The explosion of the public sphere

It is Thursday, 21st November 2019. The Labour manifesto has just been published and you want to know what to think about it. You could, of course, read all 107 pages of the manifesto in full online, or snack on Labour Party digests of it (including Jeremy Corbyn’s 60 second synopsis from the back of a moving car). Alternatively, you could go to the Conservatives’ critique of it at (briefly the top ad when you search Google for ‘Labour’).

Rather than read the necessarily one-sided pitches by the parties themselves, you probably want some non-party analysis. For this you will not find yourself wanting. For lightning reactions you can scroll through the thousands of tweets under #labourmanifesto. For more thoughtful responses you can read breakdowns from every thinktank from the IFS to the IEA, from the Institute for Government to the UK in a Changing Europe. If you are aligned to a particular cause you can look at the many posts from NGOs and campaign groups, from Greenpeace to Taxpayers Alliance.

The national media didn’t hold back in their reporting and analysis. Of the more than 4,500 news articles published online on 21st November by the UK’s national newspapers and broadcasters, you could read just under 300 reporting on Labour’s manifesto.

Then there are the online native news sites. Buzzfeed, Vice or Huffington Post will give you a general view. For an inside take you could turn to Politico, or PoliticsHome, Politics Means Politics or For insight you might choose Tortoise, or CapX, The Conversation or Unherd. Or perhaps you want to confirm your partisan prejudice at ConservativeHome, the New European, or Labour List. Further from the centre still you can find coverage on Breitbart, Novara Media, the Canary, Skwawkbox, Evolve Politics, Westmonster, or Politicalite. Or you might find yourself following a link to a lesser known online news site, like LondonEconomic,, the Descrier, the Overtake, or ScramNews. Or one of a growing collection of sites whose origins, ownership, and objectives are obscure or entirely opaque – such as

Exhausted by the idea of trawling through each of these sites individually? How about using a news aggregator: AOL News, Yahoo News, MSN News, Bing News,, or even If you would rather get a personal take on the manifesto you could watch one of many YouTube vloggers (such as TLDR, A Different Bias or Akkad Daily), read innumerable blogs (like, sign up for one of dozens of newsletters, or listen to one of a bevy of podcasts (Reasons to be Cheerful, Remainiacs, The Political Party, or Talking Politics). Alternatively, you could gauge what effect the manifesto is having on Labour’s odds at, or track the polls at one of the many polling sites (including YouGov, Ipsos MORI or Lord Ashcroft polls).

We are inundated with political news and views, and this is simply the production of political news and opinion rather than its redistribution, adaptation, and consumption. Your interpretation of the manifesto will almost certainly be conditioned by the context in which you find it. If, for example, you are one of the 109,393 people who follow the Fight4Brexit group on Facebook, then the manifesto will be framed as a proposal for a second EU referendum. Or you might be one of the 226,000 members of the r/ukpolitics community on Reddit critiquing mainstream media and making their own assessments of the party’s promises.

Much of the current debate about ‘fake news’, false claims, and polarized debate, does not adequately acknowledge the most significant change in political communication in the last two decades – the explosion of the public sphere. There is a cacophony of voices competing to be heard – individuals, groups, communities, for-profit and non-profit organisations, campaigners, governments (foreign and domestic).

This means that many of the established theories we reach for when thinking about political communication, such as agenda-setting, framing and priming, need to be fundamentally reconceptualized. Who is setting the agenda of an active member of Fight4Brexit or r/ukpolitics? It means that quantitative content analysis – the bread and butter of lots of media research – has become vastly more complex and more difficult. What does counting the number of articles published in a handful of mainstream publications now tell us about the impact of media on public attitudes and opinions?

The 2019 UK election campaign has parallels with that of 1983. An unelectable Labour leader, a hard-left Labour Party, a collapse of Labour support in traditional strongholds, all ending with a hefty Conservative majority. Yet, despite these similarities, there is one aspect that is unrecognisably different – the media and communications landscape. And, as yet, we have yet to understand – or even know how to understand – what this really means for our politics.