Following an alleged racially motivated encounter with a police officer in Marion County,South Carolina, black actors Cherie Johnson and Dennis White decided to share their story via the mass media.
On Sept. 22, the two African-American actors alleged a Caucasian police officer approached the couple as they were observing a cotton field alongside the roadway near Myrtle Beach, SC.
The officer, identified as S. Barfield, proceeded to wrongfully harass the couple by questioning their activity , accusing them of smuggling drugs, asking to search their vehicle, placing them in handcuffs, all without justifiable probable cause, according to the iReport.
In the iReport, the couple attempted to appeal to the public for help spreading their message.
"At no point in history is this justified, especially not in this day and age. The equality that our forefathers fought so hard to obtained does not stretched across the board. South Carolina has been known to treat African-Americans as second-class citizens. It’s not right and it’s not fair. I will not stop until this incident is made public and that racist cop, Barfield, is reprimanded and punished. That was one of the worse days of my life and I plan on making it one of his as well. If you are reading this, please share, please discuss, please inform your family, friends, co-workers and associates that “Officer S. Barfield” in Marion County, SC is a racist cop and his punishment is imminent. We will not stand for this injustice anymore!"
The couple's call for activism on behalf of them, and presumably other African-Americans who are tired of being victimized by racism, exemplifies the growing trend of outreach to the public sphere using the Internet.
This public sphere is the topic for this week's readings.
This week we were assigned to read "Communicating Global Activism:Strengths and vulnerabilities of
networked politics" by W. Lance Bennett; "The Logic of Collective Action:Digital media and the personalization of contentious politics" by W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg; "Is the internet a better public sphere? Comparing old and new media in the USA and Germany" by Jürgen Gerhards and Mike S. Schäfer; and "The virtual sphere : The internet as a public sphere” by Zizi Papacharissi.
All of these readings provided similar context on the notion of a public sphere, particularly its relationship with the usage of the Internet for political and activism uses.
According to Papacharissi “The internet and its surrounding technologies hold the promise of reviving the public sphere; however, several aspects of these new technologies simultaneously curtail and augment that
She continued, “First, the data storage and retrieval capabilities of internet-based technologies infuse political discussion with information otherwise unavailable. At the same time, information access inequalities and new media literacy compromise the representativeness of the virtual sphere. Second, internet-based technologies enable discussion between people on far sides of the globe, but also frequently fragmentize political
discourse. Third, given the patterns of global capitalism, it is possible that Internet-based technologies will adapt themselves to the current political culture, rather than create a new one.”
She also posed the question: “Does cyberspace present a separate alternative to, extend, minimize, or ignore the public sphere?”
I say in the long run, cyberspace will not only ultimately extend he public sphere, but it will also enhance it in ways we have yet to fathom.
The Internet, jump drives and other memory equipment all make it possible for people to retrieve information to which they may not have had previous access.
Someone could easily save a political PowerPoint to a jump drive and give a presentation to inner city youth or another person who is looking to better educate themselves on local politics could easily pull up the minutes for the city council’s meeting last week.
All of these opportunities are made possible by cyberspace and new technologies.
Understandably, some may be concerned about a knowledge gap between the haves and the have-nots.
However, we can hope and work toward making information accessible to all.
Papacharissi brings up the point that the Internet and related technologies have created a new public space for politically oriented conversation; but whether this public space transcends to a public sphere is not up to the technology itself.
Technology is only useful if people make it useful.
Facebook and Twitter create a public space for public gathering online.
However, it is up to its users to direct the conversation from who posted the most delicious picture of last night’s dinner or which sports team will win the game on Sunday to a conversation more political or activist in
nature, creating a public sphere.
“It is important to determine whether the internet and its surrounding technologies will truly revolutionize the political sphere or whether they will be adapted to the current status quo, especially at a time when the public is demonstrating dormant political activity and developing growing cynicism towards politics” (Cappella and Jamieson, 1996, 1997; Fallows,1996; Patterson, 1993, 1996).
I disagree this will happen. From my observations, it seems the usage of technology to revolutionize he political sphere is only growing, not remaining dormant despite alleged waning political
On the contrary, it is seemingly political activity, making it easier for people to engage in discourse in the public sphere as well as appealing and educating the masses like never before.
In discussing the public sphere, Bennett and Segerberg detail the difference between connective and collective actions.
While collective action “emphasizes the problems of getting individuals to contribute to the collective endeavor that typically involves seeking some sort of public good that may be better attained through forging common cause,” connective action networks are “typically far more individualized and technologically organized sets of processes that result in action without the requirement of collective identity framing or the levels of organizational resources required to respond effectively to opportunities.”
I would categorize the aforementioned story about the black actors and their CNN iReport as a collective action because they are seeking to connect with a larger mass of fed up people to protest against the wrongdoings of racist police everywhere.
Meanwhile, if the couple opted to forgo contacting the media about the case and instead just reported the incident to the police chief’s office and pursued any subsequent investigations or reform that may have
occurred as a result of their perseverance, I would have considered it to be a connective action.
Furthermore, Gerhards and Schäfer break down the fora within the public sphere. Before discussing these fora, I want to share the definition of fora.
The Oxford dictionary defines fora as the plural of forums, but in ancient roman cities was the public square or marketplace used for judicial and other business.
I think Gerhard and Schäfer’s word choice of fora was not coincidental.
Forums are like public squares where ideas and discourse areexchanged.
However, I digress.
The authors divide the fora of the public sphere into three categories:
1. Encounter public sphere- consists of everyday, face-to-face communication between
citizens. This type of communication takes place on streets, in parks, pubs, etc.
2. Public events- including town hall meetings, public lectures, or protest rallies. They
have at least a minimal organizational structure, and specialists and opinion
leaders participate in this forum and may structure and dominate
3. The mass media- They possess full-fledged technical and organizational infrastructure and
are dominated by specialists like journalists, experts and collective actors.
When analyzing how technology and the Internet impact the public sphere, it is important to remember these categories.
These days, face-to-face communication has moved from the streets or in parks, to social media.
Additionally, public events such as town hall meetings or protest rallies are frequently advertised or broadcast online.
Regardless of the good and bad aspects, the public sphere has moved online.
I would certainly consider the mass media to be a forum of collective actors.
Mass media professionals initiate public conversations through webpages or even still through print letters to the
News stories set the new agenda for the day, sparking conversations.
The act of reporting sparks a forum of conversation.
For example, during my time working as a reporter at the Victoria Advocate, I helped start the Hispanic Reader Advisory Group.
We invited a diverse group of Hispanics in our readership area to meet with us every other month.
During these conversations, we solicited feedback on the stories about Hispanics that we were already working on as well as solicited new story ideas about the Hispanic community.
This got the public conversation going and resulted in some really great work by the newspaper both in print and
In turn, the conversation spread beyond our seven-county readership area.
Many of my stories were picked up by the Associated Press and broadcast nationwide, expanding the conversation to a larger audience who offered comments.
Meanwhile, Bennett’s second article explored some of the ways in which digital communication networks may be changing the political game in favor of resource-poor players who, in many cases, are experimenting with political
strategies outside of conventional national political channels such as elections and interest processes.
Again, I think digital communication has changed the game, to some extent leveling the playing field in political
Current President Barack Obama is a product of this revolution.
He changed the game in the 2008 election, not only targeting younger voters, but also by taking part of his campaign online.
His campaigners sent targeted emails, became active on social media networks, maintained an informative website, broadcasted speeches and town hall meetings.
President Obama exemplified how expanding the public sphere online can result in political change.
In the spirit of starting a political conversation in this cyberspace leg of the public sphere, I pose the following questions about the public sphere for class discussion or discussion with my online blog
1. Do you think it will ever be possible to include everyone in this new public sphere that reaches online?
2. Do you think the inclusion of cyberspace and social media into the public sphere
actually lends itself to a less social way of life?
3. At this point, should society even continue to work on improving traditional foras of
the public sphere or refocus its energies on bringing the public sphere completely digital?