Activism in the internet era: a study of inequality and challenges to democracy

Jen Schradie
The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, Harvard University Press, 2019
  • Picture from desdemona72 & Alex Gontar / ShutterstockPicture from desdemona72 & Alex Gontar / Shutterstock

Some of the following text is excerpted from OSC Assistant Professor Jen Schradie’s new book, “The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives,” just out by Harvard University Press:

The Revolution That Wasn't - Jen Schradie - Harvard University PressThis book is an attempt to move beyond simplistic headlines and Silicon Valley buzzwords to reach a better understanding of social media and social movements. Digital activism may have some advantages but not for everyone. The internet is creating a growing disparity that is giving a distinct advantage to some groups in surprising and unexpected ways.

As social and digital technologies have spread across the globe, we are constantly being told that they have ushered in a new age of activism. Many believe that an individual can spark an uprising with a tweet or a heart-tugging Facebook post. As with so many other facets of our lives, technology promises to liberate us from the tedious work necessary to build a social movement. Technology would have flattened the world of activism, as with selling books or starting a company, giving everyone an equal chance to launch an on-demand revolution.

Schradie  choose the location for her study in North Carolina because of the vast variation in the state’s population and politics. It has a dramatic racial and labor history that continues to shape its political dyamics today. It has one of the highest rates of poverty yet one of the best public higher education systems in the nation. Over the past decade, North Carolina has been half Republican and half Democrat among voters. As a result, it had become a swing state for national presidential elections, as well as a focal point of numerous social and economic conflicts. 
She picked one ordinary issue, rather than an event: the contentious politics around labor. At 1.9% union density in 2014, North Carolina had a lower percentage of unionized workers than any state in the country.  Because the state is “Right-to-Work” by law, all unions have voluntary membership. By 2011, North Carolina was one of only three states where public workers did not have any collective bargaining rights. This state provided fertile ground with an ecosystem of political, labor, and social movement groups in different configurations in order to evaluate the concept of digital activism and egalitarianism.
By combining online and offline data, as well as quantitative and qualitative methods, this research provides both statistical analysis, as well as in-depth interviews and ethnography to understand an evolving digital data world.

Schradie initiated the study with some guiding questions: Is digital activism as prevalent as we think? What kinds of groups use digital technology for activism? What are the factors that determine how a group uses these tools? What are the mechanisms behind differences in internet use for activism? Finally, she addressed the most fundamental question: Has digital activism truly created a level playing field where all groups and points of view can equally advocate for their cause?
The conclusion is surprising. Not only is technology failing to erase the barriers toward organizing movements, it may be making things worse by creating a digital activism gap. Rather than offering a quick technological fix to repair our broken democracy, the advent of digital activism simply ends up reproducing, and in some cases intensifying, pre-existing power imbalances.

This book dismantles both the democracy and authoritarian thesis around digital activism to reveal in this North Carolina case an uneven digital terrain that largely abandoned left working-class groups while placing right-wing reformist groups at the forefront of online politics.
Three overlapping factors worked together to give a distinct advantage to groups that not only have a greater capacity but also the motivation to carry out the work of digital activism:

  • Social class: groups with middle to upper class members have an advantage with digital media. Such members have greater online access, skills, time and empowerment to use these new tools.
  • Vertical organization: Groups with infrastructure, such as a hierarchy of decision making, a clear division of labor, and more staffing resources, are simply more effective and efficient online. Horizontal groups without bureaucratic systems are less likely to maintain high levels of digital use and online participation. 
  • Political Ideology: Groups on the right embraced the internet for a primary mission: to get their truth out about reviving the freedoms they believed were threatened. Conservative grassroots groups believe they needed to replace so-called “fake news” with their own political information online. Progressive groups were fragmented and often focused more on encouraging mass participation, rather than on mass information.

The rise of the internet 25 years ago unleashed a kind of revolutionary giddiness. Those most bullish believed it would fundamentally re-order nearly every corner of civilization, inevitably for the better.  The ultimate free market of ideas and commerce would create a new balance of power that favored citizens over giant organizations, companies and governments. In the place of Orwellian propaganda and old-school communication tools would be new technologies in the hands of the people. Personalization, participation, and pluralism would bring digital democracy. It was this euphoria around the internet’s democratizing potential that, instead, became the revolution that wasn’t.

Schradie’s book reveals how conservative messages spread like wildfire long before talk of bots, fake news or Russian meddling. A highly motivated foundation of conservative and well-educated and resourced activists who held a distinct advantage all but drowned out whatever messages were coming from the left online.

Reviews of the book:

* Conservatives Use Social Media to Move Their Agendas Much More Than Liberals Do - Newsweek Magazine, May 17, 2019. 

* Why conservatives are winning the internet, by Sean Illing, Vox, June 3, 2019.

* North Carolina Shows Why Progressives Lost the Internet, by Jeffrey C. Billman, Indy Week, May 28, 2019.

* How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, by Amanda Magnus & Frank Stasio, WUNC 91.5 North Carolina Public Radio, May 31, 2019.