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Asylum Politics, the Internet and the Public Sphere: UK Refugee Support Groups Online
Unformatted Document Text:  13 elements’ of the groups’ social role as advocates of refugee issues, and advisers to refugees. In addressing the mass media and the government or policy makers, these communications are of the strategic type, in that they are aimed towards ‘influencing the decisions of a rational opponent’. Moreover, in offering material for sale, they introduce systemic elements in their communications. It is quite obvious that in addressing the public of specialists, refugee support groups are not interested in inviting deliberations, nor are they involved in reasoned argumentation; rather, their use of the Internet and the form of their communications is predominantly of the instrumental and strategic kind. A similarly instrumental use is found in addressing the refugee public, with the information on offer being primarily of practical value. Although some evidence of a debate was encountered, there was no space in any of the 45 websites for a public discussion, no forum for deliberations, and no evidence of any interest in using these Web sites for sparkling a wider public debate on asylum politics. A notable finding has been the symbolic empowerment of the refugee public. In the gathering and summoning online a refugee public, these Web sites appear to support Nancy Fraser’s (1992) argument on alternative, subaltern or counter-publics. However, the communication addressed to this public, particularly in its more practical aspect, does not seem to contribute to the formation of an alternative public opinion characteristic of this public. Rather, it aims to provide practical help and guidance, as well as to up-to-date information concerning asylum. It appears, moreover, that this practical, instrumental communication addresses and interpellates, thereby ‘gathering’ together this public. In this respect, this instrumental communication has significant political gains for the refugee public. Thus, the current findings disagree with Diani’s (2000) argument that “the most distinctive contribution of computer mediated communication to social movements still seems to be instrumental rather than symbolic” (p. 386). We have observed the symbolic contribution of instrumental communication and, at least in the case of refugee support groups, there appears no reason as to why the latter is not as ‘distinctive’ as the former, nor indeed a means by which to clearly demarcate between communication that is ‘purely’ instrumental, and communication that is ‘only’ symbolic. Most, if not all, the requirements for the proper functioning of the public sphere and for deliberation, were violated in the websites of refugee support groups. But to conclude that the Internet has a negative impact on asylum politics is clearly inappropriate, since we have seen how it is used to amplify the voice of refugee support groups, increase their communicative efficiency, enable them to create a common world, thereby contributing to the empowerment of one of the most marginalized groups in society. In other words, the overall contribution of the Internet to the refugee support groups appears to be one of strengthening them, of providing them with a more efficient means of conducting their politics – which is though conducted elsewhere. In this sense, the Internet can be seen as strengthening civil society, at least in the sense that it provides it with an extra means or resource. In assessing the Internet’s relationship to asylum politics we can then conclude that its actual usage by activist groups contravenes most of the requirements for its functioning as a public sphere, but that this is not detrimental to democratic politics – at least if this is understood as premised in a strong civil society – or what Habermas would call ‘a populace accustomed to freedom’ (1992: 453). In a way, thus, the Internet’s current usage can be understood as preceding entrance to the public sphere, as, in a sense, taking place in preparation for entering the deliberative process. But that all this does take place in public, at least insofar as the sites analysed are accessible to the public, as well as addressing the public (or three publics), casts some doubt over the conception of the public sphere outlined earlier. In particular, if publics are addressed not only as rational-critical, but as publics with a stake in politics, if the communications addressed to them are not only oriented towards understanding but primarily towards success and the accomplishment of goals, if all this is taking place in public, and if all this is not only not detrimental to the functioning of the public sphere, but indeed necessary to it, and perhaps even its precondition, then it is clear that our conception of the public sphere needs to be considerably expanded. First, the issue of impartiality 9 , requiring that people enter

Authors: Siapera, Eugenia.
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elements’ of the groups’ social role as advocates of refugee issues, and advisers to refugees. In
addressing the mass media and the government or policy makers, these communications are of the
strategic type, in that they are aimed towards ‘influencing the decisions of a rational opponent’.
Moreover, in offering material for sale, they introduce systemic elements in their communications. It is
quite obvious that in addressing the public of specialists, refugee support groups are not interested in
inviting deliberations, nor are they involved in reasoned argumentation; rather, their use of the Internet
and the form of their communications is predominantly of the instrumental and strategic kind. A
similarly instrumental use is found in addressing the refugee public, with the information on offer being
primarily of practical value. Although some evidence of a debate was encountered, there was no space
in any of the 45 websites for a public discussion, no forum for deliberations, and no evidence of any
interest in using these Web sites for sparkling a wider public debate on asylum politics.
A notable finding has been the symbolic empowerment of the refugee public. In the gathering
and summoning online a refugee public, these Web sites appear to support Nancy Fraser’s (1992)
argument on alternative, subaltern or counter-publics. However, the communication addressed to this
public, particularly in its more practical aspect, does not seem to contribute to the formation of an
alternative public opinion characteristic of this public. Rather, it aims to provide practical help and
guidance, as well as to up-to-date information concerning asylum. It appears, moreover, that this
practical, instrumental communication addresses and interpellates, thereby ‘gathering’ together this
public. In this respect, this instrumental communication has significant political gains for the refugee
public. Thus, the current findings disagree with Diani’s (2000) argument that “the most distinctive
contribution of computer mediated communication to social movements still seems to be instrumental
rather than symbolic” (p. 386). We have observed the symbolic contribution of instrumental
communication and, at least in the case of refugee support groups, there appears no reason as to why
the latter is not as ‘distinctive’ as the former, nor indeed a means by which to clearly demarcate between
communication that is ‘purely’ instrumental, and communication that is ‘only’ symbolic.
Most, if not all, the requirements for the proper functioning of the public sphere and for
deliberation, were violated in the websites of refugee support groups. But to conclude that the Internet
has a negative impact on asylum politics is clearly inappropriate, since we have seen how it is used to
amplify the voice of refugee support groups, increase their communicative efficiency, enable them to
create a common world, thereby contributing to the empowerment of one of the most marginalized
groups in society. In other words, the overall contribution of the Internet to the refugee support groups
appears to be one of strengthening them, of providing them with a more efficient means of conducting
their politics – which is though conducted elsewhere. In this sense, the Internet can be seen as
strengthening civil society, at least in the sense that it provides it with an extra means or resource. In
assessing the Internet’s relationship to asylum politics we can then conclude that its actual usage by
activist groups contravenes most of the requirements for its functioning as a public sphere, but that this
is not detrimental to democratic politics – at least if this is understood as premised in a strong civil
society – or what Habermas would call ‘a populace accustomed to freedom’ (1992: 453).
In a way, thus, the Internet’s current usage can be understood as preceding entrance to the
public sphere, as, in a sense, taking place in preparation for entering the deliberative process. But that
all this does take place in public, at least insofar as the sites analysed are accessible to the public, as
well as addressing the public (or three publics), casts some doubt over the conception of the public
sphere outlined earlier. In particular, if publics are addressed not only as rational-critical, but as publics
with a stake in politics, if the communications addressed to them are not only oriented towards
understanding but primarily towards success and the accomplishment of goals, if all this is taking place
in public, and if all this is not only not detrimental to the functioning of the public sphere, but indeed
necessary to it, and perhaps even its precondition, then it is clear that our conception of the public
sphere needs to be considerably expanded. First, the issue of impartiality
9
, requiring that people enter


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