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Public Spheres in Interaction: Comment Sections of News Websites as Counterpublic Spaces. In: Journal of Communication

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Abstract

Research scrutinizing political talk online has been developed largely against the backdrop of deliberative discursive norms and considered political talk without a systematic analysis of surrounding mass-mediated discourses. By contrast, this study operationalizes counter-public theory as an alternative theoretical perspective and analyses comments on news web-sites as a reaction to hegemonic mainstream public spheres. It juxtaposes a qualitative framing analysis of all articles about a new anti-Euro party in devotedly pro-European Germany pub-lished on nine news websites in the week following the 2013 elections (n=22) with a content analysis of all comments posted below these articles (n=3154). It finds counterpublic spheres differently shaped in comment sections of right- and left-leaning, and tabloid and non-tabloid, outlets. Consequences for democracy are discussed.
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
Public Spheres in Interaction: Comment Sections of News Websites
as Counterpublic Spaces
This is the accepted version of the article:
Toepfl, F., & Piwoni, E. (2015). Public Spheres in Interaction: Comment Sections of News
Websites as Counterpublic Spaces. Journal of Communication, 65(3), 465–488.
http://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12156
The definitive version is available at:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcom.12156/abstract
Florian Toepfl
Free University of Berlin
Eunike Piwoni
University of Goettingen
Authors’ Note
Florian Toepfl, Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Free University of Berlin,
Germany; Eunike Piwoni, Department of Sociology, University of Goettingen, Germany.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Florian Toepfl, Institute for
Media and Communication Studies, Free University of Berlin, Garystrasse 55, 14195 Berlin,
Germany. Email: f.toepfl@fu-berlin.de
Acknowledgements
This research was supported by a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship sponsored with-
in the 7th Framework Program of the European Union (awarded to Florian Toepfl) and an
Emmy Noether Fellowship sponsored by the German Research Foundation DFG (awarded to
Florian Toepfl).
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2
Abstract (maximum 120 words)
Research scrutinizing political talk online has been developed largely against the back-
drop of deliberative discursive norms and considered political talk without a systematic analy-
sis of surrounding mass-mediated discourses. By contrast, this study operationalizes counter-
public theory as an alternative theoretical perspective and analyses comments on news web-
sites as a reaction to hegemonic mainstream public spheres. It juxtaposes a qualitative framing
analysis of all articles about a new anti-Euro party in devotedly pro-European Germany pub-
lished on nine news websites in the week following the 2013 elections (n=22) with a content
analysis of all comments posted below these articles (n=3154). It finds counterpublic spheres
differently shaped in comment sections of right- and left-leaning, and tabloid and non-tabloid,
outlets. Consequences for democracy are discussed.
Keywords: comment sections, counterpublics, participatory journalism, political com-
munication, public sphere, Germany, content analysis, framing
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3
Public Spheres in Interaction: Comment Sections of News Websites
as Counterpublic Spaces
As a range of recent research suggests, commenting on news articles is currently the
most widely practiced form of audience participation on news websites across Western de-
mocracies (Domingo et al., 2008; Reich, 2011; Thurman, 2008). This striking popularity of
comment sections with both news organizations and their audiences has recently spurred a
growing number of academic studies (cf. Freelon, 2010, 2013; Nielsen, 2013; Ruiz et al.,
2011; Weber, 2014). To date, however, as Freelon (2013) has pointed out, research that as-
sesses the democratic consequences of political talk online has been developed almost exclu-
sively against the normative backdrop of deliberative discursive norms, with the most com-
mon reference being Habermas’s (1962/1989) early work on the public sphere (cf. also Eve-
land et al., 2011). To broaden this recently vibrant academic debate, Freelon (2013) suggests
and operationalizes two further sets of measures against which political talk can be evaluated,
from a liberal individualist and a communitarian normative perspective.
This study seeks to build upon and extend this strand of literature in at least three re-
spects. Firstly, it proposes and operationalizes a further normative stance that can be adopted
in order to analyse comments posted on news websites: that of counterpublic theory. Counter-
public theory is one of the most widely discussed normative positions in the theoretical litera-
ture on the affordances of “digital democracy” (Dahlberg, 2011). However, scholars have
typically located counterpublics in communicative spaces outside the mass media, for in-
stance in blogs, forums, or alternative online media outlets (Cammaerts, 2009; Dahlberg,
2011). By contrast, this study focuses on counterpublic discursive activities as they evolve on
the platforms of opinion-leading mass media. Secondly, we make a pioneering attempt to
suggest a set of measures for quantitatively determining the extent to which the comment sec-
tions of various mass-media outlets are permeated by different types of counterpublic ele-
ment. And thirdly, previous research has scrutinized political talk online largely in isolation,
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that is, without a systematic, content-based analysis of surrounding mass-mediated discourses
(cf. Boczkowski & Mitchelstein, 2012; Diakopoulos & Naaman, 2011; Freelon, 2013; Ruiz et
al., 2011; Weber, 2014; Zhou et al., 2008). By contrast, this study focuses on the interaction
of multiple but unequal public spheres, including that of opinion-leading online media.
To work towards these goals, we scrutinize the case of a newly founded anti-Euro party
in devotedly pro-European Germany: the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutsch-
land, AfD). In the 2013 general elections, this new party won 4.7% of the vote. Only six
months after its foundation, the AfD thus failed only by a small margin to scale the 5% hurdle
for entering the German parliament. This article presents two types of analysis: it juxtaposes a
qualitative framing analysis of all articles published about the AfD on nine opinion-leading
news websites in the week following the elections (n=22) with a content analysis of all com-
ments posted below these articles (n=3,154).
As our qualitative framing analysis shows, German mass-media discourse on this topic
was hegemonic, in the sense that all news websites consentaneously framed the new party in
ways that were strongly opposed by its supporters. Our quantitative content analysis of com-
ment sections evidences how these were, conversely, dominated by supporters of the new
anti-Euro party. Across all types of news website (both right- and left-leaning and both tab-
loid and non-tabloid), comments containing counterpublic elements predominated over main-
stream comments. Counterpublic discourse was, however, more vibrant and extensive on
right-leaning platforms. On broadsheet platforms, it was directed less towards strengthening
the identity of the party by making emotional appeals and more towards an argumentative
countering of the hegemonic consensus in mainstream media discourse.
The remainder of this article is organized as follows: in the next section, we review the
extant literature on comment sections and digital counterpublics in order to develop a concise
theoretical framework for our study. Rooted in this framework, we then specify our research
goals and formulate the hypotheses for the content analysis. The following section details the
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5
methods adopted. We then present the results of our two types of analysis. In a concluding
section, we discuss how our study advances, and links, the extant literatures on comment sec-
tions and digital counterpublics, and point to five promising directions for future research.
Comment Sections as Novel Communicative Spaces
The enormous popularity of comment sections has recently sparked intense interest
among communications scholars across different fields. In journalism studies, a vibrant strand
of research has emerged investigating how journalists have adapted, in their daily work rou-
tines and professional ethics, to the advent of user-generated comments (cf., for instance,
Nielsen, 2013; Reich, 2011). The findings of these studies were ambiguous: while journalists
appeared to cautiously welcome and embrace input from their readers, they were also often
found to be sceptical about the quality and trustworthiness of user-generated content and,
overall, to be eager to maintain “their jurisdiction over news content.” (Nielsen, 2014, p. 470)
In the field of audience research, although detailed statistical data are still rare (for an over-
view, see Ziegele & Quiring, 2013), extant surveys indicate an increasing spread of comment
sections across the globe. With regard to South Korea, Lee and Jang (2010) reported that as
many as 84% of news users read comment postings at least once a week. For the USA, Dia-
kopoulos and Naaman (2011) found in a case study of a local news website in California that
65% of its audience read comments “all the time” or “often.” A nationally representative sur-
vey by the Pew Research Center yielded the information that 25% of American internet users
had commented on a news story or blog item (Purcell et al., 2010).
In the adjacent field of media psychology, scholars have increasingly interrogated the
effects of comment sections on news audiences (cf., for instance, Lee, 2012; Lee & Jang,
2010). As these studies illustrate, user-generated comments can not only significantly impact
readers’ perceptions of public opinion, they can also change readers’ personal opinions (Lee,
2012; Lee & Jang, 2010). A related group of studies centres on the question of whether, and
to what degree, certain characteristics of news items predict the intensity of commenting
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(Boczkowski & Mitchelstein, 2012; Weber, 2014). Weber (2014), for instance, showed that
the news factors of articles significantly impacted both participation and interactivity levels in
the comment sections below them. A further group of studies has examined the social charac-
teristics and motives of commenters on different platforms (Diakopoulos & Naaman, 2011;
Mitchelstein, 2011).
A cluster of works of particular relevance to this study has analysed the content pub-
lished in comment sections (Al-Saggaf, 2006; Douai & Nofal, 2012; McCluskey & Hmie-
lowski, 2011; Freelon, 2013; Ruiz et al., 2011; Zhou et al., 2008). As Freelon (2013; cf. also
Eveland et al., 2011) has recently pointed out, the clearly dominant normative framework in
studies evaluating discourse in comment sections is the model of a deliberative public sphere,
with references to Habermas’s (1962/1989) early work (e.g., Al-Saggaf, 2006; McCluskey &
Hmielowski, 2011; Ruiz et al., 2011; Zhou et al., 2008). The most extensive study of this type
was conducted by Ruiz et al. (2011), who content analysed 15,000 comments harvested from
five national newspapers across five democracies. A central goal of this study was to deter-
mine the degree to which these digital discussions complied with Habermas’s principles for
democratic debate. As Ruiz et al. (2011) found, the comment communities of two newspapers
in Anglo-American countries (The Guardian, UK, and The New York Times, USA) were more
in line with Habermasian ideals than those of three newspapers in non-Anglo-American coun-
tries (Le Monde, France, El País, Spain, and La Repubblica, Italy).
Going beyond Ruiz et al.’s (2011) focus on deliberative norms, Freelon (2013) has sug-
gested two further normative frameworks for evaluating political debate online: communitari-
anism and liberal individualism. Moreover, Freelon (2013) has conducted a normative com-
parison across two technical platforms: Twitter hashtags and online newspapers’ comment
sections. One of his central conclusions was that issue hashtags on Twitter made the appear-
ance of communitarian indicators more likely, while comment sections generated discourse
that complied better with both deliberative and liberal individualistic norms.
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The present study builds upon and extends this strand of literature in at least two re-
spects. Firstly, it suggests and operationalizes a further theoretical perspective against which
the content of comment sections can be evaluated: that of counterpublic theory. Secondly,
extant research has analysed political debate online largely in isolation, that is without a sys-
tematic, content-based analysis of mass-mediated discourse. By contrast, this study focuses on
the interaction of public spheres in two communicative spaces. It combines a qualitative fram-
ing analysis of mainstream media discourse with a quantitative content analysis of user-
generated comments. The approach is thus based on the assumption that structural features of
the content posted to comment sections on a specific issue can only be fully understood in
connection with an analysis of the structural features of mass-media discourse on that issue.
Counterpublic Theory and Counterpublics in the Digital Age
The basis for much of the theoretical thinking on counterpublics in the discipline of
communications (e.g. Asen, 2000; Breese, 2011; Downey & Fenton, 2003; Dahlberg, 2011)
was laid out by Fraser (1992) in her seminal essay aimed at Rethinking the Public Sphere. In
this essay, Fraser (1992, p. 123) defined “subaltern counterpublics” as “parallel discursive
arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to
formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.” She argued that
counterpublics typically emerged in response to hegemonic “publics at large” (Fraser, 1992,
p. 124). According to Fraser’s (1992) account, the function of counterpublics within a demo-
cratic social order is thus to expand discursive space and to partly offset the “unjust participa-
tory privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups.” (p. 124)
A similar understanding of democracy was later widely referred to by scholars of coun-
terpublics and developed as an “agonistic” (Mouffe, 1999) model of democracy (Dahlberg,
2007, 2011). Whereas theories of deliberative democracy are oriented towards the achieve-
ment of consensus through rational debate, the agonistic model is based on the fundamental
premise that all democratic “‘politics’ consists in domesticating hostility” and is thus “always
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concerned with the creation of an ‘us’ by the determination of a ‘them’.” (Mouffe, 1999, pp.
754-5) In this model, the aim of democratic politics is hence not to bracket passions or group
identities in order to render rational consensus possible, but to “mobilise those passions to-
wards the promotion of democratic designs.” (Mouffe, 1999, p. 756) In an agonistic model of
democracy, counterpublics can take on important roles. They are by no means intended to be
separatist or isolated enclaves of discourse. On the contrary, their central function is to engage
in publicity and break up hegemonic consensual patterns within dominant publics (cf. also
Asen, 2000, p. 429; Warner, 2002). The democratic task of feminist counterpublics, for in-
stance, would be to transform the hegemonic structure of the public sphere at large into a new
hegemonic structure incorporating feminist claims (Fraser, 1992; Mouffe, 1999).
In the two decades since the publication of Fraser’s seminal essay, counterpublics have
been analysed as they emerged in a variety of communicative spaces (for overviews of this
literature, see Asen, 2000; Breese, 2011; Dahlberg, 2011). Since the rise of digital media in
the 2000s, counterpublics have also been scrutinized in a range of novel communicative spac-
es, including, for instance, alternative online media websites, social networks, discussion fo-
rums, blogs, e-mail lists and self-broadcast video and audio clips (cf. Dahlberg, 2011, pp.
861-2; Downey & Fenton, 2003; Cammaerts, 2009, 2012). However, within this literature
counterpublics have typically been located outside the mass media, in alternative communica-
tive spaces. By contrast, this study analyses counterpublic discourses as they evolve on the
websites of opinion-leading mass media outlets.
Clarifying Key Concepts: Three Criteria for Distinguishing Public Spheres
To work towards this goal, we develop in this section the theoretical framework of the
study. We do so by defining a series of key concepts as we propose to understand these for the
purposes of our analysis. In line with the majority of recent theoretical accounts of the public
sphere (cf. Asen, 2000; Breese, 2011; Lunt & Livingstone, 2013; Dahlberg, 2005; Dahlgren,
2007), we conceive of the overarching public sphere of a polity – the “public sphere at large”
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(Fraser, 1992, p. 124) – as being comprised of a multiplicity of unequal (sub-)public spheres.
We suggest that each of these sub-public spheres can be delimited by researchers, for heuristic
purposes, in terms of a combination of required characteristics relating to three criteria (cf.
Asen, 2010; Dahlgren, 2005; Fraser, 1992; Warner, 2002):
(1) the communicative spaces within which a public sphere operates (e.g. the mass media,
alternative media, salons, online forums, or protest meetings);
(2) the common discursive patterns that distinguish a public sphere (e.g. deliberative dis-
cursive norms in the Habermasian tradition, or the awareness of exclusion in counter-
public theory, cf. Asen, 2000); and
(3) the participants who constitute a public sphere, both as speakers and as attentive audi-
ences (e.g. journalists, readers, members of minorities, or activists, see Warner, 2002).
In this article, we employ these three criteria in order to analytically distinguish a varie-
ty of (sub-)public spheres, which we subsequently juxtapose. For instance, we locate a first
public sphere in the news article sections of Germany’s opinion-leading mass-media websites
(communicative space). Here, professional journalists, as gatekeepers, present statements
mainly of the leaders of major parties and non-governmental organizations, and of experts;
their audience is a mass audience comprised largely of politically interested citizens including
societal elites (participants). In presenting this content, journalists follow specific profession-
al norms such as objectivity and fact checking, and they adopt specific forms of, largely non-
emotional, speech (discursive patterns). Within the German public sphere at large, this is ar-
guably one of the most powerful public spheres, since it is widely received amongst the coun-
try’s elites and can thus be considered as having considerable impact on the formation of po-
litical will (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Online Forschung [AGOF], 2013).
We identify as analytically separate from this first public sphere a second public sphere
in the comment sections of these news websites (communicative space). Here, ordinary citi-
zens can publish their statements, while journalists act merely as moderators and censors;
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even though the audience is only a fraction of the audience of our first sphere (Diakopoulos &
Naaman, 2011; Lee & Jang, 2010; Ziegele & Quiring, 2013), it is still a mass audience of po-
litically interested citizens (participants). In comment sections, political discourse is typically
less standardized and more emotional than in journalistic articles, but moderators impose lim-
its on certain types of uncivil talk (discursive patterns; cf. Ruiz et al., 2011). By comparison
with the news article sections of online media, this sphere is much weaker, since it features
less respected speakers and a much smaller, less influential audience. However, it can still be
considered far more powerful than other (sub-)public spheres operating, for instance, in issue-
specific forums, on blogs or on alternative news websites – spaces that typically have a yet
much smaller and much less diverse audience.
For heuristic purposes, we divide this second public sphere of comment sections further
into different sub spheres. To do so, we use the three criteria introduced above (spaces, dis-
cursive patterns, and participants). For instance, on the basis of the criteria of spaces and par-
ticipants, we distinguish as two distinct sub-public spheres the comment sections of left- and
of right-leaning websites. Using the same criteria, we also juxtapose the comment sections of
tabloid and non-tabloid websites. Nested within each of these public spheres, we additionally
delimit two further sub-public spheres, using the criterion of “counterpublic” discursive pat-
terns: a mainstream and a counterpublic sphere. By counterpublic discursive patterns, or
counterpublic discourse, we understand talk that
(1) sets itself off from a superordinate public sphere which it explicitly deconstructs as be-
ing mainstream and dominant (deconstructing power relations, cf. Asen, 2000; Downey
& Fenton, 2003); or
(2) puts forward arguments that challenge the consensus of this superordinate public sphere
(providing counterarguments, cf. Fraser, 1992; Warner, 2002); or
(3) seeks to strengthen a sense of collective identity amongst the supporters of the subordi-
nate public sphere (strengthening identity, cf. Dahlberg, 2011; Fraser, 1992)
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Starting out from this definition of counterpublic talk, we shall refer to individuals or
groups who support such talk as counterpublic-minded individuals or groups, to individuals
who produce such talk in comment sections as counterpublic commenters, to communicative
spaces dominated by such talk as counterpublic spaces, and to the ideas that such talk com-
municates in a specific socio-political context as counterpublic ideas or arguments. In line
with public sphere theorists who advocate contestationary models of democracy (cf.
Dahlgren, 2005; Dahlberg, 2007; Fraser, 1992; Mouffe, 1999), and in contrast to research in
the Habermasian tradition, we thus do not regard rational discursive patterns to be a constitu-
tive criterion for any “public sphere.” In a less exigent definition, we consider communicative
spheres to be “public” spheres (1) if they aim to impact the formation of the political will of a
polity and (2) if there is, as Dahlgren (2005) put it, at least “some semblance of impact” (p.
152) on political decision-making (cf. also Fraser, 1992; Warner, 2002).
Research Aims and Hypotheses: Comment Sections as Counterpublic Spaces
Grounded in this theoretical framework, our assumption is that the typical configuration
of the comment sections of news websites in Western democracies as public spheres (i.e. in
terms of space, participants, and discursive patterns) is highly conducive to the emergence of
(sub-)counterpublic spheres within those. We have one main reason for assuming this: com-
ment sections as public spheres provide counterpublic-minded individuals with excellent op-
portunities to pursue transformative aims in relation to the public at large. This is firstly be-
cause, in contrast to discussion fora, social networks, or alternative media sites, comment sec-
tions are hosted on the platforms of mass-media outlets (space) and are therefore highly visi-
ble to members of the mainstream public (participants, cf. Diakopoulos & Naaman, 2011;
Lee & Jang, 2010; Purcell et al., 2010; Ziegele & Quiring, 2013). Secondly, by comparison
with “letters to the editor,” an earlier and closely related format, more citizens can publish
their statements (participants), with gatekeeping journalists typically allowing a much wider
range of ideas and expressive forms to be published (discursive patterns, cf. McCluskey &
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Hmielowski, 2011; Ruiz et al., 2011). Thirdly, in comment sections, counterarguments can be
posted in the immediate spatial vicinity (space) of specific hegemonic ideas as these are for-
mulated in the mainstream public sphere. For these three reasons, at least, the comment sec-
tions of news websites can be considered a uniquely configured public sphere, standing out
from the multiplicity of public spheres that constitute publics at large in today’s digital de-
mocracies. Counterpublic-minded individuals can therefore be expected to have extraordinari-
ly strong incentives to take discursive action in these rather particular public spheres, that is to
author counterpublic comments, to “like” other counterpublic comments, or to respond criti-
cally to mainstream comments.
On the basis of these reflections, we suggest a number of hypotheses that we expect to
be valid in communicative situations, in which mass media discourse in democratic societies
systematically disregards the views of a vocal minority on a specific issue. We assume that, in
such circumstances, comment sections will contain significantly more counterpublic elements
than one would expect, given (a) the absence of these ideas from mainstream discourse and
(b) the minority status of the marginalized group (H1). With regard to our case study, we
know, for instance, that less than 5% of the German electorate voted for the new anti-Euro
party immediately before the time period of our analysis. Moreover, as our qualitative framing
analysis shows, counterpublic ideas supporting the new party were largely absent from main-
stream media discourse. Hence, we suggest considering H1 as broadly confirmed if more than
50% of the comments contain counterpublic elements supporting the AfD (H1a). Further
fleshing out H1 by adding two additional sub-theses, we also posit that counterpublic com-
ments will attract more “likes” than mainstream comments (H1b); and that counterpublic
comments will receive fewer oppositional responses than mainstream comments (H1c).
Our second cluster of hypotheses investigates differences between the comment sections
of right- and left-leaning websites as two distinct public spheres. As our qualitative framing
analysis evidences, the news article sections of both right- and left-leaning newspapers can be
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13
considered to be part of the mainstream public sphere, since counterpublic ideas were largely
absent from journalistic coverage about the AfD in both types of mass-media outlet. Nonethe-
less, we expect the configuration of the comment sections of right-leaning newspapers as pub-
lic spheres (in terms of spaces, discursive patterns, and participants) to be slightly more con-
ducive to the emergence of a pro-AfD (sub-)counterpublic sphere within those. In German
mass-media discourse, the AfD has been widely viewed as situated on the far right of the po-
litical spectrum. We can thus assume (1) that amongst the regular readers of right-leaning
platforms, the proportion of AfD supporters as potential commenters was slightly higher (par-
ticipants); and (2) that, partly following from our first assumption, supporters of the pro-AfD
counterpublic might have expected that the hegemonic consensus of the mainstream public
sphere could more easily be broken up and transformed on right-leaning platforms. On the
basis of these considerations, we posit that (pro-AfD) counterpublic comments will be more
numerous in the comment sections of right-leaning websites (H2a) and that, in absolute num-
bers, significantly more counterpublic comments will appear on right-leaning rather than left-
leaning websites (H2b). Furthermore, we explore the open research question of whether dif-
ferent elements of counterpublic discourse prevail on left- or on right-leaning platforms
(RQ1).
Our third type of hypothesis concerns differences between the comment sections of tab-
loid and non-tabloid websites, which we again conceive of as two differently configured pub-
lic spheres. Previous research suggests that the comment sections of news websites vary wide-
ly in terms of levels of impoliteness and derogatory references (Ruiz et al., 2011). To our
knowledge, however, no empirical study has specifically investigated differences between
discursive patterns in the comment sections of tabloid and non-tabloid websites. We assume,
however, that widely acknowledged key differences between these two types of media outlet
will also be reflected in the counterpublic spheres that emerge in their comment sections. Spe-
cifically, we posit that: on broadsheet websites, counterpublic comments will rely more on
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14
counter-argumentation (H3a); and that on tabloid websites, counterpublic comments will rely
more on emotional appeals (H3b). Moreover, we explore the question of whether different
elements of counterpublic discourse prevail on tabloid and on non-tabloid websites (RQ2).
Methods
Qualitative Framing Analysis of Mainstream Discourse
The goal of our first type of analysis was to map the hegemonic pattern of consensus
concerning the AfD in the mainstream public sphere of Germany’s opinion-leading online
mass media in the week following the 2013 general elections (22-29 September 2013). To do
so, we selected nine opinion-leading German news websites for analysis. We selected these
nine outlets on the basis partly of audience data (AGOF, 2013) and partly of our cultural
knowledge about the centrality of different outlets to the formation of political opinion in
Germany. By the latter criterion, we excluded from the analysis, for instance, some highly
frequented websites that redistributed small bites of political news, such as the webmail por-
tals Yahoo.de or Web.de. Conversely, we included online newspapers with relatively small but
politically active audiences such as taz.de, which is known to be a national forum of debate
for the German Left. Using these criteria, we arrived at the following selection of news web-
sites: bild.de, faz.net, welt.de and focus.de (right-leaning); and sueddeutsche.de, spiegel.de,
zeit.de, fr-online.de and taz.de (left-leaning). All nine websites are the online versions of high-
ly influential German print-media titles. The selection also included bild.de as the online ver-
sion of Germany’s only tabloid of national importance. In terms of audience reach (AGOF,
2013), the sample ranked as follows: bild.de (6.59 million unique users per average week in
the third quarter of 2013), spiegel.de (5.19), focus.de (3.44), welt.de (3.12), sueddeutsche.de
(2.65), zeit.de (1.97), faz.net (1.46), fr-online.de (0.49), and taz.de (0.42).
On these nine websites, we conducted keyword searches for the party’s name (“AfD”
and “Alternative für Deutschland”). We included in our analysis all articles that devoted more
than half of their content to the new party (n=22). In order to analytically capture the funda-
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15
mental patterns of consensus as they underlay the comprehensive reporting of the AfD in this
mainstream public sphere, we conducted a qualitative framing analysis, broadly following a
grounded theory approach (for a detailed discussion of how to adopt this approach in framing
research, consider Van Gorp, 2010). Thus, we repeatedly read and reread the articles, using
the constant comparative method. In a first step of open coding, we identified dozens of idea
elements. We then regrouped and made sense of these idea elements using axial and selective
coding. As a result, we obtained a portrayal of the consensus structure within our text corpus
that featured two types of frame at two levels. At a first level, we identified seven frames that
can be best understood as “emphasis frames” (De Vreese, 2010, p. 189). As De Vreese (2010,
p. 189) has argued, emphasis frames “suggest that different aspects of an issue can be empha-
sized;” they are “alternative ways of defining issues.” For example, when “thinking about oil
drilling, citizens may be presented with [emphasis] frames of reference such as gas prices,
unemployment, environment, or U.S. dependency on foreign energy sources.” (De Vreese,
2010, p. 189) In a similar vein, we identified in our case study seven emphasis frames, within
which journalists suggested thinking about the electoral success of the AfD. These included,
for instance, the questions of how to situate the new party within the established German par-
ty system (party label), or how to evaluate the quality of the party’s manifesto (party manifes-
to). At a second level, we found that, within each of these seven emphasis frames, a limited
range of idea elements was employed to characterize the party. For instance, within the em-
phasis frame party label, journalistic texts largely referred to the AfD as a right-wing, protest
or populist party. These idea elements are best understood as “issue-sensitive” (De Vreese,
2010, p. 189) or issue-specific news frames, since they make sense only with regard to this
specific issue. As a result of our qualitative framing analysis, we thus obtained (a) seven em-
phasis frames and (b) within each of these emphasis frames a comprehensive range of issue-
specific frames as they occurred in our text corpus. We consider this two-tiered structure of
frames to be the hegemonic consensus pattern that underlay the reporting of the AfD’s elec-
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
16
toral success in the mainstream public sphere.
Quantitative Content Analysis of Comments Posted
Sampling. As a second type of analysis, we conducted a quantitative content analysis of
all comments (n=3,154) posted on the 22 articles included in our qualitative framing analysis.
Our data set was structured as follows: welt.de (4 articles, 823 comments), faz.net (5, 1019),
bild.de (3, 456), focus.de (1, 154), spiegel.de (1, 234), sueddeutsche.de (4, 271), zeit.de (1,
158), fr-online.de (2, 14), taz.de (1, 25).
Measures. Drawing on the theoretical literature on counterpublics (cf. Introduction), we
used three widely discussed characteristics of counterpublics to develop our coding scheme.
We considered a comment to be part of the counterpublic if it:
(1) countered the mainstream media consensus within one of our seven emphasis frames by
providing alternative issue-specific frames that were not present in the mainstream media
(argumentative countering); or
(2) strengthened the collective identity of party supporters by making a statement of personal
identification or by employing emotional statements (strengthening identity); or
(3) explicitly pointed to firmly consolidated power relationships within the media, politics or
society as allegedly working against the AfD (deconstructing power relationships).
With regard to the first criterion, we thus developed our coding scheme drawing on the
two-tiered set of frames that emerged from our qualitative framing analysis (cf. Results sec-
tion). For instance, within the emphasis frame party label, mainstream news websites as-
signed almost exclusively dismissive labels to the party, locating it outside the legitimate par-
ty spectrum. They referred to the AfD as a “right-wing”, “protest” or “populist” party (issue-
specific frames). Consequently, we coded a comment as countering the consensus within
mass-media discourse if it explicitly rejected one of these labels and suggested an alternative
label for the party, for instance “democratic” or “liberal.” The full details of our coding
scheme, including sample comments for each category and key words used as indicators can
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
17
be found in the codebook uploaded as an online file supplementary to this article.
Within the second category (strengthening identity), we coded a comment as emotional
if it contained any marker signalling emotional involvement in favour of the AfD (for exam-
ple, “thank God”, “disappointing”, “unfortunately”) or even stronger markers of sarcasm, or
cynicism (subcategory: emotional involvement). We coded a comment as containing impolite
speech if the statement would have been unthinkable on a political talk show on public TV
(subcategory: impolite tone). We coded a comment as containing a statement of personal
identification if the commenter used the pronouns “I” or “we” when speaking of the AfD or if
they stated explicitly that they had voted for the new party (subcategory: personal identifica-
tion).
Within Category 3 (deconstructing power relationships), we coded a comment if the
commenter, for instance, stated that German public television was “government-controlled
state television lacking objectivity” (subcategory: mass media); or that amongst political
elites “opinions critical of the EU were clearly a taboo” (subcategory: political establish-
ment); or if the commenter suspected that the elections had been rigged to prevent the AfD
from entering parliament (subcategory: electoral fraud); or if the commenter made a non-
attributable statement about power relations working against the AfD (subcategory: unspeci-
fied). We thus arrived at a set of 14 binary variables, indicating the presence or absence (1/0)
of 14 specific counterpublic elements for each comment in our data set.
Coding process, reliability, and statistical significance. After conducting several pilot
reliability tests and refining our codebook each time, the two authors of this study carried out
the coding of the data set. A random sample of approximately 10% (n=319) of comments was
coded by each of the coders. A reliability test resulted in the following, either largely or high-
ly satisfactory percentages of agreement and values for Scott’s pi (cf. Neuendorf, 2002, pp.
141-166): counterpublic comment (96% agreement, π=.90), mainstream comment (96%,
π=.88), off-topic comment (98%, π=.76), personal identification (99%, π=.91), emotional
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
18
statement (85%, π=.71), counterargument within the emphasis frames party label (94%,
π=.83), party leadership (96%, π=.81), party electorate (98%, π=.81), immigration policy
(97%, π=.79), EU policy (95%, π=.87), party manifesto (99%, π=.81), other policies (98%,
π=.71), deconstructing power relationships within the media (98%, π=.92), within the political
establishment (98%, π=.81), by assuming electoral fraud (99%, π=.83). It was possible to
achieve these high percentages of agreement because we worked with a rather elaborate, high-
ly issue-specific codebook that contained not only indicative keywords for all variables but
also sample comments. In addition, most variables were rather straightforwardly identifiable.
For instance, whether or not a commenter referred to the party’s manifesto was a rather clear-
cut coding decision.
Even though our data set can be viewed as a census of all comments posted in a particu-
lar case study, we report levels of statistical significance at some points in our argument. We
do this on the basis of the alternative view that the appearance of a comment containing a spe-
cific counterpublic element (1/0) can be likened to a binomial random experiment, similar to
tossing a toin. Within this framework, we use z-tests for comparing two proportions in order
to calculate p-values of statistical significance. By doing this, we estimate the likelihood that
our results concerning the differences between various sub-public spheres (tabloid and non-
tabloid, right- and left-leaning platforms) could have been obtained by chance.
Results
Qualitative Framing Analysis of Mainstream Media Discourse
In this section, we present seven emphasis frames within which the mainstream public
sphere suggested thinking about the surprising electoral success of the AfD. Within each of
these emphasis frames, we report a number of issue-specific frames as they were most widely
adopted in our text corpus of 22 articles.
(1) Party label (identified in 20 of 22 articles). Within this first and most common emphasis
frame, journalistic texts discussed the question of how to label the new party appropriate-
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
19
ly. The AfD was most typically referred to as a “protest,” “populist,” or “right-wing” party
(issue-specific frames), that is as not a legitimate addition to the party system.
(2) European Union/Euro policies (20 articles). This was a second emphasis frame within
which the emergence of the new party was widely debated. At the subordinate level of is-
sue specific frames, the most widely employed frames were that the AfD was hostile to
the European Union and that it could only offer simplistic solutions to the Euro crisis.
(3) Party electorate (18 articles). Within this frame, journalists focused on the composition of
the party’s electorate. Issue-specific frames here were that the party had predominantly at-
tracted “protest voters” and voters who had formerly voted for right-wing parties.
(4) Party leadership (15 articles). This fourth emphasis frame focused the debate on the par-
ty’s leadership. The most common issue-specific frames here were that the party leader-
ship was made up of populists with poorly conceived political ideas that bordered on
right-wing extremism. For example, journalists found the language of party leader Bernd
Lucke inappropriate and reminiscent of Nazi jargon. They pointed out that Lucke had
spoken of “Entartungen der Demokratie” (degenerations of democracy)—a term that re-
minds Germans of the Third Reich term “entartete Kunst” (degenerate art).
(5) Immigration policy (14 articles). This emphasis frame centred the discussion on the par-
ty’s ideas on immigration policy. Widely used issue-specific frames here were that the
party slogans were discriminatory towards migrants and employed a populist language.
(6) Party manifesto (7 articles). Within this emphasis frame journalists examined the party’s
manifesto. The most widely employed issue-specific frames here were that the party pro-
gramme was very short, not very detailed, and that it neglected pertinent questions.
(7) Other policies (11 articles). While the first six emphasis frames were the most salient in
our corpus, some articles also discussed the emergence of the new party with reference to
other AfD policies such as those on taxation, the regulation of the labour market, and fam-
ily benefits. Within this seventh group of emphasis frames, issue-specific frames suggest-
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
20
ed broadly that all these policies were either populist or ill-conceived.
With regard to the issue-specific frames, as we have sketched those in a few sentences
for each emphasis frame, it is important to note that this portrayal is certainly pointed. Within
the 22 articles, there were a small number of statements that deviated from the consensus pat-
tern as set out here. The most deviant of the 22 articles appeared on the right-leaning news
website faz.net. This article argued for instance, within the emphasis frame European Union
policies, that the AfD had the potential to become a party of “economic reason”. These excep-
tions notwithstanding, the patterns of consensus as sketched above were clearly dominant in
our text corpus. Our framing analysis thus reveals the broad lines of a mass-media discourse
that painted, consentaneously, a rather dismissive picture of the new anti-Euro party.
Quantitative Content Analysis of Comment Sections
In our sample of 3,154 comments posted on the 22 articles, we identified 2,342 com-
ments (74.3%) as being part of a (sub-)counterpublic sphere. These comments either
(1) countered issue-specific frames within one of the seven emphasis frames that were also
present in the mass-media discourse (52.3%, 1,648 comments), or
(2) claimed that power relationships within the sphere of media or politics were systematical-
ly disadvantaging the new party (28.1%, 886 comments), or
(3) contained statements that strengthened the collective identity of party supporters (50.1%,
1,579 comments).
Within our data set, only 723 comments (22.9 %) did not contain any of these three
types of element of counterpublic discourse. We will refer to these comments in the following
as “mainstream comments,” and think of them as a mainstream (sub-)public sphere. A mere
89 comments (2.8%) had to be coded as incomprehensible or off-topic, in the sense that the
coders could not identify whether the author aimed to counter or to support the mainstream
media discourse. This latter finding illustrates the high degree to which political debate in
comment sections was both antagonistic to the mainstream media discourse and focused on
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
21
the central issue of the emergence of the new party. We thus found hypothesis H1a to be
clearly confirmed: comments containing counterpublic elements clearly outnumbered com-
ments endorsing the mainstream media discourse.
In H1b, we presumed that counterpublic comments would be “liked” more frequently
than mainstream comments. To test this hypothesis, we had to narrow our analytical focus to
the five websites that offered users the opportunity to “like” comments. Across these five plat-
forms, counterpublic comments received substantially more likes than mainstream comments.
On welt.de, for instance, mainstream comments received on average 9 likes, whereas counter-
public comments received on average 115 likes. Counterpublic comments were thus liked
12.8 times more frequently than mainstream comments. On faz.net, counterpublic comments
were liked 8.2 times more frequently. Similarly, counterpublic comments were liked 6.0 times
more frequently on sueddeutsche.net, 5.3 times more frequently on bild.de, and 1.2 times
more frequently on zeit.de. We thus found strong support for H1b. Our third hypothesis, H1c,
assumed that mainstream comments would generate more oppositional responses than coun-
terpublic comments. In our data set, mainstream comments received 80.2% oppositional re-
sponses (e.g. counterpublic comments; n=503). By contrast, counterpublic comment generat-
ed only 33.7% oppositional responses (e.g. mainstream comments; n=362). Our data thus
clearly also endorses H1c.
In H2a, we assumed that different types of counterpublic would emerge on news web-
sites of distinct political orientations. More specifically, we posited that counterpublic com-
ments (supporting the anti-Euro party) would be relatively more dominant on right-leaning,
by comparison with left-leaning, news sites. To test this hypothesis, we separated our selec-
tion of platforms into right-leaning websites (welt.de, faz.net, bild.de, and focus.de) and left-
leaning websites (zeit.de, spiegel.de, sueddeutsche.de, fr-online.de, and taz.de). The percent-
age of counterpublic comments on our nine websites decreased in the following order: faz.net
(85.3%), welt.de (75.2%), focus.de (74.0%), sueddeutsche.de, (65.7%), bild.de (65.4%), spie-
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
22
gel-online.de (64.1%), zeit.de (57.6 %), and taz.de (52.0 %). On average, counterpublic com-
ments represented 77.5% of all comments on right-leaning websites, but only 63.0% of all
comments on left-leaning websites. The proportion of counterpublic comments was thus
14.5% higher on right-leaning newspapers (p < .001). Our data hence strongly support H2a.
H2b posited that, overall, comments on right-leaning platforms would be far more vi-
brant and extensive than on left-leaning outlets. In line with this hypothesis, an overwhelming
majority of 77.7 % (n=2452) of the comments in our sample were posted on the four right-
leaning websites. By contrast, only 22.3 % (n=702) were posted on the five left-leaning out-
lets. This difference in numbers appears to be partly due to the fact that the five left-leaning
outlets decided to dedicate only nine articles to the AfD, while the four right-leaning outlets
published 13 articles. Germany’s right-leaning outlets thus provided more virtual space for
pro-AfD counterpublics to emerge than did the left-leaning outlets. In addition, however, arti-
cles on right-leaning outlets received on average far more comments (189) than did articles on
left-leaning websites (78). Thus, hypothesis 2b is also confirmed.
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
23
Table 1
Counterpublic discourses in comment sections of left- and right-leaning broadsheet news sites
Proportion of total of
counterpublic comments on
left-leaning
websites
(n=442)
right-leaning
websites
(n=1,900)
Difference
in % points
…containing counterarguments 72.2% 66.8% 5.4
*
Party label 26.9% 27.9% -1.0
Party leadership 12.9% 16.3% -3.4
*
Party electorate 10.6% 7.9% 2.8
*
Party’s immigration policy 8.1% 9.1% -0.9
Party’s European policy 43.4% 33.0% 10.4
**
Party manifesto 5.0% 3.4% 1.6
…strengthening identity 69.0% 64.2% 4.8
*
Personal identification 10.0% 6.6% 3.4
**
Emotional statement 66.7% 62.7% 4.0
Impolite tone 14.9% 10.5% 4.4
**
…deconstructing power relations 38.0% 38.8% -0.8
Mass media 27.8% 22.2% 5.7
**
Political establishment 5.2% 7.1% -1.9
Electoral fraud 2.3% 2.2% 0.0
*
p < .05.
**
p < .01. (As calculated using a z-statistic, for details see Method section)
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
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Did our data also reveal striking differences between the internal structures of counter-
public discourse on right- and on left-leaning platforms (RQ1)? As Table 1 illustrates, the
internal structure of counterpublic discourse, as captured by our variables, was surprisingly
similar on both right- and left-leaning platforms. On non-tabloid websites of both political
orientations, counterpublic commenters challenged media discourse with approximately the
same frequency within each of the seven emphasis frames. They also resorted with similar
frequency to each of the three strategies for strengthening the identity of the counterpublic
and to each of the three distinct ways of deconstructing power relationships. With the excep-
tion of the code “European policy,” differences in proportion for all variables were below 6%.
In our two final hypotheses, H3a and H3b, we turned to differences between tabloid and
non-tabloid platforms. To do this, we analytically separated our data set into comments posted
on Germany’s only tabloid news website of national importance, bild.de, and comments post-
ed on the remaining eight websites. The results of this analysis are depicted in Table 2. As
Table 2 shows, counterpublic comments on the tabloid website relied much less on counter-
argumentation than did those on the broadsheet-affiliated platforms. On the tabloid site
bild.de, only 38.6% of counterpublic comments contained a counter-argument. By contrast,
this figure was 68.0% across the other platforms (difference: 29.4 percentage points, p <
.001). Hypothesis 3a was thus clearly confirmed. Moreover, our findings also endorsed hy-
pothesis 3b. Counterpublic discourse on the tabloid website relied more on emotional appeals.
On bild.de, 79.9% of counterpublic comments contained emotional statements, by comparison
with only 63.6% for broadsheet-affiliated platforms. A particularly impolite tone was nearly
twice as common in the comment section of the tabloid platform (20.5% vs. 11.5%, p < .001).
Aside from the associations tested in H3a and H3b, did our data point to further structural
differences between counterpublic discourse on tabloid and on non-tabloid websites (RQ2)?
Overall, we observed no striking differences in the frequency with which power relations
were deconstructed (38.6 % vs. 32.2 %). However, within this category there was one variable
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
25
that differed remarkably: on the tabloid website, 11.7% of commenters suspected some form
of electoral fraud against the AfD. Such conjectures were largely absent on the non-tabloid
platforms (2.3 %; difference: 9.5 percentage points, p < .001).
Table 2
Counterpublic discourses in comment sections of tabloid and non-tabloid news sites
Percentage of counterpublic
comments posted on
Non-tabloid
outlets
(n=2,044)
tabloid
bild.de
(n=298)
Difference
in % points
…containing counterarguments 68.0% 38.6% 29.4
**
Party label 27.7% 8.7% 19.0
**
Party leadership 15.6% 3.4% 12.2
**
Party electorate 8.5% 3.0% 5.4
**
Party’s immigration policy 8.9% 1.0% 7.8
**
Party’s European policy 35.3% 26.2% 9.1
**
Party manifesto 3.7% 2.0% 1.7
…strengthening identity 65.2% 81.2% -16.0
**
Personal identification 7.3% 4.7 % 2.6
Emotional statement 63.6% 79.9% -16.3
**
Impolite tone 11.5% 20.5% -9.0
**
…deconstructing power relations 38.6% 32.2% 6.4
**
Mass media 23.4% 17.8% 5.6
*
Political establishment 6.7% 4.0% 2.6
*
Electoral fraud 2.3% 11.7% -9.5
**
*
p < .05.
**
p < .01. (As calculated using a z-statistic, for details see Method section)
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
26
Discussion
We began this article by developing a concise theoretical framework that conceived of
the overarching “public sphere at large” of a polity as being comprised of a multiplicity of
unequal (sub-)public spheres. We maintained that each of these sub-public spheres could be
understood, and analytically delimited, as a specific set of participants (speakers/audiences)
communicating in a specific communicative space in accordance with a specific set of discur-
sive patterns. We suggested referring to such configurations as counterpublic spheres if they
were characterized by discursive elements aimed either at (1) deconstructing power relation-
ships within a superior public sphere, at (2) providing counterarguments that challenged the
consensus within this superior public sphere, or at (3) strengthening the identity of the emer-
gent counterpublic collective.
Within this theoretical framework, we then carried out an empirical analysis of the por-
trayal of the new anti-Euro party AfD in a variety of distinct public spheres, which we delim-
ited at different points of the argument on the basis of the three criteria above. At a first level
of analysis, we distinguished between two public spheres according to the communicative
space within which they operated: (1) the news article sections of opinion-leading news web-
sites and (2) the comment sections of these news websites. A qualitative framing analysis of
the first public sphere, the news article sections, showed how Germany’s most powerful jour-
nalists unanimously painted a rather dismissive picture of the new party. They did so by em-
ploying a limited number of issue-specific frames within seven emphasis frames.
With regard to the second public sphere (the comment sections), we found in a quantita-
tive content analysis that, across all types of platform, roughly 75% of comments contained
counterpublic elements. We thus argued that within this second public sphere a powerful
counter (sub-)public sphere had emerged. Remarkably, approximately 75% of comments sup-
ported a new party that just days before only 4.7% of the electorate had voted for. In essence,
these findings thus showcased how an emergent collective of counterpublic-minded individu-
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
27
als were exploiting the comment sections of Germany’s opinion-leading news websites in
order to create a highly visible – and therefore enormously powerful – counterpublic sphere.
At a more abstract level, our findings can be seen as endorsing the central argument put
forward in the introduction to this article: that comment sections, as these have been operating
since the mid-2000s on the websites of many online mass-media outlets across Western de-
mocracies (Domingo et al., 2008; Reich, 2011; Thurman, 2008), are novel public spheres that
are ideally configured – in terms of their specifics in relation to the three criteria of communi-
cative space, participants, and discursive patterns – for powerful sub-counterpublic spheres to
emerge within them. In particular, comment sections offer emerging counterpublic collectives
one key opportunity (cf. Dahlberg, 2011, p. 862): that of contesting the discursive boundaries
of mainstream public spheres and of breaking up the hegemonic structures of democratic
“publics at large.” (Fraser, 1992, p. 124; Asen, 2000)
Why Adopt Counterpublic Theory as an Alternative Theoretical Lens?
The case study presented in this paper can be seen as vividly showcasing the benefits of
opening up the academic debate on political talk in comment sections to normative frame-
works other than deliberation theory. Had we adopted in our analysis standard indicators of
deliberative discourse (cf. Freelon, 2013; Ruiz et al., 2011; Weber, 2014), our conclusions
would have been both unspectacular and bleak. For instance, deliberation is typically associ-
ated with a vibrant exchange of arguments, which is often operationalized as interactivity (cf.,
for instance, Weber, 2014). However, in our data set, 67.7% of all commenters posted no
more than one comment and 81.7% posted no more than two comments (Ruiz et al. [2011]
and Weber [2014] report even lower levels of interactivity in their studies).
Secondly, deliberation is typically associated with discussants weighing different per-
spectives (cf. Ruiz et al., 2011). But in our data set only 2.5% of all comments contained ele-
ments of both mainstream and counterpublic discourse. By contrast, 94.8% of all comments
supported exclusively one side. Viewpoint diversity within single comments was thus ex-
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
28
tremely low. Thirdly, deliberation is frequently associated with the ideal of discussants chang-
ing their opinions and overcoming ideological divides (Dahlberg, 2011; Freelon, 2013). In our
data set, however, only 2.7% of all commenters showed signs of changing their opinions, in
the sense that they subsequently posted comments that fell on both sides of the divide. By
contrast, the five most active users stuck staunchly to their beliefs, posting between 19 and 57
comments each –exclusively on one side of the divide.
Thus, had we adopted the theoretical lens of deliberation, we would most likely have
found, as did previous studies (for literature overviews, consider Freelon, 2013; Ruiz et al.,
2011), that political talk in our comment sections was overall of poor democratic quality, with
minor differences between different news sites. However, quite obviously, we would thus
have missed the very essence of the communicative phenomenon occurring within these novel
digital spaces. While political commenting in our case study may have been of poor delibera-
tive quality, it was arguably highly consequential for the formation of public opinion in Ger-
many: directly beneath journalistic content published on Germany’s opinion-leading online
newspapers across the political spectrum, massive threads of user-generated comments ap-
peared that were overwhelmingly dominated by commenters who were countering the con-
sensual structures of mainstream mass-media reporting.
To summarize, three key differences between deliberation and counterpublic theory as
analytical lenses for scrutinizing political talk in comment sections can be formulated. Firstly,
a deliberative approach draws the researcher’s attention to viewpoint diversity within single
comments. By contrast, counterpublic theory draws the researcher’s attention to structural
diversities and dominant consensus structures of public spheres as a whole. Secondly, a delib-
eration perspective shifts the focus of analysis to the interaction between individual comment-
ers. By contrast, a counterpublic approach shifts the focus of analysis to the interaction of two
(or more) hierarchical public spheres. And, thirdly, deliberation theory looks for the (poten-
tially positive) consequences of political commenting for democracy primarily in its impact
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
29
on the attitudes and behaviour of individual participants/commenters. By contrast, counter-
public theory presumes that the (potentially positive) consequences of political talk in com-
ment sections lie primarily in the impact of the emerging counterpublics on passive, non-
commenting mass audiences and on changing discursive structures within the public at large.
Factors Shaping Counterpublic Discourses in Comment Sections
While this is the first study on comment sections to adopt counterpublic theory as a
normative lens, a range of previous studies have explored within other normative frameworks
how different factors impact commenting on mass-media websites. Factors found to predict
the number of comments, for instance, included the topic of the article (Boczkowski & Mitch-
elstein, 2012), the article’s newsworthiness (Weber, 2014), and the overall level of “political
activity” at the time of commenting (Boczkowski & Mitchelstein, 2012). With regard to the
actual content of comment sections, Ruiz et al. (2011) found, in a comparative study of five
news websites across five nations, indications that comment sections of different deliberative
quality emerged within different media systems.
The present study contributes to this literature in at least three respects. Firstly, our find-
ings indicate that in cases like the one under investigation here (that is, those characterized by
a hegemonic consensual structure within the mainstream public sphere), the political orienta-
tion of a news platform will strongly impact not only the level of commenting activity, but
also the content of comments. Secondly, our findings showcase how commenters tend to re-
sort to different strategies and styles of counterpublic commenting on tabloid and on non-
tabloid platforms. Finally, our research points to a third, preliminary hypothesis: that a hege-
monic discursive configuration of mainstream media discourse (that is, a configuration that
systematically disregards the views of a vocal minority on a specific issue) should be tested in
future research as a key factor that can explain peaks of user participation in comment sec-
tions. While we could not test this hypothesis systematically in this study, all 22 articles in-
cluded in our sample clearly appeared to be among the most commented upon on the nine
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
30
platforms under investigation.
The conceptualization of public spheres developed in this article appears to be a promis-
ing tool for further investigation of the factors shaping discourses in comment sections, since
it affords a holistic understanding of commenting on news websites: as performed by a specif-
ic set of participants (speakers/audiences) meeting in specific communicative spaces follow-
ing specific sets of established discursive patterns. A first key advantage of this theoretical
framework is that it allows a variety of public spheres to be neatly delimited, for heuristic
purposes, and tested for differences and similarities between them (cf. the analysis in this arti-
cle). Moreover, the approach encourages researchers not to limit their search for potentially
influential factors to one of these three categories, but to at least ponder all three.
Counterpublics in Comment Sections: Dangerous or Beneficial to Democracy?
From a normative perspective, the question remains whether counterpublics emerging in
comment sections should be viewed rather as beneficial or as detrimental to the democratic
quality of publics at large. Within theories of agonistic democracy, the central democratic
function of counterpublics is to expand discursive space and to mitigate “unjust participatory
privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups.” (Fraser, 1992, p. 124; Downey &
Fenton, 2003; Mouffe, 1999) In our case study, the pro-AfD counter-discourses emerging in
the comment sections clearly fostered this aim. While Euro-sceptic arguments, as advocated
by the AfD, were largely absent from the public sphere of mainstream mass media, they were
dominant in the subordinate, yet still highly visible, public sphere of comment sections.
However, there are also at least two possible dangers that could be associated with
counterpublics emerging in comment sections. Firstly, comment sections could be exploited
by social movements that bluntly oppose the basic values of free and democratic societies.
Recent research has shown how blogs, forums and other digital spaces can be harnessed by,
for instance, post-fascist movements claiming their “democratic right” to be “racist” (Cam-
maerts, 2009, p. 555). By comparison with blogs and forums, however, the danger that com-
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
31
ment sections of mainstream media outlets will host anti-democratic discourses is rather lim-
ited, since these spaces are typically closely monitored by journalists (cf. Reich, 2011; Ruiz et
al., 2011; Thurman, 2008). In our case study, for instance, a significant number of comments
posted by AfD supporters were obviously deleted by moderators, possibly because they pro-
moted racist or Nazi ideas. This suggests that comment sections, as communicative spaces,
seem to be predestined to host a specific type of counterpublic sphere: those that propagate
ideas which are systematically excluded from the mainstream mass media but, at the same
time, remain within the realm of what is considered legal and broadly “sayable” within a giv-
en socio-political context. The case of the German anti-Euro party AfD represents an excel-
lent example of a counterpublic operating on this narrow terrain at the margins of democrati-
cally legitimate public debate which is, however, crucial to any type of discursive change.
A second danger to democratic publics at large could be seen in the fact that counter-
publics in comment sections create an image of public opinion that is strongly tilted towards
counterpublic positions and thus systematically deviates from representative public opinion.
In our case study, for instance, 75% of all comments were posted in support of a party that
just days earlier only 4.7% of the electorate had voted for. Findings like these could be re-
garded as highly problematic, since recent research has shown that user-generated comments
do significantly impact both readers’ perceptions of public opinion and their personal opin-
ions (Lee, 2012; Lee & Jang, 2010). However, counterpublic theorists would probably not
share such misgivings. In cases where mainstream media systematically discriminate against
the views of minorities, counterpublic theorists would more likely view comment sections
dominated by such minorities as a democratically legitimate means of partly offsetting “unjust
participatory privileges” (Fraser, 1992, p. 124; cf. Dahlberg, 2011; Downey & Fenton, 2003).
To summarize, in Western democracies and from a counterpublic perspective, we can think of
no compelling arguments against viewing counterpublic spheres, as they are likely to emerge
in comment sections, as enriching and welcome additions to extant public spheres at large.
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
32
Promising Directions for Future Research: The Power of Commenters and Journalists
Future research on counterpublics emerging in comment sections is highly relevant for
at least two reasons. Firstly, comment sections can be expected to gain further in audience
reach across the globe, with the number of news media offering this feature increasing (Do-
mingo et al., 2008; Reich, 2011; Thurman, 2008; Ziegele & Quiring, 2013). Secondly, we
believe that the findings in the case study presented in this article are generalizable to a large
number of high-profile issues and incidents in democratic life. These cases include not only
coverage of marginalized domestic groups and minorities, for instance religious sects, but also
coverage of international conflicts, for instance the reporting of the recent referendum in the
Crimea. At the most general level, we would expect powerful counterpublics to emerge in
comment sections in all cases where the mainstream mass media disregard the views of vocal
minorities, given that these views remain broadly within the legal and cultural limits of what
is publicly “sayable” in a specific socio-political context.
This case study has clear limitations that, however, open up a series of fascinating ave-
nues for future research. Firstly, this study was not able to investigate the role that platform
architectures play in the emergence of counterpublics (communicative space). Yet the shape
of a counterpublic sphere as it appears to the reader may differ significantly depending on, for
instance, whether a website presents user-generated comments sorted by “most popular first”
or “newest first.” Secondly, this study did not identify the strategies used by the most success-
ful counterpublic commenters (discursive patterns). By contrast, future research could explore
how specific characteristics of counterpublic comments impact their popularity. For instance,
in our case study, one could ask whether one of the three discursive strategies for creating
counterpublic discourse was particularly successful in generating “likes.”
Thirdly, our study did not discuss systematically the power of journalists, who still have
a range of options for shaping and containing counterpublics as they emerge in comment sec-
tions (participants). Aside from censoring single comments, journalists also have the power
RUNNING HEAD: PUBLIC SPHERES IN INTERACTION
33
not to report on an issue, or not to report extensively (with the latter strategy apparently being
pursued by left-leaning newspapers in our case study). If a news website does not cover an
issue, it prevents virtual spaces for counterpublic discourses from opening up. Fourthly, we
can assume that the content of journalistic articles impacts the shape of the counterpublics that
emerge in the comments below them. For instance, it would be fascinating to investigate the
degree to which emphasis frames presented in specific articles correlate with the frequency of
emphasis frames used in comments posted on those articles. Finally, this study focused on just
one case within one national context. In future research, it would be intriguing to trace main-
stream and counterpublic spheres as they evolve in comment sections in the aftermath of
global events, exploring the fascinating interaction of multiple public spheres as they cross
and transcend both national and discursive boundaries.
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