News Websites Comment Section As Counter-Public Spaces 5 pages literature review with  intro, main arguments, and conclusion Journal of Communication ISSN

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News Websites Comment Section As Counter-Public Spaces 5 pages literature review with  intro, main arguments, and conclusion Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916


Public Spheres in Interaction: Comment
Sections of News Websites as Counterpublic
Florian Toepfl1 & Eunike Piwoni2

1 Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Free University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany
2 Department of Sociology, University of Goettingen, Goettingen, Germany

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 analyzes comments on news
websites 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 Ger-
many published on 9 news websites in the week following the 2013 elections (n = 22) with
a content analysis of all comments posted below these articles (n = 3,154). It finds counter-
public spheres differently shaped in comment sections of right- and left-leaning, and tabloid
and nontabloid, outlets. Consequences for democracy are discussed.

Keywords: Comment Sections, Counterpublics, Participatory Journalism, Political
Communication, Public Sphere, Germany, Content Analysis, Framing.


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 West-
ern democracies (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, 2014; Ruiz et al., 2011; Weber, 2014). To date, however, as Freelon (2013)
has pointed out, research that assesses the democratic consequences of political talk
online has been developed almost exclusively against the normative backdrop of
deliberative discursive norms, with the most common reference being Habermas’s
(1962/1989) early work on the public sphere (cf. also Eveland, Morey, & Hutchens,
2011). To broaden this recently vibrant academic debate, Freelon (2013) suggests

Corresponding author: Florian Toepfl; e-mail:

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Public Spheres in Interaction F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni

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
respects. Firstly, it proposes and operationalizes a further normative stance that can
be adopted in order to analyze comments posted on news websites: that of coun-
terpublic theory. Counterpublic theory is one of the most widely discussed norma-
tive positions in the theoretical literature on the affordances of “digital democracy”
(Dahlberg, 2011). However, scholars have typically located counterpublics in com-
municative spaces outside the mass media, for instance in blogs, forums, or alter-
native 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
sections of various mass media outlets are permeated by different types of counter-
public element. And thirdly, previous research has scrutinized political talk online
largely in isolation, that is, without a systematic, content-based analysis of surround-
ing mass-mediated discourses (cf. Boczkowski & Mitchelstein, 2012; Diakopoulos &
Naaman, 2011; Freelon, 2013; Ruiz et al., 2011; Weber, 2014; Zhou, Chan, & Peng,
2008). By contrast, this study focuses on the interaction of multiple but unequal public
spheres, including that of opinion-leading online media.

To work toward these goals, we scrutinize the case of a newly founded anti-Euro
party in devotedly pro-European Germany: the Alternative for Germany (Alternative
für Deutschland, AfD). In the 2013 general elections, this new party won 4.7% of the
vote. Only 6 months after its foundation, the AfD thus failed only by a small mar-
gin 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 pub-
lished about the AfD on nine opinion-leading news websites in the week following the
elections (n = 22) with a content analysis of all comments 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 con-
tent analysis of comment 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 tabloid and nontabloid), comments containing counterpub-
lic elements predominated over mainstream comments. Counterpublic discourse was,
however, more vibrant and extensive on right-leaning platforms. On broadsheet plat-
forms, it was directed less toward strengthening the identity of the party by making
emotional appeals and more toward 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 this study. Rooted in this framework,

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F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni Public Spheres in Interaction

we then specify our research goals and formulate the hypotheses for the content
analysis. The following section details the methods adopted. We then present the
results of our two types of analysis. In a concluding section, we discuss how this
study advances, and links, the extant literatures on comment sections 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 inter-
est 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 routines and professional ethics, to the advent of user-generated
comments (cf., for instance, Nielsen, 2014; Reich, 2011). The findings of these stud-
ies were ambiguous: While journalists appeared to cautiously welcome and embrace
input from their readers, they were also often found to be skeptical 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 overview, 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 United
States, Diakopoulos and Naaman (2011) found in a case study of a local news web-
site in California that 65% of its audience read comments “all the time” or “often.” A
nationally representative survey by the Pew Research Center yielded the information
that 25% of American Internet users had commented on a news story or blog item
(Purcell, Rainie, Mitchell, Rosenstiel, & Olmstead, 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
centers on the question of whether, and to what degree, certain characteristics of
news items predict the intensity of commenting (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 character-
istics and motives of commenters on different platforms (Diakopoulos & Naaman,
2011; Mitchelstein, 2011).

A cluster of works of particular relevance to this study has analyzed the content
published in comment sections (Al-Saggaf, 2006; Douai & Nofal, 2012; McCluskey
& Hmielowski, 2012; 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)

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Public Spheres in Interaction F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni

early work (e.g., Al-Saggaf, 2006; McCluskey & Hmielowski, 2012; Ruiz et al., 2011;
Zhou et al., 2008). The most extensive study of this type was conducted by Ruiz et al.
(2011), who analyzed the content of 15,000 comments from five national newspapers
across five democracies. A central goal of this study was to determine 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, United Kingdom, and The New York
Times, United States) were more in line with Habermasian ideals than those of three
newspapers in non-Anglo-American countries (Le Monde, France; El País, Spain;
and La Repubblica, Italy).

Going beyond Ruiz et al.’s (2011) focus on deliberative norms, Freelon (2013) has
suggested two further normative frameworks for evaluating political debate online:
communitarianism and liberal individualism. Moreover, Freelon (2013) has conducted
a normative comparison across two technical platforms: Twitter hashtags and online
newspapers’ comment sections. One of his central conclusions was that issue hashtags
on Twitter made the appearance of communitarian indicators more likely, whereas
comment sections generated discourse that complied better with both deliberative
and liberal individualistic norms.

This study builds upon and extends this strand of literature in at least two respects.
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 analyzed political debate online largely in isolation,
that is without a systematic, 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 framing 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; Dahlberg, 2011; Downey & Fenton,
2003) 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 democratic social
order is thus to expand discursive space and to partly offset the “unjust participatory
privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups” (p. 124).

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F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni Public Spheres in Interaction

A similar understanding of democracy was later widely referred to by scholars of
counterpublics and developed as an “agonistic” (Mouffe, 1999) model of democracy
(Dahlberg, 2007, 2011). While theories of deliberative democracy are oriented toward
the achievement of consensus through rational debate, the agonistic model is based on
the fundamental premise that all democratic “‘politics’ consists in domesticating hos-
tility” and is thus “always concerned with the creation of an ‘us’ by the determination
of a ‘them’” (Mouffe, 1999, pp. 754 – 755). In this model, the aim of democratic politics
is hence not to bracket passions or group identities in order to render rational con-
sensus possible, but to “mobilise those passions towards 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 public spheres (cf. also
Asen, 2000, p. 429; Warner, 2002). The democratic task of feminist counterpublics, for
instance, would be to transform the hegemonic structure of the public sphere at large
into a new hegemonic structure incorporating feminist claims (Fraser, 1992; Mouffe,

In the 2 decades since the publication of Fraser’s seminal essay, counterpublics
have been analyzed 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 spaces, including, for instance, alternative online media web-
sites, social networks, discussion forums, blogs, e-mail lists, and self-broadcast video
and audio clips (cf. Dahlberg, 2011, pp. 861 – 862; Downey & Fenton, 2003; Cam-
maerts, 2009, 2012). However, within this literature counterpublics have typically
been located outside the mass media, in alternative communicative spaces. By con-
trast, this study analyzes 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 toward 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,
2007; Dahlgren, 2005), we conceive of the overarching public sphere of a polity — the
“public sphere at large” (Fraser, 1992, p. 124) — as being comprised of a multiplicity of
unequal (sub)public spheres. We suggest that each of these subpublic spheres can be
delimited by researchers, for heuristic purposes, in terms of a combination of required
characteristics relating to three criteria (cf. Asen, 2000; 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);

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Public Spheres in Interaction F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni

(2) the common discursive patterns that distinguish a public sphere (e.g., deliberative
discursive norms in the Habermasian tradition, or the awareness of exclusion in
counterpublic theory, cf. Asen, 2000); and

(3) the participants who constitute a public sphere, both as speakers and as atten-
tive audiences (e.g., journalists, readers, members of minorities, or activists, see
Warner, 2002).

In this article, we employ these three criteria in order to distinguish ana-
lytically a variety 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 par-
ties and nongovernmental 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 professional
norms such as objectivity and fact checking, and they adopt specific forms of largely
nonemotional speech (discursive patterns). Within the German public sphere at large,
this is arguably one of the most powerful public spheres, as it is widely received
among the country’s elites and can thus be considered as having considerable
impact on the formation of political 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 citizens can publish their statements, while journalists act merely as mod-
erators and censors; even though the audience is only a fraction of the audience of
our first sphere (Diakopoulos & Naaman, 2011; Lee & Jang, 2010; Ziegele & Quir-
ing, 2013), it is still a mass audience of politically interested citizens (participants). In
comment sections, political discourse is typically less standardized and more emo-
tional than in journalistic articles, but moderators impose limits 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, as it features less respected
speakers and a much smaller, less influential audience. However, it can still be con-
sidered 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 subspheres. To do so, we use the three criteria introduced
above (spaces, discursive patterns, and participants). For instance, on the basis of the
criteria of spaces and participants, we distinguish as two distinct subpublic spheres
the comment sections of left- and of right-leaning websites. Using the same criteria,
we also juxtapose the comment sections of tabloid and nontabloid websites. Nested
within each of these public spheres, we additionally delimit two further subpublic
spheres, using the criterion of “counterpublic” discursive patterns: a mainstream

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F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni Public Spheres in Interaction

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
being 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 among the supporters of the sub-
ordinate public sphere (strengthening identity, cf. Dahlberg, 2011; Fraser, 1992).

Starting out from this definition of counterpublic talk, we shall refer to individu-
als 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 communicates in a specific sociopolitical context as counterpublic
ideas or arguments. In line with public sphere theorists who advocate contestation-
ary models of democracy (cf. Dahlberg, 2007; Dahlgren, 2005; Fraser, 1992; Mouffe,
1999), and in contrast to research in the Habermasian tradition, we thus do not regard
rational discursive patterns to be a constitutive criterion for any “public sphere.” In a
less exigent definition, we consider communicative spheres to be “public” spheres (a)
if they aim to impact the formation of the political will of a polity and (b) 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 con-
figuration 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: Comment sections as public spheres provide
counterpublic-minded individuals with excellent opportunities to pursue transfor-
mative aims in relation to the public at large. This is firstly because, in contrast to
discussion fora, social networks, or alternative media sites, comment sections are
hosted on the platforms of mass media outlets (space) and are therefore highly visible
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 & Hmielowski, 2012; 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 formulated in the mainstream public

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Public Spheres in Interaction F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni

sphere. For these three reasons, at least, the comment sections of news websites can
be considered a uniquely configured public sphere, standing out from the multiplic-
ity of public spheres that constitute publics at large in today’s digital democracies.
Counterpublic-minded individuals can therefore be expected to have extraordinarily
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 critically 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,

H1: 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.

With regard to this case study, we know, for instance, that less than 5% of the Ger-
man 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 mainstream media discourse.
Hence, we suggest considering H1 as broadly confirmed if more than 50% of the com-
ments contain counterpublic elements supporting the AfD (H1a). Further fleshing out
H1 by adding two additional subtheses, we also posit that

H1b: Counterpublic comments will attract more “likes” than mainstream comments.


H1c: 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 considered to be part of the mainstream public
sphere, as counterpublic ideas were largely absent from journalistic coverage about
the AfD in both types of mass media outlet. Nonetheless, we expect the configuration
of the comment sections of right-leaning newspapers as public spheres (in terms
of spaces, discursive patterns, and participants) to be slightly more conducive 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 political spectrum. We can thus assume (a) that among the regular readers
of right-leaning platforms, the proportion of AfD supporters as potential com-
menters was slightly higher (participants) and (b) 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

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F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni Public Spheres in Interaction

up and transformed on right-leaning platforms. On the basis of these considerations,
we posit that

H2a: (Pro-AfD) counterpublic comments will be relatively more frequent in the comment
sections of right-leaning websites.


H2b: In absolute numbers, significantly more counterpublic comments will appear on
right-leaning rather than left-leaning websites.

Furthermore, we explore the open research question of whether different 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 tabloid and nontabloid websites, which we again conceive of as two differently
configured public spheres. Previous research suggests that the comment sections of
news websites vary widely 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 nontabloid 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. Specifically, we
posit that

H3a: On broadsheet websites, counterpublic comments will rely more on


H3b: On tabloid websites, counterpublic comments will rely more on emotional appeals.

Moreover, we explore the question of whether different elements of counterpublic dis-
course prevail on tabloid and on nontabloid websites (RQ2).


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 Septem-
ber 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 portals or Con-
versely, we included online newspapers with relatively small but politically active

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Public Spheres in Interaction F. Toepfl & E. Piwoni

audiences such as, …

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