Michailidou from the ARENA Centre for European Studies describes how European issues were debated through political blogs and the comment streams of online news sites. She concludes that “cross-national patterns of European Parliamentary election coverage emerge. This allows for reserved optimism regarding the role of online journalism in the building of a European public sphere.”
Where do you see the European public sphere(s) emerging?
I am planning to tell my students that the discussions of the Cyprus bailout on Twitter and other platforms show how digital media are enabling the emergence of an online European public sphere. This is a good thing for the development of deliberative democracy at the EU level. Do you agree? Can anyone provide additional examples and evidence to show how an online European public sphere is emerging through digital media?