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Why conservatives are winning the internet

A new book explains why digital activism helps conservatives more than liberals.

An illustration of a social media “thumbs up” icon turned into “finger guns.” Christina Animashaun/Vox

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 Schradie tells in her new book The Revolution That Wasn’t. Schradie argues that technology is not only failing to level the playing field for activists, it’s actually making things worse by “creating a digital activism gap.” The differences in power and organization, she says, have undercut working-class movements and bolstered authoritarian groups.

I spoke to Schradie about the implications of all this and why she thinks the internet has become just another political weapon in the arsenals of the most powerful forces in our societies.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

I think most people still see the internet and social media as neutral tools that can be exploited by political actors on all sides. Is that wrong?

Jen Schradie

The internet is a tool and in that sense it’s neutral, but just like other communication tools from the past, people with more power, with more resources, with more organization, have been able to take advantage of it.

So take something like the television. In theory, despite some licensing issues, anyone could, if they had enough money, buy a television station — but that’s not really how it works.

The idea of neutrality seems more true of the internet because the costs of distributing information are dramatically lower than with something like television or radio or other communication tools.

However, to make full use of the internet, you still need substantial resources and time and motivation. The people who can afford to do this, who can fund the right digital strategy, create a major imbalance in their favor.

Sean Illing

When did it become obvious that the digital revolution was politically dangerous?

Jen Schradie

There have been a couple of important shifts. 2006 is a crucial moment. Back then, we still had this utopian view of the internet. That was the year Time magazine named “You” their “Person of the Year.” The front cover had this mirror of a computer monitor meaning that you, as an individual, can create online content and participate in this new public sphere.

A lot of social media platforms were either launched or became public around that time. Facebook became available to the general public in that year, so that was a really important year for this very utopian view.

2011 was another pendulum swing, because that was the year we saw the Arab Spring unfold and there was all this talk of Twitter revolutions and Facebook revolutions. We also had the Indignados movement in Spain and the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. The internet was a big part of all of this.

But then things started to crumble. There was Gamergate and this explosion of sexism and harassment. There was Edward Snowden and the revelations about the extent of global mass surveillance. And then, of course, 2016 is when we really went over the cliff with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

But I was researching digital activism in 2014 and it was already apparent to me, despite what a lot of people thought, that conservatives and authoritarian powers were seizing control of the digital space.

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.
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.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Sean Illing

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?

Jen Schradie

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.

The cover of The Revolution That Wasn’t. Harvard University Press

Sean Illing

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.

Jen Schradie

Honestly, that’s a great way to put it. And I think it’s an important point.

Sean Illing

Do the left and right use the internet in fundamentally different ways? Do they communicate differently? Do they organize or cross-pollinate differently?

Jen Schradie

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.

Sean Illing

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.

Jen Schradie

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.

Sean Illing

Do you consider the internet an existential threat to democracy?

Jen Schradie

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.

Sean Illing

But is it a controllable tool?

Jen Schradie

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.

Sean Illing

What does the future of virtual politics look like? Where are we headed?

Jen Schradie

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.

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