Online public debate in theory and practice

Reference Part 3.21 ‘The Internet and the public sphere’ Thomas Poell, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The Internet appears to give, as the book suggests, the concept of the public sphere a new lease of life. The Internet allegedly challenges prevailing hierarchies of race, class and gender, by allowing for more fluid subject positions (Poster 1995a, 1995b; Turkle 1995). Moreover, it offers powerful instruments for radical and marginal groups to communicate their points of view to the world at large (Downey & Fenton 2003; Kellner 2001; Donk 2004). These attributed qualities strongly correspond with the pluralist notion of the public sphere, which has, in the course of the 1990s, been developed in critical dialogue with the traditional Habermasian conception. Habermas originally maintained that the public sphere should be based on rational critical debate concerning the general interest (Habermas 1989). By contrast, the pluralist perspective starts from the assumption that a truly democratic public sphere is characterized by different types of discourse, and allows for the articulation of specific interests and identities (Dahlgren 1995; Garnham 2000; Fraser 1992; Thompson 1995). Although a variety of authors have convincingly argued that Internet-based media, such as online forums and blogs, potentially facilitate the development of such a pluralist public sphere, it remains the question to what extent these media effectively advance pluralist ideals in situations of societal conflict. How do online media operate in actual political struggles, when it truly matters whether minority groups can articulate their interests and identities?

This case study addresses this question by examining how Internet forums and blogs functioned in the public debates directly following the assassination of the controversial Dutch film director Theo van Gogh by the young Dutch Moroccan Mohammed B. on 2 November 2004. These debates are particularly interesting from a pluralist public sphere perspective, as the rights of Dutch Moroccans to express their interests and identities were directly questioned by a substantial part of the participants in the discussions. Already before the assassination, Dutch Moroccans, and more in general Dutch Muslims, were heavily criticized for failing to integrate in Dutch culture and society. Van Gogh himself had been notorious in this respect, as he had fiercely criticized Muslim practices and beliefs (Boomgaarden & De Vreese 2007; Hajer & Uitermark 2008; Pantti & Van Zoonen 2006). Not surprisingly, this critique greatly intensified after the assassination. Hence, the question is whether the online forums and blogs functioned as alternative public spheres and allowed the Dutch Moroccans, in this hostile political and cultural climate, to express their identities and points of view, and contributed to the public debate at large.

To answer this question, 51 weblogs and four Internet forums have been investigated during the first three days after the assassination. The 51 investigated blogs effectively constitute all of the retrievable Dutch language blogs commenting on the assassination. Most of these blogs were small, with only a few visitors a day. The major exception was rightwing shocklog GeenStijl, which drew thousands of daily visitors. The four forums, Pim Fortuyn Forum, Indymedia, FOK!forum!, and Marokko Community, have been chosen because they each cover a specific region of the political and cultural landscape. Each of these forums had several thousand of daily visitors. Together with the blogs, they were part of a particularly animated Dutch online media landscape: the Netherlands was, and is, infamous for its shockblogs (Lovink 2008, 8–9), its aggressive online culture (Benschop 2005), and its high Internet penetration grade1.


Without a doubt, both Internet forums and blogs constitute potentially powerful platforms of public discussion, as well as instruments for the construction and expression of personal and group interests and identities. Like most other Internet based media: they are interactive, accessible to the world at large, and they allow their users to hide those social markers, such as age, gender, and ethnic origins, which often inhibit subordinated social groups from participating in public debate.

More specifically, Internet forums and blogs each have certain material characteristics, which facilitate particular types of social interaction and forms of expression. At first sight, blogs appear first and foremost as platforms of personal or group expression, and less as platforms of public debate. While many blogs offer their readers the opportunity to comment on a blog post, they do not allow them to start new discussions. Consequently, blog discussions are often dominated by the point of view of the blogger, which is supported by most of the commentators. As Geert Lovink has made clear, the homogeneous character of blog discussions is the result of the implicit rules of conduct to which bloggers adhere. He argues: “Adversaries will not post on each other's blogs. At best, they quote and link” (Lovink 2008, 21).

Blogs have, however, not primarily been studied as standalone platforms of public debate, but as part of larger networks. As various new media theorists maintain, together blogs can generate a lively public debate by commenting on, and linking to, newspaper articles and other blogs. On the basis of this claim, these theorists, subsequently, contend that blogs constitute a blogosphere, which serves an important function in public debate, since it holds the traditional mass media accountable for its mistakes and inaccuracies (Gillmor 2004, 237; Lovink 2008, 7; Tremayne 2007, 263–265). Henry Jenkins even maintains that “bloggers will be jousting with mainstream journalists story by story, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always forcing a segment of the public to question dominant representations” (Jenkins 2006, 216–217).

In this light, blogs appear as ideal alternative public sphere instruments, making it possible to challenge how subordinated groups, in this case the Dutch Moroccans, are represented by the mass media. However, if we examine the blogs in the hours and days after the assassination, a somewhat different picture emerges. There appears to have been little debate between the bloggers concerning the position and interests of Dutch Moroccans, as none of the examined blogs actually discussed claims made by others blogs, even though some provided links in the blogroll. Neither did the overall majority of the blogs comment on the reporting in the mass media. A few blogs did provide links to newspaper articles, but gave no further comments.

The only exception in this regard was GeenStijl, which strongly criticized various prominent columnists and newspapers for cooperating with the political establishment. Particularly remarkable is also that this right-wing shocklog, which usually plays the part of the critic of the multicultural society, took the producers of two television programs to task for the way in which they had selected young Dutch Moroccans to appear on their respective programs. The blog claimed that the producers had adopted a stereotypical approach, and had only been interested in radical Moroccans2, who agreed with the assassination. However, GeenStijl, which since 2008 is owned by the right-wing newspaper De Telegraaf, is not a regular blog. It is effectively a mass medium in its own right, run by a professional staff of at least a dozen editors. The rest of the examined blogs did not confront the mass media, but simply gave personal expressions of anger, frustration, and despair.

Of course, blogs can still be interpreted as instruments for the expression of personal experiences, for which there might not be a lot of space in the mass media. Yet, there are not a lot of indications either that blogs were used in this way by Dutch Moroccans, or Muslims in general. One blogger nicknamed Rachida did write on the day of assassination3: “From today, people will ask me what I think about the murder….as if I have done it. At such moment, we see the divisions exposed. It is again the ‘them’ and ‘us’ era … unfortunately!!!!” However, these kinds of statements were rare. They could not be found on the other investigated blogs, most of which made highly critical or even condescending statements concerning Dutch Moroccans, further amplifying the cultural climate at the time. Hence, in this sense, blogs did not function very much like alternative public spheres.


In comparison to blogs, Internet forums have a much more egalitarian architecture, as they not only allow users to post comments, but also to introduce new topics for discussion. And, although all four investigated forums were monitored by forum administrators, who had the authority to delete any thread and post on the forum, the editorial policies of the forums were very liberal. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the investigated forums did not function as neutral platforms of public discussion, but effectively facilitated specific political and cultural communities. The Pim Fortuyn Forum drew populist right-wing groups, while Indymedia served a populist left wing crowd, and Marokko Community primarily functioned as a debating platform for young Dutch Moroccans. Only the FOK!forum! came close to providing a general forum. Still, even this forum was far from representative, as users with a populist right-wing orientation were in the majority. Of course, the focus of the forums on specific political and cultural group does not inhibit their alternative public sphere functions. In fact, the concept of alternative public spheres is precisely based on the assumption that these spheres allow subordinated groups to first develop their interests and identities within their own circle, to subsequently contribute to the general public debate.

The analysis of the four forums, which in contrast to the blogs all attracted substantial crowds, indeed suggests that they fulfilled at least part of these functions. First, important to note is that most of the forum discussions were characterized by emotional and heated discourse. While this type of discourse is problematic from the original Habermasian perspective, scholars working from the perspective of alternative public spheres have pointed out that such discourse can fulfil an important emancipatory role. It allows for the participation by groups who do not master the rational critical discourse as used by politicians, intellectuals, and journalists who dominate mass media discussions (Dahlgren 2001, 39, Fraser 1992, 120–122; Papacharissi 2004, 266).

In the investigated forum discussions emotional and heated discourse was specifically important because it allowed a variety of groups to articulate their specific identities, and discuss the social tensions resulting from the assassination in their own terms. Not surprisingly, especially Marokko Community provided fertile ground for such discussions from the perspective of Dutch Moroccans. For example, a day after the assassination, one member, with the handle ffeiza claimed that “Now, you really hear what the Dutch think about the Moroccans. Today at work we had a vicious discussion: All Moroccans should piss off. Your religion is nonsense. This is what my boss told me.” Quickly, another member pointed out that ffeiza made the same mistake as people who took the entire Moroccan community responsible for the murder of Van Gogh: “if a few ‘Dutch people’ say something, it is not immediately representative for the whole country.” Someone else added: “I don't know whether these statements are representative of how the Dutch think about the Moroccans. I rather think that these are just emotions that are released after such an event.” Yet, another argued: “This is not that bad. At least he is still discussing with you. It is always better than 7 bullets and a knife in your body.” To which ffeiza, in turn, responded4 “I'm not talking about what is better: bullets or discussing. I'm purely talking about the fact that a person can smile at you for two years, and than, after something happens, says these kinds of things.”

While these kinds of exchanges correspond with the notion of alternative public spheres, this is certainly not to say that all articulations constituted a positive contribution to public debate. While some of the discussions, such as the above example from Marokko Community, engendered the challenging of cultural stereotypes, a large part of the investigated forum exchanges consisted of hateful messages. Particularly on the Pim Fortuyn Forum, many xenophobic statements could be read. One message on this forum, for example, claimed5: “The Islam is the plague for a free society; consequently, the Islam does not belong here. This madness is a disease, which must be totally eradicated.” Although less frequently, and somewhat less extreme, intolerant messages could also be found on the FOK!forum!, and Marokko Community. The only exception was Indymedia, which has an explicit editorial policy against ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ texts.

Similar observations have been made by Albert Benschop in his research on the online communication leading up to the assassination of Van Gogh. Benschop, who largely focussed on forums, concluded: “We have seen how radicalised islamic youngsters used Internet to hatch their networks of hatred and disseminate their hostile message. This gave rise to a climate for violent jihad, in which the murderer of Theo van Gogh could be recruited.” On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Benschop observed the online activities of “right-wing extremist, neo-nationalist and neo-nazi groupings”: “With their xenophobic, islamophobic and racist statements they created a climate of hatred of foreigners, long before the murder of Van Gogh” (Benschop 2005). These concerns resonate with Cass Sunstein's argument that “the Internet creates a large risk of group polarization, simply because it makes it so easy for like-minded people to speak with one another — and ultimately to move toward extreme and sometimes even violent positions” (Sunstein 2001, 199).

The concern over extremism hints at another analytical problem, which challenges the concept of alternative public spheres as a tool to understand the contribution of Internet forums to public debate. The concept is based on the assumption that the various social groups first develop their opinions, interests, identities, and organizational links within their own circle, and subsequently influence the larger public debate as played out in the mass media. Yet, if we examine this debate in the aftermath of the assassination, it becomes clear that none of the forums had much of a direct impact on the debate in the mass media. Although some of the newspapers did give short impressions of the more radical statements on forums such as Marokko Community and the Pim Fortuyn Forum, they did not discuss these statements any further6.

Thus, although some aspects of the forum discussions corresponded with the concept of alternative public spheres, the relationship between the forums and the mass media, as well as the often highly aggressive character of the statements made on the forums, did not agree with this democratic concept. The analysis certainly does not indicate that the forums helped the Dutch Moroccans, at this critical moment, to express their identities and interests in the public debate at large.


This case study has demonstrated, as the book also frequently argues, that the democratic contribution of the new media to public debate should not be taken for granted. While the specific material characteristics of the blogs and forums suggest that these media can, in different ways, facilitate the political participation of subordinated social groups, in the direct aftermath of the assassination neither the blogs nor the forums lived up to their alternative public sphere potential. This indicates that it is not sufficient to base our analysis of the democratic function of the new media on theoretical speculations, or a few isolated examples, but that systematic research is needed on the role of specific new media in the context of actual social and political conflicts. Only in these critical instances does it become clear whether particular new media are effectively used by subordinated groups to participate in public debate, and express and develop their political and cultural interests and identities.


  1. ‘OECD Broadband Portal.’ [2008] OECD -23-12-2008
  2. Bedankt Van Jole cs. [2-11-2004], GeenStijl -28-4-2008-; Omroepen op zoek naar kutmarokkanen [2-11-2004], GeenStijl -28-4-2008-
  3. Theo van Gogh… [2-11-2004], De wereld wacht op mij! – 25-8-2008-
  4. Frustaties tussen Marokkanen en Nederlanders [3-11-2004], Marokko Community — 3-4-2008-
  5. Theo van Gogh vermoord [3-11-2004], Pim Fortuyn Forum — 27-3-2008-
  6. Uitingen van woede op websites (2004, November 2), NRC Handelsblad; Ook op internet zorgen na moord op Van Gogh (2004, November 3), Parool; Uitingen van woede heersen op websites (2004, November 3), Trouw; Wanhoop en woede op webforum (2004, November 3), NRC Handelsblad; stroomt vol met racisme (2004, November 3), de Volkskrant