What does social media do to the civil sphere?

I’m reading Jeffrey Alexander’s massive The Civil Sphere in the final stages of my project with Lambros Fatsis on public sociology. The reviewers suggested we need to expand our concept of publicness to take account of the notion of civil sphere, defined by Alexander on pg 3 as “a world of values and institutions that generates the capacity for social criticism and democratic integration at the same time” which “relies on solidarity, on feelings for others whom we do not know but whom we respect out of principle, not experience, because of our putative commitment to a common secular faith”. He distinguishes this from public opinion on the following page:

To see what these institutions are up to, we need to recognize first the world of public opinion, which is the sea inside of which the civil sphere swims. Public opinion is the middle ground between the generalities of high-flown discourse and the ongoing, concrete events of everyday life. It is filled with collective representations of ideal civility, but it is also defined by strong expressions of negativity. For every “yes” and “I agree” there is, in every poll, the responses of “no” and “strongly disagree.” There are often, in fact, “feeling thermometers” to register, in numeric terms, just how strongly are the passions of civil life. It is no wonder that public opinion has a real, if nonbinding, force.

This leaves us with a simple question: what does social media do to the civil sphere? I take the great insight of Nervous States by Will Davies to be the constitutive edginess which gets introduced into social life by the fact that what Alexander calls “feeling thermometers” are operating in real time, constantly feeding ‘up’ into the civil sphere and ‘down’ into the concrete events of everyday life. Michael Sacasas suggests a powerful analogy: “The advent of digital media has been to the culture wars what the advent of industrialized weaponry was to conventional warfare“.

If public opinion is the sea in which the civil sphere swims, as Alexander suggests, we need to recognise how choppy the waters have become. Tidal waves are a perpetual occurrence, whirl pools multiply while the occasional tsunami has the potential to destroy everything in its wake. I was emphatically in agreement with Alexander’s critique of normative political philosophy on pg 13:

The problem, from a philosophical but even more emphatically from a sociological point of view, is why? Why should people act in this way? Why should they put themselves into such an original position? Now, if a philosopher’s job is simply to develop searing moral principles, then Rawls succeeded. Still, he has a good deal left to explain: the how, the who, and the why. Without understanding such things, how could we institutionalize his wonderful principles in everyday life? How could we understand why people fight for them and against them? Rawls answers that we need to put on the “veil of ignorance.” Only with this piece of metaphorical clothing can we think ourselves back into the original position. We can be fair, in other words, only if we willingly cover our eyes. If we cannot see where we are, who we are, and who others are, then we will be unable to discriminate, and we cannot fail to accept any standard other than a truly humanity-wide solidarity. If we can’t see the stick, then how would we know that we might not ourselves be grabbing the short end?

However I wonder if the same point could be made about his own account of the civil sphere. I’m in the early pages of a long book and I’m aware there are detailed case studies in later chapters. I’m nonetheless suspicious that Alexander is relatively disinterested in the media infrastructure through which the ‘civil sphere’ and ‘public opinion’ have been constituted, reflecting a wider chasm between media theory and social theory that Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp have written plausibly about. This isn’t just a contingent detail which can be engaged with in unpicking the details of particular cases, it has to enter into the underlying conceptual architecture if we want to produce an adequate account of how the civil sphere changes over time.

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