The Revolution That Wasn’t: How inequalities in digital activism spaces challenge the democratic promise of the internet

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The Revolution That Wasn’t: How inequalities in digital activism spaces challenge the democratic promise of the internet

This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and reflects on discussions at OECD Forum 2019.

We had such high hopes for it. That disruptive digital darling of Silicon Valley, Cairo, Madrid, London and now Paris. We really believed it would solve so many of the world’s problems. When the internet was in its infancy, we were optimistic about its future to help make the world a better place. We nurtured it and gave it free reign. When it started to grow and went through its rebellious adolescent phase, we supported its new-found connections with social networks, and we had faith in its revolutionary democratic power to enable ordinary citizens to have a voice. It’s now an adult, though, and it should know better. But it doesn’t.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

The internet was supposed to do many things economically, socially, and yes, politically. But this belief in giving technology some type of inherent life force and super-power capabilities has always ignored the broader societal structures that shape what it can and cannot do. But as many now turn toward the internet’s dark side of bots or fake news, we cannot just challenge the individual villains of big tech and government: if we do, we continue down the path of thinking that getting rid of them will re-create a utopian digital space. In fact, the democratic potential of the internet has never been met because of how it further amplifies dominant voices and marginalises people who already have little power.

In my new book, The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, I show that pluralistic ideals are shattered not by an army of trolls but by a system of inequality. Rather than everyday people connecting with each other politically in a new egalitarian and horizontal digital network, the digital tendency is for elite, hierarchical and conservative groups to dominate online activism spaces.

Much of the research into digital activism has focused on successful, visible political movements, whether the recent Arab Spring or Spain’s Indignados. The problem is that this approach has skewed our findings toward movements of people who are already digitally active and away from a broader view of how online activism happens on a day-to-day level. The ordinary versus the extraordinary.

Wanting to go beyond high-profile movements that might bias my findings, I chose a local political issue that would attract a variety of groups based on social class, political ideology, and organizational structure: collective bargaining rights for public employees in the state of North Carolina in the United States. All in all, this issue attracted 34 different groups that ranged from young student activists and other anarchist-minded groups to older right-wing organizations, many of which were bureaucratic in their structures. Rather than old school traditionalists who shun technology out of principal, labour union activists in the rural south operate more like social movements because of their uphill battle – often working with youth, civil rights and other activist groups.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

To measure the groups’ online engagement levels I developed a digital activist score based on Twitter, Facebook and website metrics; I could then evaluate not only the extent of their own online activity but also how activists were engaging and participating in their online dialogue. Much fanfare has been made about digital activism being tied to left-leaning, horizontally-minded members of the public. But I found the highest levels of digital participation within conservative, hierarchical and resourced institutions. Simply, the results showed persistent digital activism inequality.

But I didn’t just analyse the online digital footprint. I also spent countless hours in 12 cities and towns across the state interviewing everyone from far-right activists to labour organisers, observing their meetings, protests and everyday political organising practices. To better understand online activism, we have to devote offline time to contextualise it.  

The widest gap in online activism derived from social class differences. Middle and upper class groups not only used the internet more than their working-class counterparts, but they generated much higher levels of online participation, such as 50 times more Facebook comments, on average per day. Three mechanisms drove this class-based digital activist inequality. First, organisational resources, in the forms of digital gadgets and online expertise, were scarce among working-class groups but proliferated among middle and upper class ones. Next, individual constraints diminished online activism: marginalised activists were much less likely to have internet access, digital skills, empowered confidence and simply the time to use digital tools. Finally, contextual factors limited working-class activists, many of whom were African-American, as they feared repression through job loss or faced threats from publicly engaging online. The networked individualism of the internet did not serve the collective needs that class power constrains.   

Photo by Bit Cloud on Unsplash

The next explanation for the digital activism gap also ran counter to networked expectations. Rather than horizontal groups dominating the digital activism space, it was hierarchical ones. Groups with more of this infrastructure often had staff or an army of volunteers who had the expertise to not only develop but also maintain digital engagement. A digital activist was more likely to be an elderly Tea Party member than a young student activist. But even more influential were bureaucratic organisations that had media staff who had honed their skills in the dark arts of digital memes and manipulation.

Finally, though political ideology drove digital differences it wasn’t egalitarian-loving groups on the left that embraced the internet as much as it was freedom-focused organisations on the right who celebrated how they could counteract what they considered misinformation. Yes, these cries of fake news drove conservatives to spread what they called “The Truth” on social media. Instead, left-leaning activists often considered the internet one of many tools to organise a set of diverse voices, not pump out a simple stream of freedom messages as the right did.

But these three factors – inequality, institutions and ideology – did not work in isolation. They amplified each other to create this chasm between the digital activism haves and the have-nots. Working-class groups on the left, for instance, were simply not on Twitter, so when hashtag searches dominate journalist or researcher tool kits on tracking digital activist trends, some voices will be left out of this equation. But conservative activists are not only grassroots in their own right but also have a vast, well-funded right-wing media ecosystem to feed their digital spaces.

But wait – maybe this digital activism gap is just an outlier of one issue in one state in one country. How can we apply these findings to other countries and contexts? In many ways, that is the point. It is essential not to generalise any pocket of digital activism. We must dig deep to find where other inequalities and structural differences lie. And marginalisation is prevalent in every country, whether France or anywhere else in the world. As we search for #GiletsJaunes or #MeToo, what types of voices dominate and which ones are drowned out?

Digital democracy is a mere fantasy when structural differences and inequalities not only persist online but may also be exacerbated by the technological dominance of conservative elites.

  • What could resolve the digital activism gap?
  • How is the digital activism gap playing out in other countries?

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People Power Digital Inclusion Reimagining Democracy OECD Forum 2019

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