It is hard these days to distinguish “fake” news from “real” news. Browsing the Internet, checking our social media accounts, we come across tens of advertisements and articles, all of which vie for our attention, one claiming to have found the secret to instant weight loss, another “exposing” a celebrity scandal, yet another reporting “objectively” on the Trump administration, or some commenting on foreign affairs. This is a gullible age, in which we believe everything at first sight. If it piques our interest, then we click on it. We depend on the news to get information regarding important affairs in our country and around the globe; without it, we are no different than the early Europeans, who were ignorant of the New World. It is a problem, understandably, when this very source of knowledge from which we get information about the world is no longer to be trusted, when we are forced to be wary, vigilant, and cautious of whether or not it is true. How telling it is, to have a media that requires its facts to be checked! As it is the press’s job to report on what is happening and give us citizens the lowdown on what is happening, it is not too much to ask of it that it be objective and tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear; because sometimes, what is the case, is not comfortable. But as has been evidenced by the 2016 Election, the media has failed miserably in its service, failing to fairly and impartially give the facts, too concerned with presenting opinions, caught up in commercial interests, its duty not to the people but to the rich and influential to whom they pander, and it has impoverished many an American, depriving him of the truth, so that it has become a medium through which biases and polarizations are disseminated. The decline of the media’s duty has resulted—and is resulting in—a terrible thing: A crisis of democracy. Veritably, the media’s loss of power in presenting the truth paves the way for democracy’s dim demise. Furthermore, this loss of the media is a sign of another deterioration, one vital to democracy: The public sphere. With the failing of the media comes the failing of the public sphere, and with it the failing of democracy. What is the public sphere, and what relation has it to democracy? What happened to the media? Why is fake news an existential crisis for democracy? Such are important questions, which have to be answered.
The theory of the public sphere was developed in detail by philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1929-), a German member of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, the focus of which was to critique society under a Marxist lens. Historically, the public sphere originated in the 18th century during the Enlightenment, arising in local salons and coffeehouses, where the public would gather. Usually, such locations were frequented by the bourgeois, for they were the educated middle class. Heavily into reading, having been brought up with a fine education, these intellectuals—among whose ranks were philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, writers, publicists, playwrights, and scientists—would come together in a central location and talk, sharing ideas from their works. These tight-knit groups of intellectuals, philosophes, and men of letters congregated to discuss politics. The governments of the 18th century were largely monarchical. For this reason, the government was representative; that is, it did not communicate directly, but indirectly. It did not present itself candidly, but represented itself, with false semblances, giving appearances, but never real insights; government happenings remained mysterious, concealed from the public, covered up so that the ruler’s intentions were never disclosed, leaving the people in a cloud of confusion. Inside coffeehouses and salons, the bourgeois exercised their 1st Amendment Rights, namely their Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Press, both of which they used to their advantage. Outside of political purview, they could speak freely and frankly with each other, without fear of punishment. In order to publicize their ideas, in order to make known what the government tried to make unknown; in an effort to enlighten the people, the bourgeois created public centers and presses so they could help circulate and spread news and ideas. Newspapers sprang up rapidly throughout Europe, especially in England and France—intellectual hotspots at the time. The public sphere operated under Enlightenment ideals, such as the general will and the public interest. When the public discussed an idea, they made sure to come to an agreement. This means: They listened to what everyone had to say, debated, then came to a decision, although not an arbitrary one, nor one arrived at by the majority, but made according to the general will, the common interest, a piece whereof was shared by everyone involved. Since “consent of the governed” seemed to fall on deaf ears in government, it fell upon the people to take care of themselves, so they took it up themselves; the public sphere served the people; the public sphere was indebted to the people, who were truly sovereign.
As such, the public sphere was the successful bridging of the public and private. That is to say, the public sphere brought those from the private domain—separate, private individual citizens—together centrally in a local area—the public. Private life is the life lived by oneself, in the comfort of one’s home, in one’s everyday routine. Accordingly, the private sphere was merged with public interaction, birthing the public sphere, where private individuals created public intentions. Where they assembled became “common spaces,” from which comes the basis for the word “sphere” in “public sphere.” Take the Internet: Although its users are separated by screens, some in the same town as one another, others are miles away, in different states, or countries, or continents, yet collectively, they identify as “Internet users,” which is to say that the Internet, despite being spatially inclusive, is not a single location, but an abstraction. The sphere is spread across multiple mediums—what Charles Taylor calls its quality of being “metatopical,” or beyond location. For example, hundreds of people can assemble in a stadium, which we can then call a “common space,” physical and exact; but hundreds of people can assemble on the Internet, which we can then call a “sphere,” in this case the cybersphere, digital and inexact, though extending variously. The discourse within the public sphere goes beyond physical space, not in a single spot where many convene, as we have seen, but spreading out. Here, in the sphere of the public, the principle is public opinion. Public opinion, Taylor points out, must be distinguished between merely convergent and common. Common public opinion—public opinion proper—is a singular, focused goal, whereas convergent public opinion is a melange, a coinciding of intentions, interrelated, yet bearing no unity. In other words, common public opinion is a public commitment, convergent a private commitment. The difference can be illustrated thus: Intellectuals discussing politics in Starbucks is common public opinion, while sports fans coming together in a stadium is convergent because they have no collective goal, rather they are all converging, or coming to a point, through different, private paths. Taylor cites public polls as an example, interestingly, of convergent public opinion; this is because the people responding are doing so privately, committing to something individually, which, when added up, is public, and their answers are diverse, not at all unified. Common opinion is something agreed upon. Essentially, the public sphere is extrapolitical—it is outside the domain of politics. Whether you are a supporter of a sports team or a member of a charitable organization, you are recognized as a part of something official. You are an “official supporter” or “official club member.” However, the public sphere is not an official organization; it is the exact opposite. It is recognized by the people, not the government. Hence, it has no real power; rather, it is a check on the government, a means of balancing out its power. The “public” is not a determinate thing. It is an abstraction. It is not an individual; it is a collective. It is only a sphere when the public makes it one. As has been said, it is not a political association—far from it—but the coming together of the private into the public. The common opinion is focused on critiquing the government, the stress being on the sovereignty of the people, the consent of the governed. Ideally, the public sphere is a statement, one that states, We are the people, and you, the government, should listen to us. The public sphere demands the government’s attention. It demands the principle of supervision, which says a government’s actions ought to be made public to the citizens. Legislation ought to be made manifest so it is rational (using logic and reason), pressured (to make moral decisions in front of the people), and democratic (in the name of the people, who are involved).
So what is the purpose of the public sphere, and what is its objective? The public sphere, we have said, is to serve public interest. Now that we have the why, we need to know the how. Conceived in the Enlightenment, the public sphere is designed for critical thinking and discourse among the people, separate from the government. Communicative action is the theory which argues that, through language, things can get done. When we tell someone to do something, and they do it, we have created action through communication. In the public sphere, the goal is to debate politics and achieve communicative action by means of discourse, in which everyone takes part, ultimately so that a consensus is reached, upon which a resolution is made, and action follows. Again, this is local, not institutional, so communicative action can be made anywhere, from a supermarket to a modern coffee shop, as long as it is a common space. What comes from debate should be “mutual comprehension” or “compatibility,” according to Habermas. This means people understand one another, understand their eyes, and their ideas can be related to one another, combined, or subsumed, as in a dialectical synthesis. After all, this is the desired outcome of any debate: Two or more people argue with logic to back up a side, listening to their opponent, then devising a response, with the intent of coming to a conclusion that is agreed to, thus settling the matter. It is important that it be mutual, or two-sided, because Truth can only be achieved through a consensus, a common understanding. The public sphere has a climate of debate where people can argue rationally, defend logically, and challenge politely. Social dialogue is constituted by the public sphere. Discussion is meant to be free, open, impartial, and critical. Merging Freedom of Speech with Freedom of Assembly, the public sphere cultivates what Habermas calls an ideal-speech situation. Once achieved, an ideal-speech situation is a circumstance in which unimpeded, unfettered free speech is allowed to flow. People can speak their minds freely, ready to engage with others. Discourse ethics is the field of ethics that covers the morals of discussion, so the ideal-speech situation is an ethical doctrine, as it sets up a paragon of critical political debate. In an essay concerning universal pragmatics, written to delineate the proper usage of speech and guidelines on how to communicate effectively, Habermas came up with four aspects of effective communication.
In conclusion, the ideal-speech situation generated by the public sphere is a situation wherein private individuals can gather to speak their mind, hear out others, challenge, defend, create arguments, and come to an understanding consensus—one that reflects everyone’s opinion.
Does the public sphere still apply today, and to what extent? What happened to the public sphere, and why is it collapsing? It would arrogant to assert the public sphere does not exist today, for political talk is rife as ever, and there are dozens of shows, radios, and broadcasting stations which cover politics, all offering commentary on current events, collaborative, contentious, and the process of globalization has allowed for far greater coverage, so there are more getting involved every day, and more people tuning in, creating a very popular and argumentative political environment, where debates take place, either in YouTube comments or in High School corridors, for instance. However, it would be equally presumptuous and ignorant to deny that the public sphere is no longer potent in its goal, having diminished greatly since its creation in the 18th century. There is undeniably more involvement in politics in this age than the Enlightenment, yet there is concernedly less critical involvement, much less commonly public involvement. The literary circles of the philosophes, who would eagerly read the newspaper, excited to share their thoughts, ideas raging, have degenerated, and we no longer see this kind of intellectual commitment to political debate. In the centuries dividing these two ages, our media has grown immensely; now billions of people are interconnected globally, able to interact with one another. But newspapers, reporters, and radio shows still fail to incite critical discussion.
Who or what are we to blame for the failure of the media in the public sphere? Habermas says the answer lies in the structural transformation of the public sphere. This structural transformation, he describes, is the commercialization of the public sphere. What was once a noble critical culture (kulturräsonierend) became an ignoble consumer culture. As soon as the media came under the sway of money, it became commercial, no longer a service for the public but a business for consumers, something which no longer informed but sold, which dealt not in news but commodities. News turned into ideology. Reporting used to be objective. It wrote down the facts, checked them, reviewed them, then posted them. Nowadays, reporting is subjective; reporters can write not about the event itself, but their personal reaction to it, a reaction that is colored by their beliefs. It focuses on how the person is portrayed, instead of what they actually did. As such, the editorial is what one feels or thinks, rather than what happened. Habermas writes that the press became the “gate through which privileged private interests invaded the public sphere.” As soon as private corporations began taking over the press, the media became a medium through which to spread their self-interest. A result of this is the endangerment of the public sphere, because critical public institutions like the press were protected precisely because they were private, in the sense of being extrapolitical and composed of alike individuals, but commerce and technology and corporations now pose a private threat from the government and rich and powerful corporations, who collaborate to keep themselves safe from censuring, colluding to keep their power from the people. An example is newspaper credibility: The authority of a newspaper these days rests in the publisher, not the publicist. If we come across Time, we immediately impute it with trustworthiness, despite the fact that we do not check who actually wrote the articles themselves. A writer can easily write whatsoever they please, and if it is approved by the publisher, it will be considered trustworthy, since we invest trust in the publisher, disregarding the publicist, to whom we ought to give equal attention. All this, of course, is spearheaded by the big corporations, who gain from this authority, using it to their advantage. While it can be argued contrariwise, Habermas says editorials were once respectable and intellectual, but are now not. Not only are they subjective, he says, but they, along with the press itself, are commercialized, advertised for money, so that it is no longer an honest pursuit, but a financially motivated one, for which people vie. Just like the Prætorian guard that swore to protect the Emperor and that ended up selling the throne to bidders, so the press that swore to serve the public honestly and with integrity ended up selling editorials.
Another thing that has weakened the public sphere is opinion management, or public relations (PR). The mission of PR is to bridge the public and private, much as the public sphere does, to communicate between the institution and the people, albeit in a more devious manner. PR appeals to the private under the guise of the public. Howbeit, unlike advertising, which explicitly and openly shows itself as such, PR uses news authority as a façade, a cover, under which to represent private interests as “public opinion” and “news.” In other words, PR disguises commerce as something to which the entire public assents. Opinion management, therefore, leads to the ruination of discussion by means of “sophisticated opinion-molding services under the ægis of a sham public interest.” Grabbing attention with drama, shock-factor, and clichés, and using well-known celebrities as sponsors to inspire conformity and trust, PR advertises its affairs with hyperbole and misleading exaggeration. These “suppliers” of news, as Habermas labels them, recreate the representative government of the 18th century that shrouded its intents from the public. Habermas names this the “refeudalization” of the public sphere, because it takes us back to a feudal hierarchy of society, where we, the public, are reduced to lowly vassals, servants, who are indebted to and dependent upon the powerful nobles, who hide their power. No longer is the public sphere reserved for debate; it is used to represent prestige; it no longer critiques the government extra-politically, but has publicity complicit therein.
 Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p. 185
 Id., p. 195
For further information:
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jürgen Habermas (1991)
Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas by David Held (1980)
The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory by David Macey (2000)
Chomsky on Democracy & Education by Noam Chomsky (2003)
A Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky (2017)
Dictionary of Sociology by Nicholas Abercrombie (2006)
The Chomsky Reader by Noam Chomsky (1987)
Social Imaginaries by Charles Taylor (2005)
Consolidation of Media
Facebook and Fake News