A lot of people thought the internet would help democratize the world.
More people and groups would have access to information, and the ability to mobilize from the ground-up would gradually undermine concentrations of power — that was the idea, at least.
But the reality has been quite different: Instead of democratizing the world, the internet has destabilized it, creating new cleavages and reinforcing the power structure at the same time.
This is the story sociologist Jen ScQLPs82eEK02BerFbk=/0x0:2323×3089/1520×0/filters:focal(0x0:2323×3089):no_upscale()/cdn.innerdaily-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/16295620/GettyImages_158730495.jpg 1520w, https://cdn.innerdaily-cdn.com/thumbor/4Y66HE3MrL8Z89j9IuD9tq1ET3E=/0x0:2323×3089/1720×0/filters:focal(0x0:2323×3089):no_upscale()/cdn.innerdaily-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/16295620/GettyImages_158730495.jpg 1720w, https://cdn.innerdaily-cdn.com/thumbor/ZnybOC6hVtXnq2MnH45qw_Aih30=/0x0:2323×3089/1920×0/filters:focal(0x0:2323×3089):no_upscale()/cdn.innerdaily-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/16295620/GettyImages_158730495.jpg 1920w” sizes=”(min-width: 1221px) 846px, (min-width: 880px) calc(100vw – 334px), 100vw” alt=”A 2006 cover of Time magazine featuring the “Person of the Year”: “You.” The cover featured a silver reflective surface on the computer screen, designed to reflect the importance of user-generated internet content as a driving force in the modern world.” data-upload-width=”2323″ src=”https://cdn.innerdaily-cdn.com/thumbor/VMJzhlrHCqQvXOYpQIF967Chfuc=/0x0:2323×3089/1200×0/filters:focal(0x0:2323×3089):no_upscale()/cdn.innerdaily-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/16295620/GettyImages_158730495.jpg”>
Why is that? Is there something inherent to conservatism that makes it more effective in the digital sphere? Or is the gap simply about resource disparities?
The simple answer is that conservatives are more likely to have more resources and to take advantage of that. The other is that they’re more likely to have hierarchical infrastructures that make it easier to engage the digital labor that’s needed to promote online activism. In other words, they tend to have more top-down organizations, and that’s just a more efficient way to distribute labor and get the message out.
In terms of the actual ideology itself, I do think there’s something about the nature of conservatism that makes it easier to promote online. Conservatives tend to focus on simple, clear messages around freedom in particular. The left tends to focus on this general idea of fairness.
Conservatives are generally monolithic in their attacks on, say, Obamacare. The left wants a diverse array of voices. The left tends to want to include a lot of different people and a lot of different issues, and the result is a more muddled message that is just harder to communicate.
Conservatives seem to benefit from a kind of persecution mania. Because they frame themselves as a reaction against the mainstream, because they’re the “truth-tellers” in an age of political correctness, their content just spreads faster online, which is itself the site of alternative news.
Honestly, that’s a great way to put it. And I think it’s an important point.
Do the left and right use the internet in fundamentally different ways? Do they communicate differently? Do they organize or cross-pollinate differently?
Conservatives and liberals both have their versions of a filter bubble, but I found that these bubbles are qualitatively very different. The left is interested in organizing and getting a lot of people out in a very participatory way. I often saw more photos of events, more photos of groups of people getting together after, say, a union meeting, or raising their fists in solidarity.
What was much more common on the right was a bigger focus on national issues, on memes and posting articles with comments. There was less emphasis on grassroots mobilizing. This was a drastic difference.
The Tea Party and other far-right groups in North Carolina, for instance, where I did a lot of my research, were much more concerned about national politics rather than what’s happening locally. They were involved in organizing locally, but they were much more focused on participating in this broader national conservative media ecosystem.
On the one hand, activism in the digital age is easier because you can reach and mobilize audiences, and yet, on the other hand, it’s lowered the barrier to entry in a way that seems to trivialize everything.
I agree that hashtag activism, on its own, is very limited. It’s always been a lot of work to build, create, and spread social movements, with or without the internet. Even when hashtags go viral, there’s usually a lot of work behind it.
Whether we’re talking about the #MeToo movement or other social movements, if you really look that the tweets that are being retweeted, the ones that capture the imagination of people, they’re often from people with some standing or celebrity. And for them to get to that point takes work.
Now, for a political movement that maybe doesn’t have a famous actor or actress or have a lot of political power to begin with, what they will need to spread that hashtag is either an army of volunteers, perhaps an army of bots, or the on-the-ground offline organizing that it takes to really have a movement spread online.
And again, it takes a lot of money and resources to do that kind of work.
Do you consider the internet an existential threat to democracy?
That’s a great question. I don’t think that the internet is a threat, existential or otherwise, to democracy because I still see it as a tool, which can be used for good or ill.
But is it a controllable tool?
I hear what you’re asking. I think the tool reflects what’s happening more broadly in our society. Ultimately, it’s not about the tool; it’s about the inequalities in our society that give certain people advantages over others. And these inequalities will always manifest themselves, whether we have the internet or not. So I guess I’m a little hesitant to give too much power to the tools themselves.
What does the future of virtual politics look like? Where are we headed?
Well, if we continue to imagine that digital technology is this egalitarian space without thinking seriously about the structural inequalities driving it, then I think our problems will get worse and the digital activism gap will widen.
It would be great to see Facebook reformed and it would be great if we created a non-profit, open-source, social media substitution for Facebook. I would be happy to participate in that and I think we’d be far better off.
Ultimately, though, if we want digital technology to be in the hands of the people, we’re going to have to address social class inequalities. This is the inequality driving all other inequalities, and we have to address it.