The World Wide Web as Public Sphere and the Place of Privacy-2

Senior Research Fellow at Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, Prof. Daniel Drache has written widely on web 2.0 and the impact of social media on global publics. In an interview with Aradhana Sharma, he talks about the World Wide Web emerging as the new public sphere and the opportunities it provides to ordinary people despite the challenges and problems of privacy and surveillance.

The Indian Medialogue presents the interview in two parts. Below is the second part.  The first part is available here.

The online and offline of the social movements

ARADHANA: Will the web be the place where more and more social movements, before finally reaching the streets, will be mobilised? Is the push and design going to come from what is happening on the web?

DRACHE: I think tentatively, we have to say, yes. But we have to understand the tentativeness of the ‘Yes’. The internet has two qualities – it is discursive, and organisational or mobilisational. So up, until 2008, people were online and the issue always was how to get them to go (on the streets)? We are not talking of people who are feminists, environmentalists, anti-poverty activists. (They were already actively involved both on and off-line on issues of their interest). But people who are moved by some issues and go online to join a discursive community. So the question is how to get them to go from online to offline? So, when you say it is becoming a sphere, I say two things:

  • First, the web’s broadcast model itself makes it rather easy to join and to access, which is very important.
  • Secondly, we have a lot of experience now in offline and it was legitimised by the mobilisational capacity.

obama-on-facebook

Facebook page of Barack Obama (Image courtesy: csmonitor.com)

Once you legitimise going offline, many more people go offline. And this is not a one-time event. First, you had the 2008 Obama campaign victory, then the events in Europe and then a second victory for Obama. Contrary to what people said, he was elected by social movements: two million people volunteered; there were 800 field organisations, and maybe 20 million people on Facebook.

It is important that we saw the defeat of various established leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy in France and the Arab Spring, legitimising Facebook, Twitter, the internet, etc. Every time you need a trigger point, a catalyst, to establish the efficacy of the net and you get discursive communities mobilised, it points to its unique property. That is why I feel that public space is back, but at the same time, the corporations and the state want to encroach upon the commons, which is Habermas’ great fear – the re-feudalisation of the commons.

Re-feudalisation of the commons

ARADHANA: Will the state and giant corporations be successful in their design?

DRACHE: This is very interesting as the Arab Spring shows that police state and dictatorial regimes can be defeated if people are mobilised in democratic ways. So strictly speaking, it is not the internet – but the people. They, make history, not Twitter or Facebook. This is the first thing to remember. The second thing is the broadcast model, which empowers the users making it the most unique communication system in the world. You think about television, radio, you were passive, you received. They were controlled by powerful political interests, often by the state. The news is managed, the mainstream media is managed, and they treat the reader like a dumbbell, just like Walter Lippman thought, as a phantom, that can be easily led.

Walter Lippman_Public-Opinion

Coverpage of ‘Public Opinion’, the seminal work of Walter Lippman (Image courtesy: http://www.politicsbooks.com.au)

But when people are informed, they become social actors. This is a terrible thing (sarcastic)! You can actually decide for yourself if you support Mubarak’s regime or not. In the case of Egypt, the Egyptians discovered each other through the internet and lost their fear of the police. So we can see that it is no longer easy to control (people). Even in China, where they are constantly attempting to control what goes on over the internet, it is not always possible as we saw in the case of the train wreck that the government initially tried to cover-up.

I think this idea of shining public light on these events is very important. So, you see Wikileaks and Wikipedia, they are an important phenomenon. They are changing things, including changing our habits. You are in an argument and someone will say – ‘let’s look it up on Google’. So, the public space is back. But it also needs to be organised and you cannot take it for given; it is the people who decide. In case of protests around the Delhi Rape Case (2012), hundreds and thousands of people gathered. They didn’t drop from the sky. The point is they had to be organised; to be in the trenches doing the tough spadework. So increasingly, the public domain is important for all kinds of things.

Surveillance and the social movements

ARADHANA: Does their presence on the web make social movements and those involved in it, more vulnerable?

DRACHE: I think there is a lot that we do not know about surveillance, but what we know is of course of deep concern. It has been reported, in the US, about illegal surveillance and eavesdropping and mapping and tracking of e-mails and telephone calls. We also see corporations use data for marketing purpose. The web has these three components:

  • the commons;
  • the security- the dark state, the dark web; and
  • the web of mass consumption.

I won’t say they tend to have a balance, but they tend to co-exist. There is the intention to push the frontier of the corporate world deeper into the information commons and to deepen the controls by the security state. But beyond a point, it does not matter to the people using this space as the commons. I am not saying that they are naive, but when they go online and want to be involved in an issue, they are galvanised and they come out and express themselves.

D 2

Prof. Drache in pensive mood

Regardless of the fact that there is re-feudalisation going on, I don’t think it has a chilling effect. In China, it hasn’t had a chilling effect, where the costs are much greater. One does not want to sound sunny optimistic, but I must say that if you make a chronology since battle in Seattle, who everyone thought was a once in a lifetime battle, what we have seen is a cycle of dissent emerging, which is quite significant. Certainly as significant as 1848 and 1968, two other occasions where you had global mass movements on specific issues. So, we have some historical perspective that says, there is a chilling effect always, but it has not daunted people. In
fact, 500,000 people join the internet every day. So, I don’t agree when people say that people are not using the internet because they are frightened of the big security state or corporate control, I don’t think this is borne out in the behaviour of users.

Is social media a silver bullet?

ARADHANA: Are we under utilising the social media or overselling its importance?

DRACHE: It is ironic, that in some way it is being oversold as a silver bullet. But, I don’t think communication scholars are; they are all trying to play catch up, trying to put it in some kind of a theoretical analytical framework. I think the academic eye is dystopian, they are all saying this is going to end, this can’t be sustained. They say they are studying power and they don’t see how it is possible to change power. Yet, the last decade has been the most exciting in the last 50 years, perhaps since the Second World War, where the power has shifted so dramatically. We have witnessed two different types of regime change – one at the global level, between the Global South and the Global North; emerging market economies are the strongest economies of the world. And second, between the state and the citizen, which has been the most dramatic during the Arab Spring and during the American elections.

(To be concluded)

Prof Drache was in Delhi to present a paper at the international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity, Methodology”, organised by Centre for Culture Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia on February 25-27, 2013.

Professor in Department of Political Science at York University, Toronto, Canada, Drache’s latest book Defiant Publics: the Unprecedented Reach of the Global Citizen (June 2008) examines the decline of authority and the new dynamics of power that has empowered global publics to become in-your-face against-the-grain social actors in a post 9/11 world.

Sharma is a PhD student with CCMG, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

This entry was published on September 6, 2013 at 6:23 pm. It’s filed under Communication Studies, Media Justice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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