The formative sociological concepts of the public sphere and social capital have traced similar paths through a range of social science scholarship over decades, evolving as new technology, such as connected Internet technologies, have altered the way society interacts. Interestingly, there is very little scholarship linking these two important theories. This conceptual paper examines the modest body of literature that has considered the public sphere and social capital in tandem. It offers a viewpoint that social capital generation could be a possible byproduct of rational-critical discourse in a public sphere-like space. Despite the reservations of Habermas himself about the ability of the Internet and social media to breathe life into his concept of the public sphere, this paper suggests that social media — notably Twitter hashtags — are a plausible place to look for evidence of social capital generation through deliberative democratic discussions.
Critiquing the public sphere
A typology of social capital utilization
Social media and social capital
Linking social capital and the public sphere
Twitter and social capital generation
At a time of loud, angry, polarized public discourse, talking about the concept of the public sphere seems quaint and parochial. The promise of a space, accessible to all, where informed public opinion can be developed through deliberative debate in the “traffic in commodities and news”  is jarring to consider against the histrionic theater of this rollicking U.S. Presidential campaign season. Republican candidate Donald Trump loudly denounces politicians and their elected legislatures, bodies that enable the space where debate among those with divergent views can occur (Herf, 2016). While Habermas attributed the destruction of his idealized public sphere in part to the corporate control of mass media (Habermas, 1992), the actions of Trump during the election campaign — banning media outlets altogether — works against its very principles (Cillizza, 2016). Yet these actions have helped further cement his popularity among his dedicated supporters, shattering normal conventions about the expectation that an argument be truthful to be successful (Stokols and Schreckinger, 2016).
Critically examined for nearly three decades since the publication of Jürgen Habermas’ (1989) masterwork, the public sphere as a concept has been subject to a battery of critique — for being hegemonic and male-dominated (Fraser, 1992), for excluding everyone except bourgeois white males in Western Europe, such as ethnic minorities, gay communities, and the working class (Eley, 1992; Mouffe, 1999; Negt and Kluge, 1993), and for being fundamentally unnecessary in a time of mass media consumption (Keane, 1995). A phenomenon such as Donald Trump has dominated corporate media to the point where additional publicity is superfluous to Trump’s needs as a candidate (Reuning and Dietrich, 2016). This would seem to reinforce the critique of the public sphere that Habermas himself puts forward which is that its critical functions have been significantly weakened as mass communication media have increasingly became subject to corporate control and the “secret policies of interest groups” . The Trump-led discourse itself is far from Habermas’ rational-critical ideal (Newsday, 2016) and yet it dominates mass media as the long election campaign enters its final months. Given the around-the-clock coverage Trump has received, it is more apt to consider political coverage as a public sphere with a single occupant (two, if you count Trump’s Democratic Party opponent for the November election, Hillary Clinton).
In order for a Habermasian ideal to move beyond aspirational goals into providing concrete benefit for society, analysis of its rational-critical debate must traverse process into outcome. What does a public sphere, or discussions akin to a public sphere, accomplish? To examine this, it is worth considering another critical theory deployed across the social sciences in the past 40 years — social capital. Defined as a way of assessing the intangible resources of community, shared values and trust upon which we draw in daily life (Field, 2008), social capital has evolved from reflecting more commercial concerns in the aftermath of the Second World War to encompass collective societal benefits ranging from cohesive ties, to social trust, to the generation of informed public opinion. This makes it possible to consider the economics of social capital in tandem with many other theories, including as a potential outcome of discussions within a public sphere.
Curiously, despite what appears to be a logical link between the public sphere and social capital — namely that the latter is a potential byproduct of activity in the former — there is limited scholarship linking the two widely cited theories. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to examine literature that discusses both concepts and suggest an approach to consider social capital as a potential byproduct of debate within the sphere. Particularly, this paper seeks to look at social media as a possible marketplace where, if a suitable viral phenomenon is critically examined, the evidence of social capital generation demonstrates the existence of a form of public sphere. For wary citizens seeking to prevent a certain candidate from winning the U.S. Presidential election, this process can start with a simple Twitter hashtag — #NeverTrump. Because of the unique architecture of hashtags and the interconnectedness of the social media platform, analysis of a protest hashtag such as this can demonstrate that it serves as a setting to organize, debate, and advocate. This paper will explore this hashtag, used as part of the rancorous political discourse surrounding Donald Trump, to show how discussion can provide communal benefits to participants and to society at large, in turn suggesting the facilitation of a public sphere-like discussion.
Critiquing the public sphere
As connected Internet technologies grew and spread, a new public sphere was envisioned where the space for deliberative democracy to unfold was a virtual one. Rheingold (1993) was among the first to suggest the distinction between ‘virtual’ and ‘real-life’ communities was not entirely valid, arguing that real relationships can develop when people communicate online on common ground. Other researchers envisioned this stateless, interconnected world as a bold new frontier of democracy (Benkler, 2006; Negroponte, 1995). Given the parallels to Habermas’ vision of a borderless, freely accessible space for public discourse, the Internet has been hailed for its potential to reinvigorate a culturally drained public sphere.
Other scholars have been quick to point out the Internet’s shortcomings in facilitating this. They argue that it provides a public space rather than a true public sphere (Papacharissi, 2002), where participants in the debate are under no obligation to behave in the necessary civil manner Habermas desired (Bimber, 2003). Sunstein (2007) goes further, arguing that “because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another, and often without hearing contrary views” , the tendency is for the Internet to promote group polarization, rather than rational-critical debate. Dean (2005) suggests the very act of participating in a so-called democratic act on the Internet — sharing a file, signing a petition — is not the emergence of a political private sphere, but rather “a refusal to take a stand, to venture into the dangerous terrain of politicization” . Murdock (2014) warns of the dangers of a commodified Internet, which restricts access to those with means. The networked public described by boyd (2010) is one where the public loses any critical dimension, therefore failing to address asymmetries in power, surveillance and other downsides of social media platforms. There is also the danger that participation online embeds users within relations of power, rather than liberating them (Goldberg, 2011).
The ranks of critics of the Internet as a new form of public sphere include Habermas himself. Donald Trump brags that his account on the social media site Twitter is “like owning my own newspaper” because of his 9.15 million followers (Savransky, 2016). This practically broadcasts Habermas’ warning that the Internet’s democratizing access can threaten the principle of broad-based debate and deliberation inherent to the public sphere concept: “In the context of liberal regimes, the rise of millions of fragmented chat rooms across the world tend instead to lead to the fragmentation of large but politically focused mass audiences into a huge number of isolated issue publics” .
As Internet technologies have evolved — with innovations such as social media achieving widespread adoption — another round of scholarship suggesting these affordances can promote public sphere-like interactions has emerged. Scholars who believe the pro-democratic power of collective action online (Shirky, 2008) point to the organizing function of social media (Khondker, 2011) and the empowerment it can provide ordinary citizens (Castells, 2012) as indicators of the public sphere’s modern-day manifestation (Benhabib, 2011). Numerous studies examine the potential public sphere-like impact of social media (Grigoraşi, 2015; Hoskins, 2013; McNutt, 2014). But here, as well, there is pointed critique.
Fuchs (2014b) has examined social media, and Twitter specifically (Fuchs, 2014a), for its potential to create public spheres, arguing that free and unfettered debate is profoundly threatened by factors such as corporate ownership and government surveillance (Fuchs, 2014b). On Twitter, this capitalist stratification plays out in the asymmetrical visibility of tweets, with celebrity platforms afforded to high-profile individuals, regardless of the message they seek to convey (Fuchs, 2014a). Donald Trump and his 9.15 million Twitter followers demonstrate this. The potential limitations of online interactions also includes the tendency of users to act in a disinhibited fashion (Suler, 2004), to blatantly misrepresent the truth (Tsikerdekis and Zeadally, 2014), and to use virtual actions as a substitute for real-life ones (Morozov, 2010). However, the sheer popularity of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter undoubtedly create a robust informational economy. However, I submit that the sometimes cacophonous marketplace of user-generated media also provides an avenue to examine the public sphere in a different fashion. This requires examining the concept of social capital.
A typology of social capital utilization
In contrast to its explosive growth in the past generation and a half as a theory used to ascribe meaning and value to citizen engagement, social capital’s roots were largely confined to concepts of economic value. Initially defined in the years following the Second World War as a narrow technical form of utility maximization (Fine, 2010), social capital as understood in the social sciences has since been opened to include broader interpretations. Mark Granovetter’s (1973) pioneering work on the “weak ties” of economic and social entanglements demonstrates the collective goodwill that social capital can create, though he didn’t initially use the term itself. Granovetter’s widely-cited work suggests these weak ties can help citizens seeking progressive action to reach populations and audiences that are not accessible via strong ties — a good proxy for the purported power of social networks today.
The scholar most widely credited with popularizing the phrase social capital is Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu (2011) suggests four forms of capital — economic, cultural, symbolic, and social — as a representation of social power hierarchies. Bourdieu posits that each individual occupies part of a social space, defined not only by social class, but also by the kind of capital that can be generated through social relations, including social networks. Coleman (1988) builds on the work of Bourdieu, positing that social capital, if nurtured, can help disenfranchised groups grow their communities, despite societal and environmental limitations.
Robert Putnam, recognized as the third of the leading scholars who brought social capital into broad mainstream study, sees the diminution of social capital as a threat to civil society, and saw the popularity and spread of connected computer technologies as an antidote to our increasing isolation as a society (Putnam, 2000). In his interpretation of social capital, Putnam makes a distinction between two different types: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding involves socializing with those who are like you, while bridging involves crossing boundaries to form associations with those unlike you, the key, he suggests, for engendering social trust (Putnam, 2000). In examining Putnam’s interpretation of social capital in an online context, scholars ascribe more value to bridging capital because of its need for the development of trust and reciprocity to create collective norms (Lambert, 2015). Social capital, the argument goes, can build (or diminish) as individuals make investments in relationships in their social networks, or let those relationships lapse (Lin, 2001).
In the context of the public sphere, this distinction is relevant. While the Habermasian ideal of the public sphere was initially confined to bourgeois society, it was nevertheless intended to provide open access for debate where ideas would gain currency through the strength of reasoning. These discussions, whether through pamphlets, discussion in town squares, or later forms of mass media (Habermas, 1989), could produce the same type of bridging capital through the power of public opinion.
In the years since the landmark writing on social capital by Granovetter, Bourdieu, Coleman, and Putnam, scholars have considered many interpretations of social capital across the social sciences (Glanville and Bienenstock, 2009). This is not surprising. Some of the most important sociological concepts of the past half century have been difficult to pin down to a single meaning. This lack of consensus in these definitions of key components or dimensions of social capital results in difficulty grasping its true nature (Glanville and Bienenstock, 2009). Among the key conflicts within its scholarship is whether the hierarchy of value attached to public goods that create the economy of social capital is reflected in social networks, or whether it depends on these emerging networks to be created at all (Donati, 2013). Determining whether social capital is best measured through the structural components of relationship networks (Burt, 2010) or through how it is created and promoted by the network itself (Neves, 2013) is key to understanding the relationship between social capital and connected Internet technologies (Lazariou, 2009).
Social media and social capital
With the spread of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, social capital theory has been re-examined, with potential being identified for this networked connectivity to increase social capital (Hofer and Aubert, 2013). For instance, in Facebook’s 12 years of existence, a large body of academic research has focused on how the site can generate social capital by users, primarily through the twin pursuits of connections and resources (Lambert, 2015). The role that Facebook plays in the daily accrual of social capital by college students has been examined (Ellison, et al., 2007), along with the connection to users’ well-being (Burke, et al., 2010). A longitudinal analysis of Facebook users’ self-esteem finds that the site can both promote and diminish social capital, depending on users’ self-perceptions (Steinfield, et al., 2008). Other studies look at the effects of social networking use on bonding and bridging social relationships (Jin, 2015), the creation of social capital among activist online networks related to causes such as HIV/AIDS (Drushel, 2013), and how different Facebook features such as group formation and status inquiries are used to manage social capital (Lee, et al., 2014). A limited number of studies also analyze Twitter for its ability to promote and encourage social capital generation (Riedl, et al., 2013; Ye, et al., 2012).
It is important to note that while social media’s ubiquity indicates it could facilitate social capital generation, there is literature to suggest the nature of the network is less important than the actors in it. Nevertheless, the existence of social capital in online contexts has been linked to increased political activity or agency, demonstrating the intertwining of the public sphere and social capital generation within digital media. Ingrams (2015) finds that either the affordance of an Internet network or the device that connects to it can trigger increased social capital, linking mobile smart phones to social capital development through civic engagement. From scholars who believe in the pro-democratic power of online networks created through social media (Benhabib, 2011; Castells, 2012; Khondker, 2011), it can be inferred that social capital (or a similar benefit) could lend political efficacy to these interactions that can be assessed empirically. In effect, this means a public sphere, or an arena which mimics its principles, could be a source of Putnam’s bonding capital, Granovetter’s weak ties, or Bourdieu’s concept of social or cultural capital. And the activity within this sphere, properly harnessed, could generate social capital as an outcome, which can further energize a public sphere-like discussion. By examining the actions within informal groups, such as those that exist on social networks, linkages can be created between the public sphere and social capital (Teets, 2008).
Putnam (2000) describes how the social trust that can develop through voluntary associations can result in public opinion becoming a normative force. These actions could result in individual citizens using their own reservoir of capital, in formal or informal alliances with others, with the goal or the byproduct of their association being collective good. Compare this with the insightful definition of the public sphere put forward by Fuchs (2014a) — (a) a space for the formation of public opinion; (b) with access for all citizens; (c) unrestricted conference through freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and publication of opinions about matters of general interest; and (d) debate over the general rules governing relations. This correlation suggests that interactions in a public sphere could provide a real or virtual venue to develop social capital and, therefore, why evidence of social capital may indicate the existence of a public sphere.
Barnett’s (2014) detailed examination of the evolution of the modern public sphere suggests that it is better described through a series of questions to guide its critical analysis, rather than a framework to be applied. Different paradigms of public value can “combine, embody and enact” an opinion-firming aspect of a vibrant public culture, including the emergence of new objects of public action, subjects of public action, and media of communication (Barnett, 2014). In that way, the actions of, for instance, #NeverTrump participants can be considered as reflective of evolving public action and they can suggest a connection between the public sphere and social capital.
Linking social capital and the public sphere
There is not a large body of scholarship, but some work has been done to examine the linkages between social capital and the public sphere. In an examination of the “political public sphere” in connection with Internet technologies, Rasmussen (2014) makes perhaps the most complete attempt to link the public sphere and social capital. He argues that the political public sphere is more than a “space” produced by communication about public matters , arguing that political engagement on the Internet can instead be analyzed through the lens of social capital. Dahlgren (2006) argues there is a “learning by doing” element to civic engagement that can be created within networks. While not addressing the need for concrete interaction, Dahlgren suggests the skills of social interaction, rhetoric, and the capacity to define issues can emerge through the enlightened citizenship of public sphere participation. A lack of empirical evidence supports the assertion that associations essential to social capital generation affect democracy in a positive fashion (Kubik, 1998; Paxton, 2002), however Sommerfeldt (2013) argues that public relations in democracy can create the social capital that ensures access to public spheres.
As the public sphere has been transformed by emerging technologies such as the Internet and changes in society, social capital is seen by some as a way to explain its evolution (Friedland, et al., 2006). The examination of public engagement through social media borrows from both social capital and the public sphere in attempting to understand the democratic implications of citizen journalism (Goode, 2009) and citizen expression through social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube (Halpern and Gibbs, 2013). Halpern and Gibbs examined citizen communication through the official White House Facebook and YouTube channels, analyzing more than 7,000 messages to assess the impact of online communication on the principle of deliberation, vital to both the public sphere and social capital. In the same spirit, Carlisle and Patton (2013) consider whether Facebook is changing how society understands citizen engagement, ultimately finding that in Facebook-based political discussion connected to the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, the size and intensity of users’ networks do not correlate with an increase in social capital generation.
In states with more centralized control, studies of civic engagement do link the public sphere with social capital, however. Hoskins (2013) notes that social media can form the architecture for a public sphere in emerging democracies, analyzing social movements in India, Chile, and Brazil. He says that the normative political public opinion formed through these movements was met by official government reactions ranging from repression, to co-option of its principles, to subtly shifting state policy. An analysis of Chinese college students suggests the effect of using social networking systems to connect friends for civic participation is completely mediated by social capital, meaning that the online discussion within networks that can mimic the pillars of public sphere-like activity relies on participation by voluntary association as a starting point (Zhong, 2014). The cyber-networks and cyber social bonds in the Chinese lesbian community has helped awaken and promote community members to assert their lives in a traditionally repressive society, with users empowered by their bonding and bridging ties to enter an online public arena (Hung, 2011).
Nevertheless, while noting that some theorists equate increased online activity with civic engagement in the public sphere (Kahn and Kellner, 2004; Räsänen and Kuovo, 2007), Rasmussen (2014) suggests the lower threshold for political participation on the Internet is not an unequivocal positive for civic engagement. While widening the potential scope of the public sphere dramatically, the cost of this democratization is the potential loss of rational-critical debate of arguments on their own merits. Habermas terms this “decentring of unedited inputs,” noting that those seeking enlightened discourse can no longer gather at a focal point .
More broadly, there is a debate about whether unfettered access to an online space to express opinion can either uphold Habermasian principles or generate social capital. Wild enthusiasm greeted the role that new technologies played in fomenting dissent during protests such as the Arab Spring (Castells, 2012; Hussain and Howard, 2012; Khondker, 2011). However, critics claim the powers of deliberation and organization of such networks are vastly overstated (Morozov, 2010; Gladwell and Shirky, 2011). Arbitrating such a divide calls for a way to objectively measure social capital from the interactions, which can better reflect the evolving nature of public activity that Barnett (2014) suggests be used to interpret the public sphere in a modern context.
Twitter and social capital generation
If, as this paper suggests, social capital can be created as a by-product of public sphere-like interactions, and thus be used diagnostically to assess the existence of such a sphere, it is worth considering where to look. Despite critics pushing back against the notions of the public sphere and social capital as overly optimistic, there clearly exist venues in which deliberative democratic debate occurs, just as there are goals and ideals met in the collective action of social capital. An unconventional ‘marketplace’ where such ideas could collide, and where public sphere-like debate might prompt the generation of social capital, exists within the sometimes raucous discussion on the social media site Twitter. Recent, high-profile Presidential political squabbling suggests the enlightened debate of the public sphere can be rendered impossible by a mass media, celebrity obsessed society (Aalipour, 2016). Critics suggest that a change in the tone of Twitter, with resultant racism (Cisneros and Nakayama, 2015), sexism (Chess and Shaw, 2015), bullying (Bellmore, et al., 2015), and homophobia (Ford, 2012) killing discourse on the platform. Haque (2015) even suggested that as a result, the social media site is dying. Its stock price has plummeted and senior executives have left the company (Chandler, 2016). Despite these concerns about the health of Twitter, and its messy yet popular reverse-chronological newsfeed, there exists within the site the potential to promote and encourage spirited debate about issues of societal concern, with sometimes surprising results.
As an example, consider the social media activity that arose following a vulgarity yelled into the camera during a live television broadcast, which turned the public discussion in an entirely unexpected direction. In May 2015, television reporter Shauna Hunt was heckled by fans outside a soccer game in Toronto, one of whom yelled the obscenity “fuck her right in the pussy” into the camera (Teitel, et al., 2015), a vulgar trend started when a January 2014 hoax video showed a Fox TV reporter allegedly saying the obscenity on the air (Braganza, 2015). After the incident in Canada’s largest city, a surprising thing happened. In addition to outing the man who yelled the obscenity into the camera as an employee of government power utility Hydro One, leading to his dismissal (Canadian Press, 2015), the hashtag #FHRITP, an acronym of the phrase, was co-opted by Twitter users to further discussion of the public harassment of women (Leconte, 2015). The discussion among users of the hashtag, which included thousands of tweets referencing the incident, spoke to how this type of harassment and discrimination for women in public had more or less been normalized. It made the forum an instructional one. Twitter’s version of “society” (the set of users of the hashtag) sent the message that #FHRITP isn’t simply a prank, it is sexual harassment (Hawken Diaz, 2015). This generation of informed public opinion as a normative force is also an impressive display of social capital being rapidly developed from an unconventional source.
If any Twitter hashtag was created for the express purpose of testing this hypothesis though, it is #NeverTrump. The hashtag, which started on Twitter, has become the nom de plume for social media users decrying the businessman’s Republican Party nomination with varying degrees of organization and sophistication (Byrnes, 2016). During every day of 2016, the hashtag has been deployed several thousand times to make editorial comment — “Obama is a Christian. Trump is a fraud. You prove that you are a hypocrite by your tweets and by supporting Trump!!@SaveUSA1776 #NeverTrump” — frequently calling out other politicians in a pejorative fashion — “@SenatorSessions: #NeverTrump you idiot. @tedcruz was our only chance to save the country. You’re an opportunist like the rest of them.” #NeverTrump hashtags are utilized in other ways by users. Sometimes it is used to stir protest movements — “@NeverTrump Official account of the #NeverTrump movement.” Others are remixed with memes in a form of wry political commentary: “You can lead @realDonaldTrump to a new campaign manager, but you can’t make #HindenburgTrump listen. #NeverTrump.” That particular tweet included video footage of the exploding German zeppelin.
The use of #NeverTrump hashtags is consistent with studies that suggest the affordance is used in various ways on Twitter, to express collective identity (Sharma, 2013), to organize politically (Khondker, 2011; Small, 2011), and as a marketing tool (Burton, et al., 2013). In the case of #NeverTrump, the hashtag has gained currency even beyond the virtual boundaries of Twitter, acting as a way for adherents to self-identify, providing a target for Trump’s defenders to aim at, and creating a virtual town hall of topic-specific discussion available via a single click. Whether or not the voluntary association of Donald Trump opponents is successful in their mission to stop him, social capital theory suggests their affiliation benefits the participants and broader societal discourse.
Many of the actors in the #NeverTrump Twitter discussion are simply citizens with a strong opinion. Their shared belief and the interconnected architecture of Twitter hashtags is what enables the formation of a space where normative discourse akin to the public sphere can occur, and also can yield as a byproduct the shared benefits of weak ties, social trust, and the power of positive association. Measuring the degree of social capital generated or evident in the use of this hashtag is a means by which to evaluate the existence of a public sphere in relation to the U.S. Presidential elections. While the actual measurement is beyond the scope of this paper, identifying the broader good and affiliations generated in the use of this hashtag, and mapping their exchanges, may offer hope for the existence of public sphere like discourse.
Given the common ground shared between the public sphere and social capital, it is surprising that more scholarly work has not explored the link between the two widely cited theories. The suggested intersection of the theories online, particularly with social media, is made with the understanding that online behavior frequently strays far from Habermasian ideals. For as much benefit as can be derived from voluntary association, negative outcomes can also result from the discussions. The criticism of Internet discourse, however, also lends an urgency to consider this communication in terms of the benefit it can provide for participants and society. We live in an increasingly wired world, with ever more of our daily lives being lived out in online interactions, from professional research, to networking, to shopping, to play. Suggesting an approach to find durable, calculable benefit from online interactions can help reframe the discourse about them, and counter the perception that the Internet is a hive of destructive negativity. Linking the generation of social capital online to the public sphere can lead to a reconsideration of the ideals espoused by Habermas. A true public sphere may never be realized, but its building blocks can be an aspirational goal for online discussion participants, and for society.
Rather than looking for the rational public debates of the ideal sphere, a better approach is to seek venues where opinion-forming associations can operate within changing notions of the public. Generating collective goodwill through weak ties, where each individual resides securely in a social space, can help disenfranchised groups grow their communities. For its large, avid population of users, #NeverTrump serves as a shared experience of linked discourse, commentary, advocacy, and opinion-formation. This rollicking association of like-minded citizens may not meet the definition of a public sphere, but it certainly embodies Habermasian aspirations. And social capital scholars would suggest the interactions reflect their work as well.
About the author
Brendan O’Hallarn is a doctoral candidate in sport management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He primarily researches the interaction of Twitter users through sport-themed hashtags.
E-mail: bohallar [at] odu [dot] edu
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Received 5 September 2016; accepted 6 September 2016.
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The public sphere and social capital: Unlikely allies in social media interactions?
by Brendan O’Hallarn
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 10 - 3 October 2016