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Structural Change of the Public Sphere

In short

The civil public sphere, oriented towards critical discourse, has emerged in Europe since modern times in a long process of social change. It differed from the public announcements by representatives by the ideal-typical free, rational exchange of arguments, through which communicative power could be developed and gain influence on the actions of administrative power. Civic publicity thus represented a social (power) factor. However, there were barriers to entry, inasmuch as preference was given to people who could demonstrate the bourgeois attributes of education and property. In the modern industrial society that set in later, the public sphere was made possible by mass media on the one hand, but limited by the media power that went with it on the other. The philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas described and reflected on these and other processes in his habilitation thesis “Structural Change of the Public Sphere”. He associated the idea of a frank, rational, social public discourse with the notion of reaching a consensus on it to which all actors would commit themselves.

The current structural change of the public sphere begins with the Internet and social media. The public sphere is becoming more and more differentiated. Citizens can publish themselves and inform themselves not only through media but also through other citizens. The Internet is thus more democratic. At the same time, traditionally established media are losing their influence and power of interpretation. Against this background, neologisms such as “fake news” and “filter bubble” mark a factual situation on the one hand. On the other hand, they are themselves instruments in the struggle for the sovereignty of interpretation. In view of such changed 'structures of the production of truth', the question arises as to the criteria for correct and false statements. In the diversity of the information offers, one aspect is also of importance: a relationship-one, trust. A discussion culture in respect to the freedom of speech, plurality, people's dignity and an exchange based on arguments is only beneficial to this. However, practising this and becoming aware of the pitfalls of manipulation is a learning task for everyone and thus the society as a whole. It holds a high democratic potential for the political culture of a community. Moreover, equal participation and involvement allow experiencing belonging without necessarily neglecting differences.

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Photos: Salon de Madame Geoffrin, 18th century; William Iven on Unsplash

Long Version

The Internet and social media have created new opportunities to obtain information, communicate and mobilise politically. This brings changes in political culture and thus in the struggles for the power of interpretation. Terms such as “fake news” or “filter bubble” are often used. False reports are not compatible with the journalistic and scientific ethos. Nevertheless, mistakes cannot always be avoided. And the temptation to manipulate, i.e. the targeted exertion to gain influence on the thinking, perception and feelings of others, is not uncommon. But this is not only due to human weaknesses or lack of morality. Among many other aspects, one should also consider the current “structural change of the public sphere”. To this end, we will first refer to the considerations that Jürgen Habermas presented in his habilitation thesis of the same name.1) In contrast, we will examine the characteristics of current forms of the public sphere and ask about the chances of a democratic public sphere in times of digitalisation.

Jürgen Habermas described the emergence of a civil public sphere and its socio-structural conditions with the emergence of capitalism and mercantilism. In contrast to the representative public sphere in feudal societies, which was preferably reserved for the king or other representatives of the political order, the civil public sphere was characterized by private individuals forming an audience, gathering together and cultivating a “critical reasoning” first on literature and art, and later on events of a political and social nature. The concept of the public sphere itself had emerged from the 18th century onwards. Oriented towards the exchange of arguments, the culture of conversation had developed in salons in France, coffee houses in Great Britain and later also in the table societies on German territories. To this control of the powerful through publication and a rational, critical debate, Habermas fundamentally links the possibility of democratic influence: communicative power can help to control the actions of administrative power through legitimation or the withdrawal of legitimation. It was no coincidence that “the public sphere is the amniotic fluid of democracy” was also said during the democratic upheaval in the GDR in 1989.2) According to Habermas, such a public discourse is not necessarily an end in itself. The moment of communicative understanding is inherent in it. As the aim is to reach a social consensus through a rational process of developing a common point and decision-making to which all actors are bound.

Of course there are limits to this ideal. In modern society, they are rooted in the role of the mass media and their political and economic interests, and thus their media power. Access to free and critical exchange must also be open to all. However, education and private property were access criteria for membership in bourgeois circles, so that large parts of society were excluded. Moreover, forms of publicity among farmers and workers are hardly considered by Habermas. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, communication scientist and founder of the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research, addressed the issue of social-psychological boundaries. She analysed The Spiral of Silence. Public opinion – our social skin and thus ambivalences, contradictions, dependencies and aspects of the exertion of power in public-political communication.3)

With the Internet, the public is becoming more and more differentiated.4) Now, in principle, not only everyone can read, as printing once made possible, but also write. The public conveyed through the Internet is thus more democratic, since social barriers to access are now much lower. At the same time, the balance of power with regard to the power of the media is shifting. Because with the emergence of the Internet, the attractiveness of print media is declining. Younger people prefer to obtain information via online channels. Advertisements are now increasingly placed in large Internet portals. The traditional, 'leading' media such as major newspapers or private and public radio and television stations are losing their influence and their authority to interpret is dwindling. Blogs and social networks on the Internet open up the possibility for citizens to inform and exchange information with other citizens without the mediation of a 'medium'. Problems such as disinformation and false information (“fake news”) thus appear in a new form. They are not new – so-called “canards” have probably already existed since news were passed on. Manipulation and various forms of propaganda have also long been tried and tested methods of influencing opinion. What is associated with the Internet media is the word “filter bubble”. Perceptions and interpretations of reality are reproduced because they are only taken up and passed on through those circles that are personally preferred. But this is also known from the 'analogue' world and has prompted social scientists to discuss it. With regard to virtual social media, this is nevertheless promoted by providers such as Google or Facebook themselves. Their algorithms, by which certain messages are displayed and others are not, are not completely transparent. Nevertheless, settings can be used to influence what is displayed – In the hope that this will reflect a greater variety of perspectives on a topic.

Besides “filter bubbles” there is also the problem of “filter interpretations”. It can be observed, for example, that in the context of certain political events of greater significance, a particular “wording” gains influence quite quickly. For example, the vast majority of politicians and the media described it as a “breach of a dam” or “breach of a taboo” when Thomas Kemmerich was elected Minister President of Thuringia on 5th February 2020 with the votes of the FDP (neo-liberal), CDU (conservative) and AfD (right-wing) parties. Such a quick discursive determination may offer a kind of interpretation aid. However, it is also accompanied by a given meaning. What promises orientation can thus per se exclude other points of view and promot eboundaries between different milieus of a society. The (results-)open dialogue, the frank 'dispute of ideas', in which truth – and with it democratic values – are fought for, is in danger of withering away – and with it a lively political culture.

“Filter bubbles” and “filter interpretations” therefore lead to the question of the truth criterion of information. In the new complexity of media diversity and in view of the fact that it is impossible to be well informed in all subject areas and thus to compare information with one's own knowledge, trust plays a major role. Many citizens tend to regard a message as 'true' if the person delivering it appears trustworthy. Therefore, besides factual aspects, the relationship criterion plays a role that should not be underestimated. The boundaries between trust and the simple belief that a message is correct can be blurred under these circumstances. There are also other psychological and social motives, such as the wish to belong. Or the claim to find oneself with one's own experiences and perceptions of reality in what is publicly discussed. Or the interest to take up suggestions, to learn new things, to understand what holds the world together – and what does not. Manipulation can be successful above all when these so human needs are not reflected and when it remains unrecognised that these moments influence the emergence of what is considered to be truth.

“Fact finders” or associations of journalists such as correctiv, which are dedicated to examining the substance of arguments, may provide guidance. However, their scientific character is probably only an illusion, considering that such groups are usually financed to a considerable extent by those whose trust is questioned by those being scrutinised. Such 'watchdogs' thus run the risk of being part of the disputes over the power of interpretation themselves – and thus of jeopardizing their own trustworthiness. At worst, they may be accused of playing on people's goodwill.

Fake news and “fact finders” also point out that even the established actors, who often characterise themselves as quality media, are requested to face their new competitors – bloggers and citizens in the social media – and to gain trust through a frank, diverse and argument-based culture of discussion. This is, of course, a learning task for everyone and the society as a whole. It needs practice and time. The solution-oriented social consensus as envisioned by Jürgen Habermas for a pre-digital public sphere will remain an ideal that shows a direction and is realised only point-wise in specific areas. But progress, especially progress in knowledge, is the way forward. Moreover, this learning task holds a high democratic potential for the political culture of a community. And equal involvement and participation make it possible to experience belonging without necessarily neglecting differences.


Habermas, Jürgen, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, mit einem Vorwort zur Neuauflage 1990, Frankfurt/M 1991

Habermas, Jürgen, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Ein Gespräch mit Michael Haller, 05.08.2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j95NQEY_G4o (aufgerufen 06.04.20)

Habermas, Jürgen, Moralischer Universalismus in Zeiten politischer Regression. Jürgen Habermas im Gespräch über die Gegenwart und sein Lebenswerk, in: Leviathan, 1/2020, S. 7-28 und https://www.nomos-elibrary.de/10.5771/0340-0425-2020-1-7/moralischer-universalismus-in-zeiten-politischer-regression-juergen-habermas-im-gespraech-ueber-die-gegenwart-und-sein-lebenswerk-jahrgang-48-2020-heft-1

Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth, Die Schweigespirale. Öffentliche Meinung – unsere soziale Haut, München 1980

Petersen, Thomas et al., Die Theorie der Schweigespirale, http://noelle-neumann.de/wissenschaftliches-werk/schweigespirale (aufgerufen 06.04.2020)

Schloemann, Johan, Lernen, lernen, lernen. Habermas und das Internet, 12.03.2020, https://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/habermas-und-das-internet-lernen-lernen-lernen-1.4841981

Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, Wikipedia-Artikel, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strukturwandel_der_%C3%96ffentlichkeit (aufgerufen 06.04.2020)

Author: Sophia Bickhardt, weltgewandt e.V.

Habermas, Strukturwandel.
See the letter from Friedrich-Wilhelm Frhr. von Sell to B. Bohley from 15/ 11/1989, “Betreff: Angebot der Hilfe, eine neue Medienordnung für die DDR zu schaffen, denn 'Öffentlichkeit ist keine 4. Gewalt, sie ist das Fruchtwasser der Demokratie'” https://www.havemann-gesellschaft.de/archiv-der-ddr-opposition/?pid=2&extendedSearch=1&search_active=1&search_type=2&search_area=all&suchtext=&signatur=KFr&datum_von=&datum_bis=&ort=&personen=&searchDetailTyp=4&searchDetail=5255; this phrase was also used by Christoph Singelnstein, https://www.zeit.de/1992/06/ein-neues-gesicht.
Find a summery of her considerations on the website from Thomas Petersen et al., http://noelle-neumann.de/wissenschaftliches-werk/schweigespirale/ (retrieved 06.04.2020).
Habermas expresses a similar view and recognises a “deep evolutionary break” (Schloemann, Johan) in digitalisation following the invention of writing and printing. He sees the further development with a certain perplexity and would like to leave the analysis of the current structural change of the public to younger colleagues.


Andrea, 2020/09/23 22:30
Really interesting. Makes many of the current troubles better understood. Moderate and taking many aspects into account.
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