The role of mobile telephony in the renewal of the public sphere and the extension of democratic processes

Mobile phone use has become ubiquitous (fig. 1), especially among the young and wealthy with more than five billion uses worldwide (Pew Research, 2019). Smartphones herald the arrival of convergence bringing together the formally ‘separate business of media, telecommunications, and computing/information technology into interdependent services’ via digital networks (Cinque, 2012, p,14).  The speed of change in technology has garnered much discussion as to the social-political and economic effects creating debates between dystopian sceptics and utopian celebrants regarding the democratising potentials of mobile technologies often leading to technological determinist claims on each side (McChesney 2017, Fuchs 2017). Theorist Douglas Rushkoff claims, ‘the problem with media revolutions is that we too easily lose sight of what it is that’s truly revolutionary’ and ‘by focusing on the shiny new toys and ignoring the human empowerment potentiated by these new media — the political and social capabilities they are retrieving — we end up surrendering them’ (p,31). This does not intrinsically signal neither the downfall of democracy and the public sphere nor quash authoritarian rule but calls for a united effort across diverse publics to reclaim lost potentials. Then how does mobile telephony enable a renewal of the public sphere and extension of democratic processes? While phone use went from 3 per cent to 72 per cent in Africa, GDP in that continent stayed proportionately lower than other world regions (fig.2) bringing into question claims of an innate democratising potential of mobile telephony even if half of those phones smartphones. 

Figure 1. Mobile phone use has become ubiquitous, with more phones there are more people connected to the internet.
Figure 2. Phone and Internet Use has not automatically led to improvements in GDP.

Discussions of the public sphere link back to Jürgen Habermas who defined it ‘as a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed’ where access is guaranteed to all citizens (1989, p.136). The European coffee houses which Habermas noted as the spaces of ‘unpowered’ free and open democratic discussion were not open to everyone but to a certain elite and over time Habermas came to see a further degrading of the quality of public sphere deliberations through a tabloidisation effect during the time of the French revolution – a result of the effect of advertising (ibid). The concepts arise from Marxist political conflict theory as skilled participation requires access to private property not available to everyday workers. There has not been any marked increase in GDP in developing regions to correlate with increased phone use (fig.3) and neither have GDP figures become more distributed despite the more widespread adoption of phones (fig.4).  The public sphere is instead seen ‘as imagining’ and alternative to a self-serving bourgeois class (1989c p. 122–129 in Fachs 2017).

Figure 4.  The slow change in GDP around the world (stagflation).

Michel Foucault’s writings on biopolitics have further influenced discussions on the capitalist created public sphere which suggest distinctions between the public and private sphere are based on the presumption scarcity, of the impossibility of sharing or creating a common (Cited in Hardt & Negri, 2009 p.336). Public spheres today are a multitude of intersecting and overlapping micro-publics. In later work, Habermas theory evolved (2006) from the spectator broadcast era and recognised the importance of an overlapping publics as ‘the public sphere is rooted in networks for the wild flows of messages—news, reports, commentaries, talks, scenes and images’ which are more illustrative of today’s many-to-many communications and participatory culture (p. 415).

In contrast to how many institutional schools might have us remain as autonomous problem solvers and self-contained learners in convergence culture, we learn to ‘use and manage collective power’ through ‘informal mentoring’ (Ibid). What’s important to Jenkins’ is the emphasises on the culture above the technology because it aids in avoiding the trap of technological determinism when deciphering if mobile technologies today which could amount to a new kind of public sphere (2006, 2013). Jenkins (2006) is a celebrant not of the technology but of the cultures that emerge, which are ‘a by-product of the collision between new and old media’ and the ‘related ideas of media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence’ (TEDxNYED – Henry Jenkins, 2010). Beyond simply a technological effect ‘convergence requires active participation across media systems, economies and borders’ all brought together on the smartphone ‘performance’ of the ‘consumer’ (Ibid).

Lindgren and Lundström (cited in Fuchs 2017 p.180) also see the new media environments as having ‘a particularly strong potential’ to create a space for what Beck (1997) called Subpolitics. Subpolitics are not ‘governmental, parliamentary, and party politics’, but ‘take place in all the other fields of society’ (Beck, 1997. P. 52). A state of ‘organised irresponsibility’ is said to emerge as the people who are supposed to manage human-generated risk are in a state of denial because of their new qualities (ibid). For people alienated from institutions ‘post-conventional’ forms of Subpolitics form in spheres like variable and locally focused environmental movements and phone networks become spaces for critical debate where ‘alternative knowledge’ are constructed (Beck 1997, 52).  These types of ‘modernised reflexive’ debates on social media now prevail on almost any contemporary topic towards their risk and are evident in recent discussions around the origins of COVID-19 which range from Wet Markets, Chinese labs and even in protests of 5G telecommunications towers which are said to cause a health risk (Ibid). Beck was not as much interested in the public sphere but in an interconnected cosmopolitanism which has similar connotations of egalitarian, community connectedness (Beck 1997).

Celebrants, the Arab Spring and Global Connectedness

Celebrants refute sceptic’s claims that the smartphones and the internet are making us dumber often citing uprisings like #BlackLivesMatter illuminating civil rights violations and the Arab Spring (McChesney, 2018). The case of the Arab Spring Revolution began in early 2011 with protests in Cairo, Egypt and spread out to areas of both high and low phone adoption rates: Bahrain, Libia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen (fig.5).  In a much-discussed public debate, celebrant, Clay Shirky argued phone-aided social media provided a space for ‘epochal change’; ‘to speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly’ (Shirky cited in Fuchs 2013 p. 185). At the time phone adoption in the Middle East was as high as any other region in the world (fig. 6). While these charts indicate a correlation between the fast uptake in phones and regime change there are exceptions (fig. 7). Yemen, for example, had a low phone adoption rate up to 2011 (50%).

And in comparison, despite much optimism and promise (Yang 2009) the failed Jasmine Revolution in Hong Kong is only now starting to show potential despite some of the higher phone adoption rates than Arab countries and the established democracy of the United States (fig. 7).  Furthermore not all the regime changes in the Arab Spring led to more democratic governance (Rushkof 2019).

Figure 5. Phone adoption during the Arab Spring.

Figure 6. Phone adoption by World region.

Figure 7. Internet and phone usage in the years leading up to the Arab Spring

While more optimistic theorists claim digital revolutions can quash top-down authoritarianism entirely, these claims require scrutiny.  Castells (2008) articulated an idea of a ‘global civil society’ as the debate on public affairs moved from the national domain an ‘ad-hoc’ global debate (p. 1). Castells saw the ‘global civil society’ as democratic because it was as the diplomacy of the public, not of the government, which intervenes in this global public sphere beyond of power relationships but by ‘building on shared cultural meaning’ local/global NGOs, transnational non-state actors, environmental groups take up global solidarities on nodes. Castells’ saw this networked society as a new paradigm enabled by technologies like smartphones which ‘prioritised informal, horizontal communications’ where the more ‘marginalised’ could ‘gain autonomy and self-determination’ through their ‘DIY discourses’ (Castells 2007, p.55).  Castells, among others, has been key in attributing the Arab Spring to ordinary people receiving the powers to participate more directly with the democratic process at the expense of big media outlets but also warned of the fanatical defence of identity in the face of globalisation (2017).

Technological Determinism

Examining the Arab Spring, Evgeny Morozov observed that Shirky’s notion of ‘Twitter revolution’ was ‘based on a belief in cyber-utopianism – a naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside’ (Morozov cited in Fuchs 2017 p. 188).  Technological determinism emerges in arguments claim one single ‘causal relationship of media/technology and society’ (Fuchs 2017, p. 201). Technological determinism is also evident in the day to day dystopian stories of the hazards of social media and modern technology such as dangerous twitter mobs. These contrasting extreme perspectives point towards the importance of developing a nuanced multidimensional perspective of theory in the age of new media environments and ecosystems (Fuchs 2017 p. 201).

Technological Determinism


Sceptics often cite the vast amounts of always-on information available on smartphones ‘shallow our thinking’ rather than making us ‘informed citizens’ leading to a climate of ‘nihilism’ and point to echo chambers and fake news sites which ‘create alt-right groups’ and meaningless trolling undermining informed public interest and a resilient common (McChesney 2018, p.7). In opposition to ‘techno-euphoria’ about social media, Malcolm Gladwell (2010 p. 49) hit back at Shirky, claiming central organisation vertical power structures overpower conflict-prone, horizontal networks which don’t have the clear lines of leadership needed to gain consensus thus entrenching existing power structures (Gladwell, 2010 p.45). These problems lead activists in the networked society to seek out ‘low risk’ activities and ‘slacktivism’ built around ‘weak ties’ (Gladwell 2010, 49). According to media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, weak ties are a result of the ‘capitalist interests’ that ‘co-opted’ the original democratising potentials of the internet:  ‘The primary purpose of the internet had changed from supporting a knowledge economy to growing an attention economy… converted to an always-on medium, configured to the advantage of those who wanted to market to us or track our activities. (2019 P.31).

Rushkoff responds ‘we were naive to think that digital technology would be intrinsically and inevitably more empowering than any medium that came before it.’ And while ‘digital networks are more directionless and decentralized than their broadcast predecessors’ and ‘ allow messages to flow from the bottom up, or the outside in… like all media, if they’re not consciously seized by the people seeking empowerment, they’ll be seized by someone or something else’ (p.32). In the documentary, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, Robert McChesney (2018 p.11) shows how ‘without government regulation, capitalism tends to create business monopolies that give inordinate power to a few massive corporations’ with ‘power to influence the government well above the influence of ordinary citizens’ (p.11).  Citing extensive studies Mcchesney showed ‘wealthy individuals and business trade associations wielded incredible influence over basically all of the legislative decisions that affected them’ and for this reason when considering the internet and democracy it helps to examine the resistance to monopolistic concentrations of wealth and power (p.11). The five most valuable companies worldwide today are internet and new media corporations that enjoy greater monopolies in their field then the oil barons (the likes of Getty and Rockefeller) ever did and the majority of traffic and almost all advertising revenue flows through these corporations (Ibid). The connected deteriorating effects on paid journalism further deteriorate the information commons as currently, Newscorp Australia is closing all their local newspapers and moving to online-only publications– partly the result of consolidation and COVID-19 but also of the majority of advertising revenue now flows to the major corporations.

The possibilities and limitations of internet activism in the Arab Spring showed this is ultimately tied to hybrid media, and vertical and horizontal configurations (Jones, 2013). Mobile phones and social media only represent some of the players and are not the cause. Faches (2017) concludes by quoting Habermas on how the stratified economic structures of Twitter as a commercialised mostly entertainment platform show the limits of the public sphere. What is needed for democracy is to address ‘inequality’ and ‘allow criticism of structures’ that  ‘limit the availability of the commons for all people’ (p. 200). From this perspective, we can see how the Internet which was founded on commons principles emerging through government-backed the shared nature of this resource like the earth we live on has been depleted over time.  Modern smartphones are embedded into the socioeconomic circumstances, and power struggles of the world they occupy rather than determine them which are controlled by the walled gardens of a handful of companies. Where the ‘the most uncensored, freest, and best press systems in the world belong to the same countries that top The Economist’s list of the most democratic nations’ (Mccesney 2018 P. 29). The USA has one of the highest internet usage rates in the world yet continues to slide on this index (fig. 8). In the era of neoliberalism, the ability to critique imbalances of power between state and these corporations is also compromised (Khan, 2008).

Figure 8. Internet adoption by countries around the world

Instead of robust debate, there is a ‘pseudo-public-sphere’  or what Habermas called a ‘manufactured public sphere’ not truly representative or empowering for all (Fuchs 2017 p.201). The mythology of the corporations that dominate today has been of ‘start-ups in their garages’ ‘disrupting the status quo’ as Apple promises to think differently or Google headquarters is furnished with youthful skateboards and play equipment promoting what McChesney (2017) calls ‘the oasis of a rebellion from within capitalism’ evident in such trends as greenwashing and pinkwashing (p.21). 

Greenwashing and pinkwashing

This quest to look authentic promotes the illusion of a public sphere which hides the economic imperative for which these monopolies exist working with the government to further expand their influence and stake in society. Rushkoff (2018) claims, ‘each new media revolution appears to offer people a new opportunity to wrest that control from an elite few and reestablish the social bonds that media has compromised. But, so far anyway, the people—the masses—have always remained one entire media revolution behind those who would dominate them’ (P.31). As with television, radio, the printing press and perhaps even human speech rescuing autonomy and self-determination from those that would seek to control the new media and society and the economy will take a coordinated effort. By avoiding the pitfalls of techno determinism and creating theory and practice which creates truly distributed and inclusive public spheres fit for the digital age there is a path forward which will either revolutionise or transcend capitalism.


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Header Image. Democracy by Human culture. Public Domain