Public Sphere and the New Media (How Democratization and Political Communication in the Internet Shape the Indonesian Society)

Presented in Indonesia International Communication Conferece 2010, November 22-23


Communication Technology Development and the New Media

Communication always has a connection to the development of technology. Invention of the new kinds of communication technology, hardware or software, in the end will has impact to the way we communicate. The new way we communicate defined by this kind of communication technology. The public communication finally will be highly influenced by how the communication technology itself developing.

Innovation of technology at first came from human needs for any tools to help them to do something. McQuail (2000) said innovation always come and adapted from human needs for social change in the society. Any change within the society will be influencing the technology and further more in the way how communication technology adapted that change.

Indonesian society is also facing the same condition. If we can say this society gradually becoming an information society, as the consequence is any form of the communication technology development will impact the Indonesian social and political life.

If we discuss computer as one of communication technology then we cannot avoid talk about internet or new media. New media cannot be simplified into technological application for transmitting message or connected people into communication. The term of the Web 2.0 the internet becoming a phenomenon in order to shape the way of social relationship among the people who communicate using the new media.

The most dominant characteristic of new media as the form of communication technology is digitalization. Digitalization is a process where all communication texts can be reduced into binary code and in the same time can be sharing the process of production, distribution and storage (McQuail, 2000).

New media characteristic is the integration of telecommunication, data communications and mass communications in a single medium, it is process of convergence. For this reason, new media are often called multimedia.

Integration can take place at one of the following levels: first, infrastructure—for example combining the different transmission links and equipment for telephone and computer (data) communications; second is transportation—for example Internet telephoney and web TV riding on cable and satelilite television; third is management—for example a cable company that exploits telephone lines and a telephone company that exploits cable television; fourth is services—for example the combination of information and communication services on the Internet; fifth is types of data—putting together sounds, data, text, and images (van Dijk, 2006).

Another characteristic of new media is the rise of interactive media, in a very general definition, interactivity is a sequence of action and reaction. The most elementary level of interactivity is the possibility of establishing two-sided or multilateral communication. This is the space dimension, all digital media offers this possibility to a certain extent (van Dijk, 2006).

Internet as the new media can be considered as a revolutionary form of mass communications. This argumentation refers to the capability of internet as a convergence media with its multiplatform. Another argumentation came from Denis McQuail who said there are several concepts that distinguished internet from other conventional media. Firstly, the Internet is not only or even mainly concerned with the production and distribution of messages, but is at least equally concerned with processing, exchange, and storage. Secondly, the new media are as much an institution of private as well as public communication and are regulated (or not) accordingly. Thirdly, their operation is not typically professional or bureaucratically organized in the same degree as mass media. In this way, the Internet is similar with the mass media in distributing its message widely and freely (McQuail, 2000).

According to Poster (1999) the Internet incorporates radio, film, and television and distributes them through ‘push’ technology. It transgresses the limit of the print and broadcasting model in some ways. It enabling many-to-many conversation; enabling the simultaneous reception, alteration and redistribution of cultural objects; dislocating communicative action from the posts of the nation, from the territorialized spatial relations of modernity; providing instantaneous global contact; and inserting the modern/late modern subject into a machine apparatus that is networked.

Livingstone (1999) extends this argument when she writes ‘What’s new about the internet may be the combination of interactivity with those features which were innovative for mass communication—the unlimited range of content, the scope of audience reach, the global nature of communication’.

Conventional Media and Its Failure Creating the Public Sphere


The modern era citizen is frequently characterized as passive, cynical, and disconnected, but those trends are not specific to the present era. More importantly, for citizens of all eras, the more they’ve informed the more they will engage actively in political or public discussion (Papacharissi, 2010).

In the past years mass media is fully expected to be a medium where the public sphere can be placed. This idea came from certain thought that mass media should be able to provide their space for public voices and as a field of public debates or public opinions. Unfortunately this idea is facing some problems.

The mass media often thought as a capitalist tool. It operates in the capitalist way. Mass media considered as only try to produce more profit and has lack of supportive to public interest. So, it is very reasonable to put in a doubt if the media gives its space for fulfilling the idea of the public sphere. If the conventional mass media thought has a minor chance to create the public sphere, so could it be the new media bring a new hope for public sphere?

The issue of the public sphere is at the heart of any re-conceptualization of democracy. Contemporary social relation seems to be devoid of a basic level of interactive practice which, in the past, was the matrix of democratizing politics (Poster, 1997).

The public sphere in this term refers to the conception from Jurgen Habermas. This concept came in Habermas’ mind about a hope for a condition and a space where we can communicate without any domination, uncoercive communication within the society. This discussion can only happened in the social space if only its free from censored and domination. This space then called as the public sphere.

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas (1997) mentioned that each individual should has the same and equal right to enter the public sphere. Each person considered as a private individual, they come into the public sphere without bringing their status or personal interest. They should be guaranteed for gathering and expressing their ideas and thoughts freely without any pressure from others. Habermas (1997) said

“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the public sphere of private people come together as public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor”

Habermas (1997) added some condition where the public sphere can be fulfilled, “ A domain of our social life where such a thing as public opinion can be formed (where) citizens… deal with matters of general interest without being subjected to coercien…(to) express and publicize their views.”

Habermas imagines an institution where the public sphere appeared, so communication could be happened within the society without any form of censor and domination.  One of the questions that still cant be answered is how we can make that kind of public sphere while dominations and censor will always around within the society itself? Even if we talk about the chance for creating the public sphere in the mass media and a hope there will be a space where whole ideas, thoughts, freely discussed and become public opinions, there still left a doubt about this wishful thinking. Others might say creating the public sphere in the mass media even an imaginative idea.

Access issue is one of the main problems for they who said the public sphere in the mass media as a hard one to bring in to reality. The fact is not all individual have the same or equal access to mass media. Even if Indonesia has many local media (local newspaper, local tv or community radio) there are still many who lives in remote areas don’t have any access to the mass media. On the other words, mass media only reachable for certain people who have the access to the media.

Limited space within the media also considered as another factor why it is so difficult to bring the public sphere into the mass media. Due the limited page or duration the mass media doesn’t allowed themselves for a space in term of public debates on the media space. On the other hand, the space in the media generally kept by the media for advertising or advertorial. For this situation there will be no more space left for the public sphere.

Media tends to provide their space for the sake of their owner, businesses, politician, and advertising. For those who have the capital considered the more access to the media space rather than those who don’t have the capital.

Many of these places remain but no longer serve as organizing centers for political discussion and action. It appears that the media, especially television but also other forms of electronic communication, isolate citizens from one another and substitute themselves for older spaces of politics (Poster, 1997).

In a context like this, one may ask where is the public sphere, where is the place citizens interact to form opinions in relation to which public policy must be attuned? John Hartley (1992) makes the bold and convincing argument that the media are the public sphere: Television, popular newspaper, magazines, and photography, and the popular media of the modern period, are the public domain, the place where and the means by which the public is created and has its being.


New Possibility for the Public Sphere in the New Media


Conventional media realized they can’t be easily fulfilling the Habermasian public sphere into their space. If this situation will remain, so we need to see another possibility in the other media, new media for example. New media then try to discuss as a new hope to bring the public sphere into reality.

Contemporary democracies are identified by: (a) increased commodification and privatization of public spaces, followed by a return to domestic or private spaces as political spaces; (b) a subsequent commodification of domestic and private spaces; and (c) a retreat to the realm of the social, as a way of reconciling the distance between public and private emerging polarities. Convergent online technologies therefore afford the social spaces upon which newer civic habits are tested out (Papacharissi, 2010).

Internet as a form of the new media seen has a possibility to create the public sphere. This idea is based on the characteristic of the internet or the new media itself. Its characteristic brings freely communication rather than the old media. Internet guaranteed for more chances freedom of speech compared to other conventional media like newspaper, magazines, radio, or television.

The new media has the most distinguish characteristics because it has the capability for melting down the boundary between the producer and the audience. For communication within the new media, the communicator and the communicant don’t have any difference anymore. In the new media anyone can be a communicator. If every individual consumer could also produce and distribute information, ideas, and later images, then the question of ’who owned what’ mattered little or not at all.

Interconnectivity is the important key in this new form of a communication. One of the characteristics that doesn’t owned by the classic media. On the one hand, Hill and Sen (2005) mentioned that the internet revives the McLuhan promise of the global village like no other medium, but so too ’it makes it feasible to organize smaller or narrower groups.’

According to Roland Rice (2002), interconnectivity enables the greater chance to bring communication into an open dialogue among individuals in the society. Interconnectivity—of content, medium, and form, through computers, networks, and digitalization—allows open dialogue, connectivity, and interrelatedness.

In the conventional mass media the content of communication or even the flow of communication usually controlled by those who operates the media. Audience doesn’t have any single space to control the communication or even to send feedbacks. The media producers tend to control, censor, or edit the content or the flow of communication and adjusted into their media policy and their own institutional interest. Though this control sometime could be moderate but in the other time it could also authoritarian. Capitalist interest, media owner, or political interest is their main priority. In the end, public interest will be considered as the least important concern.

Internet tries to reduce that control. Freedom of communication through the internet and new media more likely fulfilled. With the melting of the boundary between producer and audience in the internet has brings an equality for each person who communicate through the internet.

The rise of new media also brought a new concept within the communication for what we called Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC). This condition describes how we communicate through a computer. In this term, the computer cannot be seen as a hardware but also as a bridge that connecting communications in the society.

A place for discussion and public debates has been tried in the features within the internet system. Newsgroups, discussion boards, special websites designed for public debates, all have been held on the internet features. According to Jankowski (2006) many empirical researches about these also have been done, especially those who try to seek the chance for public sphere in this medium (Dahlberg, 2001; Hagemann, 2002; Schirato, 2005).

Schneider (1996, 1997) tried to see the relation between chances to create the public sphere within the internet. During the period of a year, Schneider collected 46,000 messages posted on the site and examined them along four dimensions considered central to Habermas’ notion of public sphere: equality of access to the arena of debate, diversity of opinions and topics relevant to a particular debate, reciprocity or degree of interaction between persons involved in a debate, and the quality or degree to which participants contribute information relevant to the topic.

If Habermas assumes the possibility of public sphere in the coffee shop, nowadays this possibility could be also happened in the internet. Each individual can be gathered in the virtual coffee shop within the internet. Each person is a private individual, came to the internet without bringing their personal interest and leaves their political interest behind. They gathered in the internet as a free and autonomous individual. They discuss in the internet just to communicate, sharing ideas, talk about public issues, in a free flow of communication, and free from any dominations.

Anyone who came into this space doesn’t have the right to make any repression to others. Not any single individual allowed applying pressure to other person. There is no room for coercive communication. Each person has the same right and the freedom of speech, free to express their ideas, and involved in social and political discourses.

Chat-room in the internet is one example. This kind of feature allows many people communicate in the same time and involved all of them in single conversation. Each of them has the same chance to speak. All of them have the same right to communicate in this chat-room.  Nobody allowed for being authoritarian in this medium.

Mailing list is another example for freedom of communication in the internet. In the mailing list feature, everyone have the same access and chance to join as the mailing list member. They also have the equal access to discuss and share their opinion within the mailing list. A small control may come from the mailing list moderator, but actually their primary role as it’s called: to moderate the flow of communication.

For these examples we can see how Habermas’ concept of the public sphere may can be happened. Every individual within the society have a huge chance to join into a free speech and without domination. Everyone have a chance to involve in a free communication and discussed about public interest. In the end, a rational public opinion can be created within this new medium of communication.

Citizen Behavior in the Social Networking Sites: Indonesia’s Case


Global use of the internet has increased a hundredfold since 1991. In 2002, the International Telecommunication Union estimated that there were around 590 million Internet users globally, with more than one-third in Asia, including about for million in Indonesia. As with the rest of Asia, the Internet started growing substantially in Indonesia the mid-1990s. (Hill & Sen, 2005)

Alongside satellite television, the internet was the other new medium that begun to makes its presence felt in the west in the late 1980s and in Asia (including Indonesia) in the 1990s. A ‘multi-modal horizontal network’, the internet was seen as the polar opposite of the ‘old’ centrally dispatched multi-media system into (Castells, 1997).

The Internet was first introduced in Indonesia in 1994 through an academic institution. Today the Internet in Indonesia is growing very fast. In big cities the ‘Warung Internet’ (Internet Cafe) is now booming. These are places where a user can access the Internet without having to become a customer of an ISP. People just pay the hourly fee, depending on the amount of time they wish to use the Internet. They don’t have to be registered in an ISP; there is no need to pay the Internet monthly fee or telephone fee.

The estimated number of Internet users, according to the Indonesian Internet Service Provider Association (APJII), shows the number of subscribers and Internet users between the years 1998 and 2007. Up until 2007, the internet user in Indonesia has reachs 25 million users. Today Indonesia is among the top 20 Internet countries due to the number of users (

Internet, especially social networking sites can be used as an alternative option for Indonesia citizen to participate in political activity. This political activity isn’t restricted in a direct political involvement such as decision making in legislation or voting. Indonesian political activity within the social networking sites is more indirect activity.

One example is a case of Facebook Fans Page for supporting Bibit Samad Rianto and Chandra Hamzah. Both of them are leaders of Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission who arrested by the police. They accused involved in misusing their authority  and blackmailing. For most of the society this case is more political rather than a criminal case, and the society thought it was an inhabitation for corruption eradication movement in Indonesia. For this reason, society then supports them by using the Facebook site to gain an online petition as a political movement.

Support for Bibit-Chandra was rising within days through Facebook Page named ‘Gerakan 1.000.000 Facebookers Dukung Chandra Hamzah & Bibit Samad Riyanto’. This site was gaining more a million supporters just in a week. This Facebook page was created by a lecturer from Bengkulu as a concern about Bibit-Chandra case. This idea was then massively supported by others in the internet.

This case showed how Indonesian political reality in the real life could be affected by political movement in the internet such as social networking sites. The internet itself could be influenced by social and political reality in the real life. This mean political awareness or at least to talk about political issues could be discussed in the social networking sites in the internet.

If in the previous time the internet users was participating themselves in a political discourse limited only in using the websites or mailing list, then in the era of web 2.0 this political articulation within the internet medium gradually moving to the social networking sites. Since this web 2.0 technology getting popular, especially in Indonesia where the user of social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter are increasing, this phenomenon also influencing the shape of the society related to political activity in this ‘virtual public sphere’.

Another case was ‘Koin untuk Prita’ (Coins for Prita). This movement came from Twitter users then moved to Facebook users to raise supports for Prita Mulyasari. She was accused with UU ITE (Information and Electronic Transaction Law) by OMNI International Hospital. The hospital accused her spread ‘bad information’ about their way treating the patients into the internet using email. For this case, the judge charged her to pay Rp. 204 million to the hospital (Kompas, 4 December 2009).

This movement at first came from discussions and comments on twitter. They used hash tag #freeprita or #koinuntukprita to focus the topic in to one theme referring to this hash tag. This issue then copied into other social networking sites, Facebook, on the ‘Koin Untuk Prita’ fan page. This topic in several time changed into a social movement in a virtual world, which in the end will affected the social reality itself.

Both cases describe how the Indonesia society uses the virtual world within the internet, especially the social networking sites as a political participation. Though it is not a direct political participation, political discussion or just talk about political issues, in some way considered having a significant effect to political and social reality in Indonesia.


Internet and the Domination of Technology


New media or the internet considered as a new hope for giving a wide access to create the public sphere. On the other hand, the Political Economy perspectives see this phenomenon not in a neutral way. This perspective argues this new media still cannot free themselves from the domination of capitalism within its practices.

Political Economy of Media in Europe for instance, in the late 1980s argues that the post-industrial society whose lately create ‘the information society’ was very influenced by the industry and the government. New media system and services tend to reinforce the economic and political power of existing systems and institutions. In effect, the information society is argued as the latest stage of industrial capitalism, not a radical departure from the past (Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2002).

Internet even in their new term of internet 2.0 version still considered as an economic machine for several people whose have financial capitals. For instance, how to maintain or control a website or social network accounts we still need financial capital. Their target is to gain more people who accessed their sites or social network page. The more people who visit your page the more advertisers want to put their advertisement in your page or social network wall.

For conventional media, the internet invention considered as a tool for their products diversification. Newspaper, magazine, or even television tries to put their online version news into internet in order to rises their audience. This online version of the mass media can be seen just as a new modus to embrace a wider market only.

In Indonesia case, the online version of a print media, generally doesn’t have significant differences with their printed version. The only different maybe we can seen from the more updated version of news and a space for the reader to give their comments in the end of the news articles. For this kind of feature, we can’t find in their printed version.

Another example for the conventional media in using the social network sites is Jakarta Globe. Rather than using their dot com version in their news easily read in social networking site especially twitter. Jakarta Globe using their twitter account for updateing their headline news in a short version. Why do they only shows their headline or even only the title of the news? We can answer it because Jakarta Globe try to adopt their news into twitter’s language which is only allowing 140 characters only to showed within the twitter’s timeline.

This usage of social network sites considered as a new way to delivering their products into a new audience. This new audience seen as a younger generation whose use the social network sites frequently in their daily life. Rather than try to embrace this new audience, using the twitter account also provide a chance to allowing a direct reply or comment for each news they’ve broadcasted in their timeline. In this way, the media can be more interactive with their audience rather than only using one way of communication.

The ongoing commercialization of online digital technologies is remediating newer media into simply newer version of older media, thus expanding the consumption. In this case, the Internet doesn’t affording democratic condition for the citizen (Papacharissi, 2010).

In the context of global media the internet is the most global media if we compare to others conventional media. And this situation has its own consequences. Globalization in term of internationalization of products with its global corporate characteristic, marked by the purpose for using the internet as a tool for exchanging information, goods, products, and services. Global communication then occurred in this global medium within the usage of the internet itself.

Similar with what happened to the mass media, in Indonesia access to the new media technology remains as a major issue. Though internet user is rising within recent years but still not everyone in Indonesia have the same and equal access to this technology.

The first fundamental concern is about access, including: who has or does not have access to the Internet; what motive people to use the Internet; what barriers are to usage; and what characterizes those who stop using the Internet (Katz and Aspden, 1997).

For those who don’t have any access to the internet in the same way they don’t have a chance to join the discussion within this new media related to create the public sphere. If this is the case, we cannot say that everyone in Indonesia can contribute themselves to fulfill the dream of making the public sphere in the internet or even its later version, the internet 2.0. This virtual public sphere is only involving those who have the access to the technology.

Another problem is those who have the access to the virtual public sphere dominated by the one from higher economic class or highly educated. This phenomenon considered as an ‘exclusive’ public sphere because only exclusive part of the society who can contribute to the public opinion. For those who come from lower class or lower education, even though the might have an internet access they tend not to be involved in a political discussion or public debates.

Even for the digitally equipped and literate, net-based information technologies do not guarantee communication that will be goal-oriented, reciprocal, and enriching. Many online conversations and pursuits are infotainment or entertainment driven, consumption oriented, or too specific to have sizeable democratizing impact (Papacharissi, 2010).

Timothy Luke (2006) argues that the Internet is simply a tool like any other, and it is being used consciously and rationally by autonomous human agents to serve effectively the instrumental ends of its users. According to these views, democracies online basically will be just like democracies offline except that their officials and constituents will use e-mail and/or have web-chat (Rash, 1997; Rheingold, 1993)

Trevor Locke also mentioned about this problem as he said ’the biggest barrier is an artefact of the literary access to the internet is the keyboard. The keyboard is an artefact of the literary elite, the technically component and the highly skilled (Hague & Loader, 1999).

In the context internet or the web 2.0 as a global medium we can’t separate it from the global issue. The usage this medium as a communication strategy for creating the public sphere will faced by the global problem. For example is the global trend of web 2.0 users.

The younger generation who dominate the user of web 2.0 especially the social networking sites easily influenced by the global trends or discussion. They use these sites because they want to be trendy, not because they’re really need and understand how to use this new media as a new way to communicate or even to discuss about anything related to the public opinion or democratization vice versa. This trend also happened in Indonesia context.

For Habermas, the public sphere is a homogeneous space of embodied subjects in symmetrical relations, pursuing consensus through the critique of arguments and the presentation of validity claims, this model, as Mark Poster (1997) contended, is systematically denied in the arenas of electronic politics, we are advised then to abandon Habermas’s concept of the public sphere in assessing the Internet as a political domain.




Discussing about new media, internet, web 2.0, and the public sphere, is a paradox thing. In one condition internet considered as the most promising media to create the public sphere within the modern era of the information society. This condition thought as a new hope for making a more democratic society in the internet era. This is far better than hoping the same thing happened with the conventional mass media.

Relating this situation to the context of internet behavior of Indonesia society, they tend to use the web 2.0 technology, the social networking sites, as a new way of involving themselves into public discussion and try to create virtual public sphere. In certain cases, this Indonesia virtual public sphere significantly affecting the ‘real’ political condition in the real life.

This phenomenon still remains suspicious in certain conditions. Can the internet releasing themselves from any kind of domination, especially those who control the flow of communication or public discussion in the internet? Internet user in Indonesia have a threat for UU ITE (Information and Electronic Transaction Regulation) Another matter is about the inequality of internet access which will affect the quality of the public sphere itself. In Indonesia, people who have access to the internet or any social networking sites tend to use as a trend. They don’t have a rational purpose to use it or even involved in the public opinion through this new media. Their political behavior in the internet is more reactive rather than active in public discussion or public issue.

Finally, as Papacharissi (2010) writes, if the public sphere model proposes that the optimum way of practicing democracy is via organized, rational, and agreement-driven discussion taking place in commercial-free public spaces, then contemporary and digitally enabled civic habits must not represent democracy at its optimum. Or, alternatively, the public sphere model no longer works.




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Kompas, 4 December 2009





2 thoughts on “Public Sphere and the New Media (How Democratization and Political Communication in the Internet Shape the Indonesian Society)

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