PhD abstract

(Thesis submitted November 2018, PhD awarded May 2019)

Public space or public sphere? An examination of Facebook as new space for political talk through ethnographic study of citizen engagement during a UK General Election.

Abstract:

This thesis considers the place of Facebook within the public sphere by focusing on whether the social network provides new, distinct spaces for political discussion. In doing so, the study makes an original contribution to knowledge by assessing the role of Facebook in enabling or limiting political debate. It considers whether the corporate cultural development of Facebook’s architecture influences such debate, set against broader interpersonal political communication and social capital theory.

While other studies have considered Facebook’s contribution to the public sphere by studying the role of the internet generally or of social media more broadly, this research focuses on Facebook itself, arguing that the scale, reach and corporate ecology of Facebook necessitates studying it as a political actor in its own right.

The research hypothesised that Facebook’s corporate ambition and its global scale and dominance of online social debate potentially created a new form of social public sphere – one that is the product of today’s more horizontal networked society (Castells, 2010). The thesis argues that it is this social aspect of using Facebook, coupled to the company’s commercial focus on what an individual may be (or should be) interested in, that has the potential to affect public opinion and thus political actions.

The study used data collected during the 2015 UK General Election, supplemented by additional material gathered during 2017’s “snap” UK General Election, to look at how citizens engage in political talk on Facebook. The mixed methods research includes quantitative surveys alongside qualitative ethnographic study and direct intervention via a case study to test theory.

By focusing on particular online spaces (political candidates’ public Facebook pages) and a particular time period (the month preceding a general election) when political debate might be expected to happen, this research assesses whether Facebook’s architecture encourages or discourages such debate. The thesis explores whether these online spaces – political candidate’s public Facebook pages – offer a 21st century version of Habermas’s 18th century coffee houses and salons as a place where debate among peers is expected and encouraged.

However, the study finds that, even in these favourable circumstances, debate is less likely to happen, with Facebook’s architecture having a chilling effect on political talk. Users are more likely to avoid debate than to engage in it via Facebook and, while the scale and connectedness of Facebook has enabled protest or para-political movements from Occupy to The 48% group to quickly gather momentum, the commercial ecology of its architecture is not able to sustain debate leading to broader civic action, within the context of a Habermasian public sphere.

Further, Facebook’s architecture may undermine the public or civic sphere, not only by discouraging reasoned debate but by making it less likely that users will be exposed to opposing views or new ideas with which they might want to engage.

None-the-less, the thesis hypothesises that the presence of particular users on a candidate’s page (the “right” people – defined as visible leaders, supportive policers, aware producers and engaged openers) can counter the negative effects of Facebook’s architecture to enable political talk, albeit within limited parameters.

Finally, the thesis concludes that Facebook is not part of the Habermasian public sphere, rather it has undermined or disintermediated the public sphere as it is largely understood.