Normative theorists of the public sphere, such as Jürgen Habermas, have been very critical of the ‘old’ mass media, which were seen as unable to promote free and plural societal communication. The advent of the internet, in contrast, gave rise to hopes that it would make previously marginalized actors and arguments more visible to a broader public. To assess these claims, this article compares the internet and mass media communication. It distinguishes three levels of both the offline and the online public sphere, which differ in their structural prerequisites, in their openness for participation and in their influence on the wider society. Using this model, the article compares the levels that are most strongly structured and most influential for the wider society: the mass media and communication as organized by search engines. Using human genome research and analysing Germany and the USA, the study looks at which actors, evaluations and frames are present in the print mass media and on websites, and finds that internet communication does not differ significantly from the offline debate in the print media.
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