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Not just a neologistic pas de deux

Posted on    by Philip Schlesinger
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Not just a neologistic pas de deux

By 7 March 2024July 9th, 2024No Comments

CREATe presents the third working paper in the 2024 series –  ‘The post-public sphere and the neo-regulation of digital platforms’ by Prof. Philip Schlesinger. Read his reflections on the working paper below.

This article has been cooking for a couple of years. It’s part of CREATe’s programme of work on digital regulation. You might well respond: ‘Why conjoin the public sphere and regulation? They aren’t usually paired.’ To which the answer is that they are inextricably conjoined in the digital age, and the embrace will tighten.

Just before the pandemic hit us, following a decade’s hiatus, I revisited public sphere theory. I’d had quite a long break after participating in international research programmes on the prospects of a European public sphere. It was an illuminating moment that reflected post-national aspirations that are out of kilter with the EU’s present evolution.

Returning to the fray at the start of the present decade, what struck me most was that contributors to public sphere theory were addressing a crisis, an implosion and fracture rather than the cosmopolitan aspiration of earlier decades. Common tropes, for instance, included democratic politics being hollowed out; civility being put on the scrap heap, with reasoned debate on the back foot. Moreover, respect for evidence was ever so passé while for some the public sphere was a reactionary idea that propped up inequalities, or was an oppressive colonising construct invented by, and limited to, the global north.

This confluence of critical positions coincided with the moment of ‘post-truth’, the rubbishing of expertise tout court as merely an instrument of power, along with the latest entrée of the obfuscating epithet ‘populism’, a handy catch-all non-explanation for understanding the contemporary socio-political battleground.

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When something is designated ‘post’, it’s often because we throw up our hands because there’s no better descriptor in the locker. One may acknowledge this, and yet find it useful. In the article, I argue that talk of a ‘post-public sphere’ has indeed found its object. It designates a transitional state of affairs characteristic of struggling liberal democracies, in which one media-political order is passing rapidly away whereas what will succeed it, and what the consequences will be, remain unclear. In his most recent work, as I show, Jürgen Habermas has bewailed the calamitous state of things and invoked the regulation of digital platforms as a corrective to the decline of the traditional media order which, he contends, has had an injurious impact on the political public sphere. His position, though, does not get to grips with the limits of regulatory effectiveness or, indeed, the capacity of states to address the fast-moving challenges of the digital era.

My analysis is deeply informed by present geopolitical challenges and how these are affecting how states conduct themselves. The drive to regulate platforms – which is global – plays out in different ways in different regimes. I argue that the post-Cold War era has certain continuities with its predecessor. As before, how regulation is conducted in major jurisdictions – China, the USA, the EU – occurs in a contested global communicative space, although the modes of contestation have shifted both in terms of the players’ axial line-ups and the technologies in play.

Especially striking is how regulation is now profoundly inflected by doctrines of national security. These have an impact on how states officially conceive of themselves (their political imaginaries) and, taking the British case as my illustration, the emergent ‘neo-regulatory’ order. This mode of rulemaking is a response to geopolitics as well as geoeconomics and technology. As the tech waterfront grows in expanse, and assaults on the beaches ramify in kind and intensity, the work of defending the littoral becomes ever more challenging. Within given states, arguably, the regulatory agencies for doing the necessary work will be driven to seek increased collaboration. The work of Pierre Bourdieu becomes apt at this point because we may think about the panoply of rule-making and rule-enforcing bodies set up within polities as constituting a ‘regulatory field’. One crucial line of force is defined by the conflictual relations that exist between global platforms and states. Beyond the boundaries of states, steps towards global governance occur in a contested space.

Finally, this article makes an appeal for us to rethink the regulatory field in the context of how national security doctrine is itself transforming the practice and political culture of liberal democratic capitalist states. Overt regulation is front of house activity engaged by in bodies concerned with questions such as competition, online safety, and AI ethics. Covert regulation includes international trade in chips, take-downs of ‘extremist and terrorist’ content, and techniques of news management. These are part and parcel of the regulatory field, but not commonly seen that way. It’s time they were.

Here, then, is one possible agenda for comparative research on regulation in times of crisis.

‘The post-public sphere and the neo-regulation of digital platforms’.

Philip Schlesinger

CREATe Working Paper 2024/3

Abstract

This article discusses the post-public sphere and the regulation of platforms that have had disruptive effects on democracy. Platformisation means that the normative ideals for a political public sphere set out by Jürgen Habermas face a distinctive challenge. “Neo-regulation” is an evolving adaption by states that reflects the urgent need to address platformisation and digitalisation more generally. In conditions of geopolitical competition, notably between the China and US, attempts by various states and the EU to establish a neo-regulatory order has developed a significant national security dimension, which is highly relevant for the regulation of digital communication. Policing borders and content is an ever-present focus in all political regimes, whether characterised as democratic or authoritarian. Applying Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory to internet regulation, the argument is illustrated by reference to current British regulatory practice. At the level of the state, the “regulatory field” is shaped by national and global forces. Although the British case has specific characteristics, the underlying analysis has general relevance for comparative research.

Full paper can be downloaded here.