The Rise of Online Counterpublics? : The Limits of Inclusion in a Digital Age

Abstract: This thesis explores how online platforms mediate the reproduction of privilege, by employing the concept of counterpublics. The term, which has been central to the feminist critique of mainstream public sphere theory, denotes the alternative publics that emerge in response to various exclusions by dominant publics with the goal of targeting and influencing the same. Because the emergence of counterpublics has traditionally been understood as offering the possibility for historically marginalized groups to come together and challenge dominant public discourses, empirical research has often focused on “good” or “progressive” counterpublics. However, the recent rise of racist, antifeminist and climate change denying counter-discourses online, formed by groups that claim to be marginalized from mainstream publics, raises new issues of how we can understand and analyze power and privilege in the public spheres. This thesis therefore sheds light on how privilege is reproduced in the context of online counterpublic dynamics. A revitalized power perspective on the public spheres is developed and subsequently used to analyze the reproduction of privilege in three empirical case studies. First, the rationales behind the broader inclusion of (certain) counterpublics in the dominant public sphere through comment sections is investigated by means of interviews with Swedish mainstream news media editors. Second, the formation of an antifeminist counterpublic on Swedish political blogs is analyzed, with a specific focus on how the privileged position of the antifeminist net-activists facilitated its emergence. Last, it is explored how self-identified white feminists were enabled by Twitter’s architecture to reproduce asymmetrical power relations within the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen; a counterpublic initiated by women of color to question their exclusion from mainstream feminism and online feminist platforms. The thesis demonstrates that while online platforms have provided historically marginalized groups with new possibilities to form counterpublics, these venues at the same time pose new challenges to their inclusion. In particular, online platforms provide privileged groups with new possibilities to influence dominant public discourses directly as well as more indirectly through competition with structurally marginalized groups in the emergence of counterpublics.