Musk and Habermas

Ethan Cobb
4 min readDec 18, 2020

Habermas came with the idea of the public sphere, a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. In every conversation private individuals assemble to form a public body, citizens behave as a public body when discussions are unrestricted with the guarantee of freedom to express and deliver opinions. Then when in a large public body communication of this kind requires specific means for publishing information and influencing those who receive it (Habermas, Lennox and Lennox, 1974). In Habermas’s 1962 book he described how the public sphere in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries transformed from being a representative public sphere to becoming a bourgeois public sphere in which literate men discussed social and cultural issues. In these discussions arguments were to transcend any social status and should be totally open for critical discussion. However Habermas highlighted a dystopian view on modern society which he believed was to be problematic that the new mass media reconstructed the public to be consumers of culture instead of critically discussing citizens. Although Habermas now considers the mass media to play a pivotal role in the communicative structure of the public sphere (Larsen, 2020). The structure of modern social media such as Twitter promotes widespread communication which in some form transcend social status to provide open discussion. However limitations exist such as access to suitable internet connection and devices that can access such platforms and support Habermas’ early doubts on contemporary media.

Jurgen Habermas (Getty Images)

The complex picture of interweaving interaction networks makes it difficult for a singular public sphere to still exist, and instead what we now encounter on social media is a complex multi-layered assemble of publics that resolve around current global events, issues, topics and themes. They form a structured densely packed communicative space in which news and information can travel. But what also exist now are conceptions of echo chambers and filter bubbles that enable their inhabitants to protect themselves from any information that challenges their own worldviews (Bruns, 2018).

Filter bubbles may apply to Elon Musk’s twitter which would present an opposition to Habermas’ theory of the public sphere. The decisions on the type of posts that we see when scrolling through social media are by algorithms ran by companies who own the online platforms to filter posts. An echo chamber is the way in which we only find information from those with similar points of view, and a filter bubble is a space in which previous online behaviour influences what is seen online (BBC, n.d.). Elon Musk’s Twitter account features certain themes which may create bubbles, from technology and space to science fiction and memes. This could limit the amount of people who can engage with his account and therefore not allow a public sphere to fully exist. Musk also replied in a video call to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s question of how to fix Twitter “I think it would be helpful to differentiate” between real and fake users. Highlighted by Musk himself this may eliminate a clear public sphere of literate beings communicating together, as bots hijack any form of personal discussion.

Musk not only uses Twitter as a means of corporate communications, but also a battleground of words, a forum to post silly memes, a platform to announce new Tesla products or Space X objectives; and a mechanism to communicate with his audience (Mitchell, 2019).

Musk replying to an account with 139 followers

Habermas’ ideas and theories he has devised on the public sphere can in some capacity be applied to the way Elon Musk communicates on social media. By being a key influencer on the platform of Twitter Musk invites a large amount of internet traffic and therefore in the conversations he engages in private individuals assemble together to form a public body. However Musk is no stranger to being controversial on social media, so while he often promotes good press and engages in civil conversation he can also be seen contributing in feuds with other accounts from journalists to CEOs. Although this could be seen to deliver unrestricted expression with the freedom of opinions which in turn conforms to Habermas’ theories on the public sphere. Musk is open to discussion and often responds to tweets from everyday followers, he is proficient at using the platform to make his customers and fans feel heard. Literate citizens of regions with ability to access social media come together under Musk’s tweets for critical discussion which transcends social statuses.

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Ethan Cobb
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A blog documenting a case study on the social networking and digital media unit on the digital media and communications course.