When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Twitter would ban political advertising, the move was embraced by many in the hopes it would ensure a more equal playing field on the popular social media platform.
But a growing body of research – including Jen Schradie‘s outstanding study The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives – would probably suggest even this won’t help much if the goal is to stem the tide of fake news and the dominance of monied, institutional interests online. Banning ads treats only a symptom, rather than the underlying cause. Right-wing and conservative groups already benefit strongly from a digital inequality which means poor and working-class people – the traditional base of left movements – are unable to afford equivalent online access to meet right-wing activists on their level.
The internet is not a digital commons as Tim Berners-Lee may have envisioned; it is increasingly dominated by the wealthy and the conservative. And even if poor and working-class people are able to surmount the costs and other challenges of simply accessing the internet, other factors – fear, intimidation, retaliation – dampen their participation compared to their right-wing counterparts. The domination of the internet by conservative and right-wing forces is the product of more than just their having more money to spend on ads (although that’s certainly an issue). Tackling the problem will require more than just banning one of its symptoms.
The internet utopians of the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s got it all wrong, Schradie says (and draws on the growing ranks of contemporary scholars who agree with her). They were not creating a classless, universally accessible digital commons that would up-end existing bureaucracies and class structures and lead to a virtual utopia. They were simply creating a high-tech echo-chamber that amplified and retrenched the world’s existing inequalities.
Schradie, a sociologist by training, conducted extensive fieldwork on digital activism on both the right and the left in North Carolina. Rather than study a particular movement – which risks producing data grounded in either a left-leaning or right-leaning politics – she decided to tackle a specific issue. She chose the struggles around collective bargaining rights for public employees, and then studied all the groups and alliances that were engaging with the issue, from both the left and the right.
This approach was a clever one; in analysing a range of social movement theories against the data she collected in her fieldwork, she notes that a consistent shortcoming of those theories is they were largely developed based on studies of particular left-wing groups. The entire premise of right-wing organizing is fundamentally different on many levels, she observes. Left-wing (poor, working-class) groups are often trying to identify and gain access to things they do not have, whereas conservative groups are typically trying to maintain their already existing privileges. In contrast to progressive groups that struggle to define their targets and goals, conservative groups have a simpler message to unite around: preventing the erosion of their existing privileges.
“Whereas the powerful generally agree on what they want and just have to figure out the best way to get it the powerless first face the daunting task of figuring out what they’re fighting for and who they are fighting against, before they can arrive at figuring out the best way to get what they want,” she writes.
The Fall of Digital Utopianism
A popular mythology has arisen around the internet, depicting it as a revolutionary technology with tremendous emancipatory potential. It renders democratic engagement easier for many who feel otherwise disenfranchised. It allows us all to engage on more equal terms than we have hitherto been able in a deeply unequal society (‘all you need to do is plug in!’). It offers tremendous opportunities for progressive, even revolutionary change.
If it all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. A growing number of researchers and commentators argue the internet has broadly failed to live up to any of its long mythologized emancipatory, equalizing potential, and that if anything it has had the opposite effect, intensifying existing inequalities and further disenfranchising many.
It has also, in recent years, been used to galvanize conservative movements in a way which has seen them surge to electoral or populist power, leaving progressive and democratic movements in their wake.
Could it be that the internet and social media, rather than being an equalizing, democratizing force, could instead be a technology that’s more innately in sync with conservative, right-wing ideology?
It’s a question Schradie probes unflinchingly in her thorough, exhaustive study.
Technological advancement has become a form of disenfranchisement, not a form of liberation.
One key factor, she explains, is the digital inequality divide. Everyone in our society does not have equal access to the internet, and there is in fact a serious and growing divide in who has access and who does not. Poor and working-class individuals and families are unable to afford data plans to keep them online around the clock; they have to visit libraries, community centres or friends in order to access the internet. These institutional sources of access are themselves under increasing austerity-induced strain. This also entails travel time and expenses.
Compared to richer folk who enjoy online access around the clock from the comfort of their homes and workplaces, poor and working class people are already at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to digital engagement. Those rich, conservative-leaning folks are able to respond to posts when and as they happen, commenting and liking and sharing in real-time as they eat their supper or get ready for bed; as opposed to poor and working class people who might not even get online until later the following day.
The technology itself is also a problem. While many poor and working class people are able to get online, some of the time, they must often use old and outdated computers or phones which means that their access is slower; they are less able to navigate around to stay on top of what’s happening, to educate themselves or engage in dialogue; and they are unable to keep up with the latest apps and platforms. As technology and social media platforms change on an increasingly rapid basis, the digital access gap means that rapid technology changes only serve to intensify that gap and further disenfranchise the many who cannot afford the latest technologies. Technological advancement has become a form of disenfranchisement, not a form of liberation.
Some people might scoff at the idea that large portions of North American society are simply not rich enough to engage online and in social media, but it’s a fact which Schradie encountered repeatedly in her fieldwork. The Revolution That Wasn’t: offers detailed analyses of the ways in which digital inequality manifests.
The dynamics are complicated, further obfuscated by the impacts of intersectional oppressions. For instance, the stereotype of senior citizens as being less digitally savvy turns out not to be true; many of the Tea Party’s most fervent digital activists were retired seniors with the spare time to spend online. What mattered more was the intersection of class and age.
“It is not just a question of the old catching up with the young, but of the poor never being able to catch up with the rich,” Schradie writes. Her findings up-end a lot of prevailing assumptions about age and internet use. While overall, youth use the internet more than older age groups, it was conservative, right-leaning senior citizens who proved to be more engaged digital activists than younger internet users. Indeed, left-leaning activist groups with younger members proved to have far less digital presence than older groups.
Race is another complex dynamic. While studies show that African Americans are twice as likely to post to social media than white users, this higher rate only exists among African Americans who are able to achieve a consistent online presence in the first place. “Seventy-eight percent of white Americans have high-speed broadband at home while only 58 percent of African Americans do, and 9 percent of whites rely on their smartphone for internet access while 15 percent of Blacks do, as opposed to having home access,” she observes.
It’s not just a matter of barriers to internet access; passive consumption of the internet does not constitute digital activism. Digital productivity is what matters, and the ability to produce websites, forge social media activity hubs, design memes and share content all requires higher-level (more expensive) technologies than many African-Americans and poor, working-class users have access to. A battered, five- to ten-year-old tablet will simply not allow the user to do the same things that a latest-model iPhone or laptop does.
Another important factor is fear.
All of these dynamics are reflected not only on an individual level, but also on an organizational level. Conservative, right-wing groups were well-resourced with the latest technologies and mentors who taught their activists how to use them while left-wing groups struggled to access the most basic technology. And this was reflected in their activism.
In the cases she studied, right-wing groups tweeted three times as often as left-wing groups; in one case she found middle- and upper-class organizations posted 17 times as much on Facebook as did the working-class organizations campaigning against them. Comments, likes, Tweets – on almost all fronts, the right-wing effectively out manoeuvred the left online.
In another case study “more than twice as many middle/upper-class groups updated their websites than working-class groups. On Facebook, middle/upper-class groups averaged 54 times as many comments, and the number of likes per day had a similar gap. With Twitter, over 80 percent of the mixed and upper-class groups had accounts and averaged up to two tweets per day, and they were on the platform five times as long as the one working-class group with a Twitter account.”
Digital inequality – lack of access to the basic technological tools, which are expensive; as well as digital illiteracy, or less familiarity and comfort in the use of these technologies – played a big part, but not the only part. Another important factor is fear. Many African-Americans and working-class folk are afraid to engage online the way upper and middle class white folk do, she found. This is the product of generations of racism and violence, which translates into greater precarity on the part of members of those groups. They feel more closely scrutinized, and more vulnerable to retaliation from employers or even racist community members if they articulate political opinions online. This sort of self-censorship and fear is not something the right typically suffers from, enjoying the broad support of rich legal defenders, state actors and the police.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that increasingly, policymakers and journalists pay more attention to what happens and is said online, as opposed to offline. Journalists often completely ignore working-class and poor people’s movements, as many of those movements, groups, and activism have little to no online presence at all. This is why so many mass protest movements appear to arise spontaneously when they finally do arrive online; the reality is many of those movements have been organizing and engaging in activism for months or even years, yet were completely ignored by the media because they had no online presence. The media, in other words, exacerbate digital inequality by increasingly paying attention only to ideas, events and organizations that have a strong digital footprint.
The Triumph of Bureaucracy
Another important factor Schradie identified is the way in which organizations use the internet. Early internet pioneers dreamt of a decentralized, anarchic internet which celebrated and centred the individual, newly liberated from the bureaucratic quagmire of the analog world.
But that’s not the internet which developed. Schradie’s research shows that one of the reasons right-wing and conservative groups are so effective online is because they organize online according to very rigid, hierarchical bureaucratic structures. There are people with clearly delineated roles and duties who regularly tackle different online roles. This contributes to the right’s greater presence and activity when it comes to political organizing online.
Arrayed against this are an assortment of left movements, many of which have no comparably systematic approach to their online activism. Alternately, they try to practice their politics by rejecting tight, rigidly hierarchical bureaucracies in favour of more collective and egalitarian approaches; consensus-building and participatory democracy. Whatever virtues the latter approach has at a philosophical level, the practical outcome is more haphazard and infrequent internet activism and activity compared to the right.
Trump’s election… was not the result of bots or Russians
or other bogeymen. It was the result of a highly organized
and effective conservative movement.
Schradie points out that it’s not any one factor, but a confluence of factors, that make the internet more conducive to right-wing activism. For instance, she analyzes recent shifts in the broader media and journalism landscape, observing that cuts, consolidation, and scaling back of traditional journalistic outlets have created a large and growing gap in media and journalism, which has been filled by well-funded right-wing media. Moreover, digital activism is woven directly into the ideology of many of the new right-wing movements, a sort of evangelical drive to proselytize online.
This is spurred on by the fact that many right-wingers believe they have been abandoned by traditional, institutional forms of media and journalism (an inaccurate yet tenacious perception, Schradie notes), and that therefore the internet is their only hope for both receiving and spreading information.
For activists on the left, digital activism is one among many organizing tools they use from time to time when opportunity, time and resources permit. Yet right-wing activists cleave to an almost religious drive to spread their word online, which accounts in part for their dominance in terms of online content production.
Moreover, right-wing digital activism is bolstered by institutional supports. Many right-wing digital activists like to consider themselves lone wolves, acting out of individual conviction without resources or institutions backing them, but this perception is simply not true. There are tremendous financial resources driving right-wing digital activism, often provided in the form of in-kind supports (computers, fully funded meetings and travel, catered organizing meetings and rallies). Their organizational savvy is bolstered by their willingness to operate in hierarchical, top-down fashion, with clearly delineated roles and assigned tasks.
Pitted against them are left-wing activists, without up-to-date computers or resources, no finances, no organization, and a disarray of convictions and goals. It’s a grim way of putting it, but Schradie’s findings are compelling.
“[C]onservatives are inclined to dominate the digital activism sphere [because] they tend to have more classed resources and power, more organizational infrastructure by the nature of their philosophies against horizontalism, and their freedom-oriented ideology fits into the digital activism project. On top of that, in capitalist societies, their efforts align well with the corporate owners of online social media platforms… digital activism tends to favor conservatism.”
Schradie’s superb study – easily one of the most important yet on social media’s impact on democracy — makes for grim but insightful reading. It’s not all hopeless, though. She offers examples of left movements that have achieved impressive successes – the Moral Mondays movement, for example, which began at a digital disadvantage but rapidly caught up as it grew. One theory holds that left organizing concentrates more on creating strong, in-person ties between individuals and organizations, and that this creates a resilient activist network.
The Moral Monday movement offers some evidence of this. But Schradie’s larger point is that the right practices this too. Indeed, their dominance over social media would never have succeeded, she notes, without a vibrant right-wing ecosystem in which a plethora of conservative groups organically produce and share right-wing content with a shared message.
This is not to say that the left’s efforts to create a different, non-bureaucratic, anti-hierarchical participatory form of activism should be abandoned. After all, any social innovation we enjoy today — democracy included — appeared clunky and chaotic at first, compared with society’s prevailing norms. Trying to prefigure the future world one hopes to achieve is important, and it is only by experimenting with new political and social forms that new and possibly more potent forms of organizing will be discovered.
But in the meantime, we must not delude ourselves into underestimating the scale of in-person and digital organizing that conservative groups are doing. Trump’s election, Schradie asserts, was not the result of bots or Russians or other bogeymen. It was the result of a highly organized and effective conservative movement. Only by understanding that will the left be able to come up with effective strategies to counter it.
“The age of digital utopianism seems to be in its twilight,” Schradie writes. “In the long night ahead, activists of all stripes will try to seize the internet’s potential for their cause. If the digital activism gap continues to widen, the dawn will bring an age where only some citizens can make their voices heard. That would not just snuff out the dream that technology can be a force for progress; it would extinguish the possibility of a truly democratic society.”