The public sphere is a forum through which information is distributed and where citizens inform themselves, gather, share ideas and content, form opinions, voice their concerns, and mobilise.
Digital technology and social media have fundamentally changed the way information is produced, distributed, and consumed. This expansion of the public sphere has brought with it a set of opportunities and challenges.
On the one hand, it has opened new avenues for activism, association, and freedom of expression. On the other, there are several issues related to the structure and functioning of the digital public sphere such as the market dominance of certain private companies (e.g., online advertising and its impact on independent media), the de-facto gatekeeper and content curation role of tech platforms through algorithms and the fact that often business models tend to profit from the worst instinct of people, where outrageous or extreme content often gets the most engagement. We find ourselves with a public sphere divided into 2 parts: the physical public sphere, which is governed by a set of rules, (e.g., libel law, election campaigning rules) and the digital public sphere, where many of those offline rules have not been translated online. The digital public sphere is also characterized by a lack of transparency and accountability of its stakeholders, despite the various – mostly self-regulated – actions taken by some players recently.
This has very serious and direct consequences on the digital public sphere such as the proliferation of disinformation, hate speech and anti-rights narratives, leading to exacerbated social divisions and polarization. The current functioning of the digital public sphere affects marginalized communities to an even greater extent: Often these voices are not very prominent – if not absent – in debates about shaping the digital public sphere. At the same time, these are the primary target of online harassment, abuse, violence, or surveillance, limiting their ability to exercise their fundamental rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these trends with new challenges for the digital public sphere, particularly related to the spread of misleading and potentially harmful information and conspiracy theories. Such developments feed the anxiety and deepen the feeling of losing control over the surrounding reality in many people, which is often exploited by some political actors. These aspects directly impact the social contract and democracy at their core. It highlights the need to reverse the current tendency and shape a digital public sphere that serves people, (an equitable) society and democracy.