Theses Doctoral

The Digital Public Square: Understanding the Dynamics of Data, Platforms, and News

Glaisyer, Thomas Edward

This dissertation examines the nature of the American digital public square in the 2010’s, a place where people learn about and come together to discuss matters of public concern. The newly digital public square is a key component of any functional democracy in the twenty-first century. The dissertation seeks to shed light, not only on the capacities of today’s news media institutions to produce and efficaciously distribute news and information and support a capacity for discussion and deliberation that provides a “public intelligence” on matters of concern, but also on the newly enlarged role of the public in new rituals of digestion of such news.
The work draws upon multiple systems-focused analyses of the public square, interviews, and analyses of news production, the economics and dynamics facing those who both produce and distribute news, and the broader literature about and studies of the public square.
Despite the manifest uncertainty regarding how journalism will be supported and the success of a politics where rhetoric is often untethered to the truth, a temptation still exists to see the changes to the public square in a piecemeal fashion and to assume the institutions, business models, and practices of the future will be minor modifications on or variations of the past. Much scholarship concludes that the patterns of decay and growth in this area will eventually generate equilibria in terms of press freedom, news production, news distribution, and engagement that are familiar, no less efficacious than, and only marginally distinct from those of the latter half of the twentieth century. In his book The Marketplace of Attention, Professor James Webster concludes that “the cultural ballast provided by the old media will remain with us,” and that polarizing forces will meet their match with the forces that concentrate public attention (Webster 2016).
In contrast, this dissertation argues that the combination of forces acting upon the digital public square and its emergent dynamics in the late 2010s means it is already functioning in a qualitatively different manner than the largely analogue public square of the past and, as structured, it is increasingly failing to serve individuals, groups, communities, the public writ large, and most importantly our democratic processes. This argument is built on insights from my nearly a decade of work in the media reform community—specifically, from three systems analyses I developed leading the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund of the dynamics surrounding civic engagement and the production of local news, the dynamics of audience attention, and public trust and press freedom. After making the case for the difference that already exists, the dissertation argues that, without engagement of a wide range of actors (civic, political, and commercial) in support of much-needed changes to institutions, along with policies that will support a renewal of civic media and a focus on new practices more appropriate for the rituals of the digitally and data-infused world we live in, it is entirely possible the public square will fail to adequately support democratic ends. The dissertation concludes with recommendations to avoid this outcome.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
John, Richard R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 7, 2019