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Opining at the Speed of Light

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

During a recent discussion on the issue of diplomacy in the information age, hosted by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, I got to mulling over the idea of the transnational public sphere. An interesting recent paper out of Europe by Jens Steffek focuses on the emergence of this transnational public sphere and its ability to successfully pressure public institutions for greater accountability and better governance. I believe new communication technologies have amplified this sphere's scope and scale. 
But the question that then arises is this: does the very force that enables and empowers the transnational public sphere also degrade the quality of deliberation upon which it depends to function effectively?  In a globally networked information environment, public opinion can coalesce in the blink of an eye, fed by multiple information sources both credible and non-credible. Can a transnational public sphere truly be an effective force for better governance if it is not backed by genuinely informed debate and deliberation? What separates a transnational public sphere from a transnational mob? 

For me, these questions are intentionally provocative; I tend to think of the vibrancy of the transnational public sphere in normative terms, particularly as it relates to good governance outcomes. But the media is not always a public sentinel; civil society is not always a thoughtful voice for reform; and public opinion is not always measured and deliberative. Moreover, given the rapid evolution of information and communication technologies, the complexity of these interrelationships seems bound only to intensify. For those of us in the business of promoting good governance, it's worthy of additional thought.

Photo Credit: Flickr user masochismtango


Thanks for sharing this document. Most of the times, citizens will comment and care first and foremost for national issues, local issues even (with view on that, what separates a national public sphere from a national mob?). But when citizens start looking at issues outside of their country, on transnational issues, they can provide an important, and often needed perspective and accountability request. The mere fact that in theory nothing can go un-noticed in a public sphere that transcends borders provides an important accountability function to a governance system, and can enrich the debate and empower national civil society and national media. The only downside may be that this transnational citizen driven public scrutiny tends to follow similar trends than the international media with many issues that are not picked up and if picked up, not continued with.

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