Digital Literacy and Social Discourse

Rising digital literacy has the potential to legitimise the online public sphere as an egalitarian platform for social discourse. However, its increasingly intrinsic relationship to societal function has profoundly negative effects on the voice of those excluded from participation for their lack of connectivity.

Public sphere theory, first delineated by Habermas, has become an intrinsic factor in discussions about the relationship between media and society. Habermas (1991) defines this as a virtual space in which individuals may collaborate to communicate and collate public opinion. Where Habermas’ theory only considered the public sphere to include one body of society (the patriarchal bourgeoisie that outwardly controlled socio-political debate historically), it has since been revised under the acknowledgement that many – and often dissenting – public spheres exist (Roberts & Crossley 2004); this revision has been supported by the growing equality of expression in the public domain amongst demographics, courtesy of the rise in digital literacy.

A perfected public sphere, according to West (2013) and corroborated by Habermas, would provide a platform for balanced and egalitarian, transactional discourse. Thus, it follows that modern media structures – most notably the internet and its associated multimodal outlets – provide this due to their inherently participatory nature and increasing accessibility. With social media at its helm, access to the internet is the only restriction for a variety of users to communicate freely on or about media content, politics, society and culture. The influence of this new-found capacity is exemplified in the merging of traditional and new media: for instance, news reports and opinion articles now make a habit of incorporating Tweets and Facebook posts by the general public as testimonials and evaluative comments on current affairs, such as in this example. Thus, modern communications systems fashion a perpetual and multifaceted network of public dialogue.

However, the importance of digital media access to public expression means that many publics without adequate access to such resources find it an even greater challenge to participate in modern culture and society, which stymies progress towards the communications model propounded by West. A recent report on connectivity in remote Indigenous outstations of Australia (Rennie et al. 2016) elaborates contextually on this digital divide: many small communities on the fringe of technology are found to have very limited access to digital devices, a position which manifests digital illiteracy. While for some, this is a lifestyle choice justified by separate cultural values, for others, it poses barriers to the recognition of their voice. Digital exclusion is documented as having links to social exclusion; the report cites examples of ostracism from government services such as Centrelink, and access to technological programs such as the National Broadband Network is prevented due to the communities’ small stature and inability to for change (Rennie et al. 2016).

Thus, while West’s (2013) expectation of the public sphere to be a totally egalitarian space for public communication are answered to a degree by digital technologies; yet an increase in digital literacy (formulated by remedying accessibility issues) is required for the balance to be struck completely.



Habermas, J. 1991, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans T. Burger & F. Lawrence, the MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rennie, E., Hogan, E., Gregory, R. Crouch, R., Wright, A. & Thomas, J. 2016, ‘Introduction’, Internet at the Outstation: The Digital Divide and Remote Aboriginal Communities, pp. 13-27.

Roberts, J.M. & Crossley, N. 2004, After Habermas: New Perspectives on the Public Sphere, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

West, M.D. 2013, ‘Is the Internet an Emergent Public Sphere?’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 28, no. 3, pp155-159.


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