Table of Contents
II. Definition of key terms
III. The public sphere in the European Union
IV. The blogosphere in the United States
V. Rules of electoral campaigning in the EU and the potential for the European blogosphere
Over the past years, global communication has seen a revolution. Cellular phones and the internet have reduced the time and space needed for global communication. They allow individuals and enterprises to uphold international networks, to conclude business contracts overseas and to invest their money around the globe (cf. Van Dijk, 2006). The virtual revolution has made information cheaper and more quickly available, as online news sources provide information about events in other parts of the world without any delay in time. This makes a European citizen a part of these events and allows him to act upon the information very quickly. As the internet grew as a forum for information and global communication, it also offered new possibilities for political participation.
With the emergence of the internet, citizens have not only been able to consume media but also to actively produce information that reaches a wide range of readers and viewers (this concept is also known as web 2.0). A new form of journalism, citizen journalism, was born which, for the first time, gave everybody the possibility to make their voice heard on political affairs without the need to go through the news selection procedure of conventional media. This citizen journalism via online forums and especially via personal “weblogs” or “blogs” challenges the role and form of established media. In the United States, blogs have played a considerable role in political life since the presidential elections of 2004 and political stories pursued by the blogosphere have led to the resignation of several politicians and conventional journalists (Hewitt, 2002).
In Europe, the blogosphere is less prominent than in the United States, but there is a considerable number of political blogs on European affairs (Euractiv, 2009a). The virtual revolution comes at a time in which European politicians and citizens are concerned with the democratic deficit of the EU, related to the absence of a veritable European public sphere in which European politics could be advanced and debated (De Vreese, 2007). Many citizens deplore the insufficient information which they acquire through conventional media, which in turn leads to a demise of popular support of the European Union. Consequently, this paper sets out to show the role of blogs in influencing political participation of the citizens and in providing democratic control of policy-makers in the European Union.
In order to analyse these two aspects, the paper is divided into four different parts. In the first part, the key concepts of the argumentation are defined. In the second part, the lack of a European public sphere is discussed and the role of the media in providing information on European affairs is highlighted. The third part will give an introduction into the phenomenon of the political blogosphere using the example of the United States. Arguably, the United States have been at the origin of most innovations in European election campaigning (Blumler, Kavanagh, Nossiter in Swanson, Mancini, 1996, p. 250) and the same accounts for the introduction of blogs into the political arena. Drawing upon insights from the previous sections, the four part highlights the specificity of political communication during an election campaign in the European Union and the potential of the European blogosphere to bring about more involvement of the citizens and public control of policy-makers. Concluding, the paper assesses the role of blogs in filling the information gap and in providing for more of a European public sphere.
II. Definition of key terms
The first of the two key concepts of this paper is political participation, which has been defined by different scholars within different models of democracy. The paper uses a definition of political participation by Verba and Nie, who hold that “political participation refers to those activities by private citizens that . . . aim at influencing the government, either by affecting the choice of government personnel of by affecting the choices made by government personnel” (Verban and Nie in Teorell, 2006, p. 788-9, italics in original text). This concept is grounded in a model which Teorell terms the “responsive model of democracy”, because it involves the responses or opinions of citizens to the problems which society and policy-makers are facing (p. 789). It is opposed to a model of direct democracy in which citizens take decision at the place of elected representatives. The responsive model instead is concerned with the shaping of a political community that collectively debates ideas, forms public opinion and requires communication between policy-makers and citizens through a public sphere. The model gives particular importance to elections, which represent the most fundamental form of stating a political opinion and of participating in decision-making. In consequence, this paper will lay its emphasis on political participation in the form of opinion formation and of voting at the European elections.
The second key concept is democratic control of decision-makers. In this paper, the concept is mainly concerned with the role of the media rather than the controlling function of the European or national parliaments. Therefore, the concept is very closely aligned to the definition of investigative journalism, namely “[r]eporting, through one's own initiative and work product, matters of importance to readers, viewers or listeners. In many cases, the subjects of the reporting wish the matters under scrutiny to remain undisclosed” (Weinberg, 1995). Consequently, it is a journalist’s task to uncover flaws and problems in the political administration, and to bring them to the attention of the public. Since the citizens originally placed their faith into the politicians in choosing them as their leaders, journalists ensure that the government is held accountable to the citizens and that public outrage can build up, eventually leading to consequences on the political level.
III. The public sphere in the European Union
The notion public sphere has been defined by many scholars as “an arena for (broad, public) deliberation, discussion, and engagement in societal issues” (De Vreese, 2007, p. 4). In this sense, it provides a link between politicians and citizens and a space where ideas can be advanced, criticized and agreed upon. Thereby, the public sphere essentially fulfils the two functions outlined above. Firstly, directed upward to policy makers (bottom-up), the public sphere fulfils a function of democratic control. Secondly, directed downward to European citizens (top-down), the public sphere should involve the common man and allow for political participation of the masses.
The specificity of the European Union, however, means that a unified European public sphere is very difficult to achieve, as many nations with different media traditions and different languages coexist. These differences have caused scholars to discard the notion of a supranational European public sphere in favor of a threefold view of the European public sphere, namely a Utopian, an Elitist and a Realist position (De Vreese, 2007, p. 4). The Utopian view holds that a truly European public sphere can come true and that reality so far shows a “European public sphere light” in the development of pan-European opinion-formation and protests, e.g. at the occasion of the Iraq war in 2004 (p. 8). The Elitist perspective sees a small elite composed of political and business elites consuming a range of rather specialized European media in English language, such as the newspapers Financial Times and European Voice as well as the TV broadcaster EuroNews. The realist perspective, finally, advocates the view of the public sphere in the European Union not as a unitary space as it is in the United States but as the “Europeanization of various national public spheres” (Gerhards in Sifft, 2007, p. 129). Within the realist model, De Vreese (2007) sees two developments which account for more Europeanization. The first one, vertical Europeanization, means an increased presence of European actors and issues in national news and a higher degree of national actors debating European issues (De Vreese, 2007, p.9). The second one, horizontal integration, means a higher presence of national actors in the media of other European member states and a higher coverage of issues in other member states in the national media (p. 9).
Despite the fact that more than 1,000 journalists from all member-states are accredited with the EU institutions in Brussels, vertical Europeanization can be said to have largely failed to inform citizens better about European issues. In a quantitative study, Sifft et al. (2007) showed that national media “predominantly pay attention to EU policies when they hit home and their domestic consequences are at issue, while their formulation and negotiation at the European level is often neglected” (p. 149). Meanwhile, horizontal Europeanization has not grown considerably over the 20-year period from 1982 to 2003; despite increased political and economic integration through the Treaty of Maastricht and the European Monetary Union, reports about other European member states are not more frequent than they have been 20 years ago. Reality therefore shows that the European Union has an elitist European public sphere, complemented by rather little Europeanized national public spheres.
The absence of a genuine European public sphere and the slow process of more Europeanized national public spheres have implications for the democratic accountability of the European Union, which is limited by two principal aspects. Firstly, the lack of vertical Europeanization in the public sphere allows national politicians to control the flow of information about European affairs. According to Hix (2005), politicians can use the national media to portray European politics in a way that puts them into a good light, knowing that the citizens will not be able to verify the information with the help of other sources. In many member states it has therefore been quite popular to agree to decisions in the Council of Ministers and to subsequently blame “Brussels” for these decisions in the national media for opportunistic gains in voter support.
Secondly, the public sphere is controlled by media enterprises which have their own agendas, partially limiting the pure exchange of information and opinion. Blumler (1999) holds that a general trend in the media, especially in television, leads away from analysis of political processes toward personalized “infotainment” about individual political characters and away from continuous observation toward reports about peak events (p. 215). This works against attempts to inform citizens responsibly about the reality of European affairs. Yet, it has a great affect on public opinion, as public opinion is volatile where citizens have little knowledge about a European issue and the media have a great potential of shaping it in a certain way rather than another (Newton in De Vreese, 2007, p. 13). In consequence, political participation of the citizens is flawed, since it is not based on viable information and excludes them from the possibility of making an informed and responsible decision.
These two factors show some potential for a movement which could circumvent media-agendas and national politicians and establish a more direct link between citizens and European politics. In the United States, this has been achieved with the advent of a citizen-based “blogosphere” which complemented the existing media-based public sphere.
IV. The blogosphere in the United States
Based on a single common language, the public sphere in the United States is more homogeneous than the interrelated public spheres in the European Union. This means that information about political affairs can be transported to the citizens with greater ease than in the European Union, which facilitates political participation of the people. In addition, due to cultural and other related factors, the United States have provided a social climate which benefits new ideas and have therefore often been at the forefront of political and cultural innovation (cf. Blumler, Kavanagh, Nossiter in Swanson, Mancini, 1996, p. 250). It is therefore not surprising that the blogosphere first arose in the United States.
In order to speak about the blogosphere, it is useful to give a definition of a blog in the first place. A weblog, or blog, is a simplified personal website with a function for the publication of texts and photos. Blogs are provided by professional servers on the internet; an account can be created for free within the space of several minutes. A blog allows the individual user to post messages about his environment and thereby gives him the possibility to stay in contact with his network. The simple handling of a blog means that users can post new messages to many readers in a short space of time. Friends and colleagues can react to this news quickly via a comment function. While Popoloski (2005) holds that the average blog user in the United States is a school girl posting twice a week to tell her friends the latest news about her life (Popoloski in Hewitt, 2005, p. 70), professional blogs are used by a wide variety of actors for many different purposes. Thus, companies may use professional blogs in order to present their products or their newest innovations to their clients (Euractiv, 2007). The blogs and bloggers of interest to this paper are those who raise their voice on political issues and to whom politicians, journalists, bloggers and scholars collectively refer as the blogosphere.
The actors in the political blogosphere are quite heterogeneous. There are only few political blogs which operate on a professional basis. Most bloggers write in their free time out of interest, out of the desire to have a say on political matters and the hope to make their opinion heard by others. Journalists tend to discredit bloggers as “pajama-clad amateurs” who try to explain the world from their living room (Carlson, 2007, Hewitt, 2002); yet, in reality those American blogs with the highest number of visitors are maintained by professional journalists or university professors who see the blogosphere as a way of airing their thoughts on American political affairs (Hewitt, 2002). Examples are the highly popular blog by Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University (NYU) or a blog by Rebecca Blood, a blogging expert and book author.
Since its emergence in the United States around the year 2000, the blogosphere has put established media under considerable pressure. Two different conceptions of news formation and news selection are at the origin of this tension. On the one hand, the trust in traditional media reports is based upon the competence and truthfulness of the journalists reporting for these media. The media’s prime function, according to many authors (De Roche, 2006, Huggins & Axford, 2001) is to access a broad range of daily information and to select those which are deemed “journalistic”, and thus of interest to the people. To this end, professional journalists often had a journalistic education which binds them to certain journalistic criteria of news selection and requires them to have a general knowledge on a broad range of topics (Carlson, 2007). While this enables them to work into a specific topic very quickly, it does not give them a very high factual competence in specific sectors. The blogosphere, on the other hand, by its sheer size provides a large repertoire of collective knowledge. It gives the floor to a variety of factual experts from civil society whose ideas would not find the way into the conventional media due to limits in space or scope of the reports. Meanwhile, however, the blogosphere also gives the floor to many political lays whose statements may be more debatable; the quality and the accountability of blog reports will be discussed later.
This different form of news conception does not mean that conventional media and the blogosphere are rivals on the same fields. Despite its capacities in providing citizen reports (e.g. personal stories on blogs during the tsunami 2004 in South-East Asia), the blogosphere does not replace traditional journalism. Instead, the capacities of the blogosphere have resulted in three main functions which challenge traditional news reports. The first one is the possibility to check the facts presented by conventional media and to assess their accuracy. Carlson (2007) refers to this as the “watchdog role” of the bloggers (p. 268). The large variety of the blogosphere means that there will often be someone who has the power to check the news: “I know this subject better than the reporters – and they’re wrong! And I can say so on my Web site and no one can stop me!” (Rosenberg in Allan, 2006, p. 75, italics in original).
- Quote paper
- André Feldhof (Author), 2009, Atomization overcome? The case of the European blogosphere in Fostering more European Democracy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/132656