1. Setting the big picture
The research concerning the emergence of a European public sphere through social media sites has gained significant importance in the last couple of years. Although studies emphasize the fact that only a few citizens have direct contact to European issues and that media functions as a facilitator or mediator between European Union and its citizens, we can hardly say that there is significant research studying the way in which Romanian citizens use this tool of communication to share their (European) experiences with fellows or to act as part of a (European) community. These things considered, the big picture regarding the existence of a community of Romanian citizens that discuss through an organized form of online communication (Facebook, in this case) in order to find solutions to common interest issues should be one of high concern among researchers.
Thus, this paper will briefly discuss the main theoretical foundations regarding the (European) public sphere, the role of social media in building at least an emerging European public sphere and the results of a short analysis of the political parties’ Facebook pages during the 2014 EP elections. What is more, the main purpose of this article is to urge researchers to concentrate their attention on debates and studies which target the existence of a European public sphere in Romania as an assurance that Romanian citizens are aware of what the EU means for both their individual and national community.
2. What do we know about the European public sphere?
The purpose of this part of the paper is to present the main theoretical lines regarding the public sphere as it was originally introduced by Jürgen Habermas in 1962 and its implications at the EU level. What is more, this part aims at drawing the conceptual frame of the European public sphere as a major part which gets us in the neighborhood of the European Union as a political and democratic project.
Habermas used the concept of public sphere to define a network of communication, through which citizens who are able to use the instruments of social communication can cooperate and find the best solutions for the community issues. Moreover, one of the first configurations of the public sphere can be perceived as a sphere where more private entities constitute themselves as a public entity.
More explicitly, Habermas defines the public sphere as a „realm of our social life”, in which public opinion can be formed. What is more, the author suggests that the access is guaranteed to all citizens and that a small part of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in „which private individuals assemble to form a public body”. The author also emphasizes the idea that citizens behave as a public body when they discuss issues of general interest, in a free form of speech.
In one of his other works, Habermas refines the concept of public sphere and gives it a more particular tone, characterizing it as a conglomeration of the conditions that facilitate a discursive form of citizens’ public opinion. This definition provides us with one of the reasons why public sphere is so important in the optimal performance of a society – because it is strongly associated with other processes and phenomena, among which public opinion is of high importance.
Metaphorically speaking, public sphere functions as a place where public opinion is (re)shaped, as a working room where there are competitive points of view and where they reassemble in the form of a logic discourse. What is more, it is necessary to point out that the author emphasizes that there is not a singular public sphere which may function at a time, but a multitude of public spheres which compete to become dominant.
The idea of Habermas to define public sphere as an arena of communication was also expressed by other points of view. For example, Risse suggests that public sphere is a „shared community of communication” or that it is an open space where communicational exchanges take place; public sphere is a place where citizens discuss public interest issues.
In this context of considering public sphere as an arena of communication, Habermas suggests that conversations among citizens play a crucial role in creating a functional public sphere. He suggests that the public sphere may function as a mediator, which opens the route between the formal, institutional discourses and the informal, personal conversations among citizens. What is more, in today’s society, public debates need to be based on a forum of discussions, organized by the media, through which citizens from different parts of the country/world can interact.
Briefly, the Habermasian model offers a complex interpretation of what is known as public sphere and its connections with other interesting phenomena like public opinion. The use of the Habermasian model of public sphere has become even more controverted at the EU level. In this context, Habermas defines the European public sphere (EPS) as a communication network which goes beyond the national borders and helps at discussing and solving relevant and shared issues.
According to Habermas, there are some aspects that need special attention regarding the possibility of creating a European public sphere. The first thing to be considered is that a EPS means a process of trans nationalization of the national public spheres and not the effort of creating a supranational structure; the EPS is a process which is mainly created through media and with the help of political elites who should encourage the discourse with an European core, rather than with a strictly national nature.
In the last decade, due to the complexity of the concept, the study of the EPS has become one of the central points of interest for researchers in fields like sociology, politics, communication and media. But, according to Bârgăoanu, the theoretical findings regarding the EPS can be classified in three main models: the heavy EPS, the light EPS and the ad hoc EPS.
In short, the EPS as a heavy public sphere refers to the existence of a single, supranational public sphere; the EPS as a light public sphere refers to the existence of Europeanized national public spheres, while the EPS as an ad hoc public sphere refers to the aggregation of individual opinions on different European topics in a public form. Beyond the differences among them, there is at least one conjunctive linkage which defines the EPS as the process that allows citizens to participate in taking a collective decision, in the (re)production and transformation of the social imaginary.
Following the goal of this article, I will shortly revise the critics addressed to the model of a heavy/supranational EPS and then I will concentrate on characterizing the other two models of the EPS, which seem to be more contiguous with our empirical analysis. So, as Bârgăoanu points out, there are some important aspects of the heavy EPS criticized by various researchers: the heavy EPS is impossible to accomplish since the context in which the EU activates is becoming more and more divergent and discrepant; the heavy EPS is an ideal public sphere since there are not empirical studies which can certify its existence; the Europeanization of communication is a very complex process which involves a set of necessary conditions such as the permanent relocation of national contexts to the European context, the mutual observation of other public spheres, the permanent active participation in the creation of the public sphere, the use of the same reference frames as in other public spheres in the EU, the awareness of the existence of the European frame as a central frame for the public spheres.
The model which frames the EPS as a light public sphere has its roots in the theoretical approaches that reject the idea of a singular EPS and postulate the existence of a multitude of Europeanized public spheres. These approaches gave birth to a set of two dimensions concerning the process of Europeanization – horizontal (attention to the events and discussions coming from other countries in the EU) and vertical (attention to the events and debates concerning the policies coming from the center, from Brussels). These two dimensions were firstly introduced in the literature by Koopmans & Pfetsch and, as the authors suggest, the way in which a public sphere can be labeled as national, supranational or European depends on the communication linkages throughout these spaces.
Another important contribution which clarifies these two dimensions is that of Brüggemann & Kleinen-von Königslöw. The authors suggest the existence of four types of Europeanization: comprehensive Europeanization – both vertical and horizontal dimension are highly visible; segmented Europeanization – there is only the vertical dimension, giving strong attention to Brussels and little or no attention to other member states; Europeanization aloof from the EU – there is only the horizontal dimension, the policies coming from Brussels are completely ignored and a parochial public sphere – there is not any of these two dimensions and the reason is that there could not be established a form of communication between the national and EU entities.
The empirical studies regarding the horizontal Europeanization should be highly addressed in the literature, but, as Lauristin suggests, the interest for the horizontal Europeanization of public spheres can be more easily identified in the countries from East and Central Europe than in those from Western Europe, since the discrepancy between the West and the East as a consequence of the Cold War created the need to form a cooperative social imaginary. On the other hand, empirical research on vertical Europeanization is gaining more and more interest since the researchers concentrate on the way in which policies from Brussels are framed in national public spheres.
In this context, it is necessary to mention that there are some important studies which concentrate on empirical research regarding the Europeanization of (political) communication. At an EU level, these studies analyze the visibility of European issues in the national media during some periods with EU important events or during routine periods, the correlation between the content of the media (news) and the changes in public opinion. In Romania, an empirical research regarding the visibility of European actors and topics in the media during the 2009 EP elections was conducted by Corbu et al.. Their findings show that the most visible European topics during the mentioned event were the EU policies, the unique currency, the economic issues, structural funds and the European Parliament.
The third model, which labels the EPS as an ad hoc public sphere refers mainly to an Elitist model which is based on the existence of three types of publics: general publics – everyone could take part in communication and discussion on the basis of using rational arguments; segmented publics – there are some common interest issues around which people could discuss and strong publics – there are some institutionalized discourses dedicated to professional publics. The specific distinction of this type of EPS is that it favors the creation of a fluid issue community which continues to exist as long as the debate on the issue does.
As Bârgăoanu suggests, the majority of studies which concentrate on the Europeanization of public spheres mainly analyze the Europeanization of the media discourse throughout the EU. As a result, one of their main limits could be that they ignore the role of both interpersonal conversations and opinion leaders in rendering and framing information. So, I advance the idea that the study of political communication on social media sites might reduce these limits since it supposes analyzing both the initial message created for the publics and their responses. More particularly, I presume that social media sites (especially Facebook) can provide researchers with useful clues about the existence of at least an emerging EPS in Romania.
3. How social media sites may give birth to a European public sphere
As Castells suggests we are now living in a society which is not or even could not be isolated any more since means of sociability are almost everywhere in the world. The author expressively introduces the idea that this newly founded society can be labeled as the network society – it transcends the national borders and works globally. So, starting from these ideas and considering the fact that, as mentioned above, a EPS represents an arena of shared communication, I want to advance the approach that social media communication may be considered one of the most powerful ways of building the public sphere, in general, and particularly at an EU level. Thus, this part of the paper will make the most of some important theoretical and empirical findings correlated with the way(s) in which social media sites might give birth to a (European) public sphere.
In this context, Ceron et al. suggest that the exponential growth of social media and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter raises the possibility of using the web to explore the (political) preferences of citizens. What is more, researchers have begun to investigate the use of social media as an important device to assess the popularity of politicians and compare the political preferences that people show online with those from the offline space.
Another important approach that needs to be mentioned here is that of Bakker & de Vreese. The authors study whether the use of social media sites enables or nurtures political participation since these sites offer a low-cost form of participation. In other words, the two authors suggest that social media sites have the potential to offer citizens diverse ways through which they can be considered as participants in political life – among the possibilities, there are visiting political blogs, researching political information, following online news, participating in forums, discussing politics by e-mail, or organizing electronic petitions. What is more, if political participation is seen as a significant aspect of public life, taking part in discussions which are held on social media sites may be a clue to consider that the two authors are in favor of the idea that social media could play a relevant role in building public sphere.
One interesting point of view which analyses the role of media over the political attitudes of the citizens is that of Strömbäck & Shehata. Their interest focuses on two theories regarding the impact of media consumption on political participation: mobilization theory and media malaise theory. According to them, media mobilization theories claim that the news media have a positive impact on people’s political participation and cognitions, whereas media malaise theories refer to the negative impact of the media on citizens’ political participation. In other words, they are also in favor of the idea that media could influence the way in which people (re)act – that is, that media could balance the amount of positive or negative impact in such a way as to enable the system of building a public sphere.
The two theories mentioned above were even more explored by other authors who went further with the idea that media may function as a mobilization force. They suggested that more active forms of political Internet use (based on features that enable two-way communication) affect citizens’ political involvement more strongly than passive forms (based on features that enable one-way communication). In other terms, the simple fact of being active in an online forum/arena may represent a step forward towards enabling a type of shared or two-way communication, or a step towards building a public sphere. Then, there are other studies which analyze the effect of active participation and political interest on voter turnout – a matter which should also be of high concern for researchers.
4. 2014 EP elections on Facebook
Considering the fact that during periods when important events take place there is a higher possibility for citizens to actively participate in discussions, I chose to briefly analyze the content posted on the political parties’ official pages of Facebook and the users’ comments. The analysis covers two periods (6 days) – 3 days covering the immediate period of the peak event – May 24, 25 and 26 (the first period) and three days after the event – May 29, 30 and 31 (the second period). So, in this part of the paper, I will present the main results which rise from the analysis of the Facebook pages of four political parties which won the 2014 EP elections in Romania, as following: 16 mandates for the Alliance of Social Democrat party (“PSD”) - the National Union for the Progress of Romania (“UNPR”) – the Conservative party (“PC”); 6 mandates for the National Liberal party (“PNL”); 5 mandates for the Liberal Democrat party (“PDL”) and 2 mandates for the Popular Movement party (“PMP”). This short analysis aims at discovering whether in Romania there is at least an emerging European public sphere which is articulated on Facebook as one of the most used social media sites.
The Facebook page of the Alliance of PSD-UNPR-PC has a total of 1566 likes and, in the first period, the content posted on this page is mainly consisting of information coming from important leaders of the Alliance – Daniel Constantin, Mihnea Costoiu, Victor Ponta or Dan Șova and photos of the party leaders in different places and official visits; a similar trend is followed in the second period of the analysis. Generally speaking, the number of comments and likes are not at a significant level – the number of likes for the posts varies from 14-15 likes to each post to a maximum of 45 likes to one of the posts from 25th of May. The comments are absent or their number is kept to a maximum of 3 comments per post; their content is not related to the EP elections. Thus, we can conclude that although this Alliance has the most significant number of mandates in the EP elections in Romania, its strategy of online communication was not among the priorities – probably because they took advantage of the internal or external conflicts of or between the other parties. In their case, the number and content of users’ comments on the posts show that we are very far from considering that we can speak about an EPS built and developed on Facebook.
The Facebook page of the National Liberal Party (“PNL”) has a total of 17603 likes and, in the first period, the content of the posts varies from emphasizing the party’s cultural values to presenting the cases of leaders like Crin Antonescu, Mircea Ionescu Quintus or Klaus Iohannis as models to be followed on the day of elections – the content posted consists of their declarations after voting. The number of likes is by far more significant – it varies from 300-350 likes to a maximum of 496 likes to one post from 25th of May which frames Klaus Iohannis as a model personality to be followed by all the voters. The comments are not so numerous, varying from 5-7 comments per post to a maximum number of 50 comments per post. Their content is mainly based on critics to other political parties or leaders or on requests addressed to the party – an interesting thing about these requests is that some of them are advanced by individuals in the name of the community – which may be a sign of at least an emerging public sphere. On the other hand, in the second period of analysis, the number of posts is kept to a minimum – one single post in 3 days – the comments on this post offer a new interesting hint about the existence of an EPS on Facebook since some users commented in response to the comments of other users.
The Facebook page of the Democrat Liberal Party (“PDL”) has a total number of 18100 likes and, in the first period, the number of posts is limited to three during 3 days and their content varies from declarations addressed at the end of the campaign and the persuasive message towards the voters to be present and give their vote. The number of likes varies from around 100 to a maximum of 296 to one of the posts of 24th of May and the number of comments reaches a maximum of 22 on the post concerning the persuasive message addressed to voters. The content of these comments varies from critics addressed to the party and its leaders to severe critics to the system in general. In the second period of analysis, there are no posts, comments or likes. Thus, we may conclude that this political party’s strategy of online communication is not so well-organized – one possible cause may be due to its internal conflicts in the last period. So, we cannot say that there is an EPS which can be built on this Facebook page since both the posts and the comments are not significantly numerous and lack the big picture of what the EP event really means for us as a European country.
The last Facebook page analyzed is that of the Popular Movement Party (“PMP”) which has a total number of 33033 likes – the highest number of the four. Generally speaking, the number of posts in the first period is significant – 19 posts in 3 days, whereas in the second period the number of posts is 0. The maximum number of likes is 3410 per post and the maximum number of comments is 735 per post. The content of the posts is mainly consisting of persuasive messages to the voters based on a critical discourse towards the Social Democrat party and on eulogies towards the Popular Movement Party. The comments’ content of these posts is by far the most interesting since their number is so high – there is a relative balance of opposing and supporting points of view among the users, but the general trend of discussion is not following the ideas of the EP elections’ context, but the internal conflicts among the supporters and antagonists of national parties. One thing that should be mentioned here is the fact that by analyzing this Facebook page, we may conclude that the communication on social media sites is preferred by the newly founded parties/alliances since it is an easy way of attracting possible voters, especially among young population.
As a conclusion, the short analysis of the Facebook pages of four political parties which won the highest number of mandates in the 2014 EP elections shows that it is premature to consider that social media sites give birth to a European public sphere in Romania nowadays. Nevertheless, there are some signs such as active participation (posting comments) and writing in response to another user’s post that may represent the initial stage of at least an ad hoc EPS – dominated by the emergence of fluid communities consisting of mass users, rather than elitist.
5. Concluding remarks – what should be done next?
The analysis of the four political parties’ content on Facebook can be easily transformed into some concluding remarks which could take the form of three questions to be answered by future studies:
• Is there a connection between the comments posted on Facebook and people’s real life experience? How are the supporting/opposing comments transferable to a genuine vote?
• Is Facebook more than a virtual tool of communication? How can it articulate stable public opinions in Romania nowadays?
• Are Romanians feeling a sense of neighborhood/involvement towards the European-level events when they post a comment online or is it just a routine activity?
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