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Are Newspapers’ Online Discussion Boards Democratic Tools or Conspiracy Theories’ Engines? A Case Study on an Eastern European “Media War”This article analyzes quantitatively and qualitatively 1,583 comments by national newspapers’ online readers in Bulgaria. It investigates readers’ reactions to articles discussing the media war between the biggest press groups—one owned by a Member of Parliament known as “the Murdoch of the East.” The study explores how these stories influence the relationship between newspapers and their readers, and whether they enhance the democratic potential of online discussion. The results show a higher level of reader engagement than in established democracies or nondemocracies. The online space provides an arena for democratic conversations and it is also used as an engine for conspiracy theories.
“We Are Not Fools”: Online News Commentators’ Perceptions of Real and Ideal JournalismTwenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern European countries face an increasing threat to their media pluralism and democracies after a lot of media corporations fell in the hands of local owners. The region is plagued by “mini-Murdochs,” and Bulgaria is a case in point. This study investigates a subset of Bulgarian online newspaper readers’ perceptions of the state of journalism. The article presents the results from a qualitative analysis of 1,583 comments about the media war between the country’s biggest press groups. It focuses on 178 comments that discuss the role of journalists. Readers differentiate between “ideal journalism” and “real journalism.” The former is based on an idealized view of journalists as detached watchdogs, whereas the latter depicts a dire picture of journalists as manipulative servants of their owners. The virtual space is a vibrant arena for democratic discussions and can also potentially serve as an accountability tool for journalists. A reconceptualization of Habermas’s public sphere is needed if we are to more clearly understand how vibrant online spaces contribute to democracy even if they fall short of his normative ideal.