Theorizing Reactive Democracy

The Social Media Public Sphere, Online Crowds, and the Plebiscitary Logic of Online Reactions

in Democratic Theory
Author:
Paolo GerbaudoSkłodowska–Curie Research Fellow, Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy paolo.gerbaudo@kcl.ac.uk

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The diffusion of social media has profoundly transformed the nature and form of the contemporary public sphere, facilitating the rise of new political tactics and movements. In this article, I develop a theory of the social media public sphere as a “plebeian public sphere” whose functioning is markedly different from the traditional public sphere, described by Jürgen Habermas. Differently from Habermas’ critical-rational publics, this social media public sphere is dominated by online crowds that come together in virtual gatherings made visible by a variety of social media reactions and metrics that measure their presence. It can be best described as a “reactive democracy,” a plebiscitary form of democracy in which reactions are understood as an implicit vote indicating the mood of public opinion on a variety of issues.

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