Evolution of the Public Sphere: Anonymous and The Rehtaeh Parsons’ Case

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Gates, Allan
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Mount Saint Vincent University
The public sphere is an important concept first proposed by Jurgen Habermas. It posits that the public sphere is a space where public opinion is formed and that all citizens have a role to play. Yet this construction has been critiqued by those who argue, convincingly, that the public sphere is not an equal space – women, minorities, LGBT community members and the poor have not had the same share of voice as others. The emergence of the Internet and in particularly digitally mediated communities on social media networks like Twitter changes the dynamic, making the public sphere a more expansive and inclusive space. Groups like Anonymous have taken advantage of this opportunity. While Anonymous began as a group of what could charitably be termed online pranksters, it has assumed a much more activist stance. Its new purpose is evident in the role it played in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons. Parsons, a young woman from Nova Scotia, was sexually assaulted. Images of the incident were shared through digital channels, and the names of the alleged rapists were known in the community. No charges were laid in the incident. Parsons suffered horribly as result of this attack and with her mental health rapidly declining, she committed suicide. Shortly after her death, Anonymous began #OpJustice4Rehtaeh, an online and offline effort intended to bring Rehtaeh’s attackers to justice by forcing police to reopen the investigation. Anonymous brought considerable scrutiny to the case, not just in North America, but around the world. It also prompted a wider conversation about the prevalence of what is termed rape culture. While police did eventually reopen the case, and ultimately filed lesser charges against two men, they denied the Anonymous played any role in the decision. Anonymous’ role in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons is illustrative of the expanding nature of the public sphere, and the ability for individuals to work together in online channels to exert influence on traditional institutions of power. It forces us to redefine the public sphere and to expand our understanding of the role of media in informing and directing public opinion and policy setting. Yet it also highlights the tensions inherent in this new reality, as groups like Anonymous operate without concern of the restraints and individual rights that define the rule of law. It expands the public sphere yet creates a new ethical and moral quandary.
Public sphere, Anonymous, Rehtaeh Parsons, social media