"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Despite the oft-repeated, and rather questionable, trope that social media is biased against conservatives; and beyond the attention that has been lavished on tech-savvy left-aligned movements (such as Occupy!) in recent years—this does not necessarily mean that social media is of greater use to the left. It may be quite the opposite. This is a topic that documentary filmmaker, activist and sociologist Jen Schradie explores in depth in her excellent and important book The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatism. Engaging with the political objectives of activists on the left and the right, Schradie’s book considers the political values that are reified in the technical systems themselves and the ways in which those values more closely align with the aims of conservative groups. Furthermore, Schradie emphasizes the socio-economic factors that allow particular groups to successfully harness high-tech tools, thereby demonstrating how digital activism reinforces the power of those who are already enjoying a fair amount of power. Rather than suggesting that high-tech tools have somehow been stolen from the left by the right, The Revolution That Wasn’t argues that these were not the left’s tools in the first place.
The background against which Schradie’s analysis unfolds is the state of North Carolina in the years after 2011. Generally seen as a “red state,” North Carolina had flipped blue for Barack Obama in 2008, leading to the state being increasingly seen as a battleground. Even though the state was starting to take on a purplish color, North Carolina was still home to a deeply entrenched conservativism that was reflected (and still is reflected) in many aspects of the state’s laws, and in the legacy of racist segregation that is still felt in the state. Though the Occupy! movement lingers in the background of Schradie’s account, her focus is on struggles in North Carolina around unionization, the rapid growth of the Tea Party, and the emergence of the “Moral Monday” movement which inspired protests across the state (starting in 2013). While many considerations of digital activism have focused on hip young activists festooned with piercings, hacker skills, and copies of The Coming Insurrection—the central characters of Schradie’s book are members of the labor movement, campus activists, Tea Party members, Preppers, people associated with “Patriot” groups, as well as a smattering of paid organizers working for large organizations. And though Schradie is closely attuned to the impact that financial resources have within activist movements, she pushes back against the “astroturf” accusation that is sometimes aimed at right-wing activists, arguing that the groups she observed on both the right and the left reflected genuine populist movements.
There is a great deal of specificity to Schradie’s study, and many of the things that Schradie observes are particular to the context of North Carolina, but the broader lessons regarding political ideology and activism are widely applicable. In looking at the political landscape in North Carolina, Schradie carefully observes the various groups that were active around the unionization issue, and pays close attention to the ways in which digital tools were used in these groups’ activism. The levels of digital savviness vary across the political groups, and most of the groups demonstrate at least some engagement with digital tools; however, some groups embraced the affordances of digital tools to a much greater extent than others. And where Schradie’s book makes its essential intervention is not simply in showing these differing levels of digital use, but in explaining why. For one of the core observations of Schradie’s account of North Carolina, is that it was not the left-leaning groups, but the right-leaning groups who were able to make the most out of digital tools. It’s a point which, to a large degree, runs counter to general narratives on the left (and possibly also the right) about digital activism.
In considering digital activism in North Carolina, Schradie highlights the “uneven digital terrain that largely abandoned left working-class groups while placing right-wing reformist groups at the forefront of digital activism” (Schradie, 7). In mapping out this terrain, Schradie emphasizes three factors that were pivotal in tilting this ground, namely class, organization, and ideology. Taken independently of one another, each of these three factors provides valuable insight into the challenges posed by digital activism, but taken together they allow for a clear assessment of the ways that digital activism (and digital tools themselves) favor conservatives. It is an analysis that requires some careful wading into definitions (the different ways that right and left groups define things like “freedom” really matters), but these three factors make it clear that “rather than offering a quick technological fix to repair our broken democracy, the advent of digital activism has simply ended up reproducing, and in some cases, intensifying, preexisting power imbalances” (Schradie, 7).
Considering that the core campaign revolves around unionization, it should not particularly be a surprise that class is a major issue in Schradie’s analysis. Digital evangelists have frequently suggested that high-tech tools allow for the swift breaking down of class barriers by providing powerful tools (and informational access) to more and more people—but the North Carolinian case demonstrates the ways in which class endures. Much of this has to do with the persistence of the digital divide, something which can easily be overlooked by onlookers (and academics) who have grown accustomed to digital tools. Schradie points to the presence of “four constraints” that have a pivotal impact on the class aspect of digital activism: “Access, Skills, Empowerment, and Time” (or ASETs for short; Schradie, 61). “Access” points to the most widely understood part of the digital divide, the way in which some people simply do not have a reliable and routine way of getting ahold of and/or using digital tools—it’s hard to build a strong movement online, when many of your members have trouble getting online. This in turn reverberates with “Skills,” as those who have less access to digital tools often lack the know-how that develops from using those tools—not everyone knows how to craft a Facebook post, or how best to make use of hashtags on Twitter. While digital tools have often been praised precisely for the ways in which they empower users, this empowerment is often not felt by those lacking access and skills, leading many individuals from working-class groups to see “digital activism as something ‘other people’ do” (Schradie, 64). And though it may be the easiest factor to overlook, engaging in digital activism requires Time, something which is harder to come by for individuals working multiple jobs (especially of the sort with bosses that do not want to see any workers using phones at work).
When placed against the class backgrounds of the various activist groups considered in the book, the ASETs framework clearly sets up a situation in which conservative activists had the advantage. What Schradie found was “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, 79), as the more financially secure conservative activists simply had more ASETs than the working-class activists on the left. And though the right-wing activists skewed older than the left-wing activists, they proved quite capable of learning to use new high-tech tools. Furthermore, an extremely important aspect here is that the working-class activists (given their economic precariousness) had more to lose from engaging in digital activism—the conservative retiree will be much less worried about losing their job, than the garbage truck driver interested in unionizing.
Though the ASETs echo throughout the entirety of Schradie’s account, “Time” plays an essential connective role in the shift from matters of class to matters of organization. Contrary to the way in which the Internet has often been praised for invigorating horizontal movements (such as Occupy!), the activist groups in North Carolina attest to the ways in which old bureaucratic and infrastructural tools are still essential. Or, to put it another way, if the various ASETs are viewed as resources, then having a sufficient quantity of all four is key to maintaining an organization. This meant that groups with hierarchical structures, clear divisions of labor, and more staff (be these committed volunteers or paid workers) were better equipped to exploit the affordances of digital tools.
Importantly, this was not entirely one-sided. Tea Party groups were able to tap into funding and training from larger networks of right-wing organizations, but national unions and civil rights organizations were also able to support left-wing groups. In terms of organization, the overwhelming bias is less pronounced in terms of a right/left dichotomy and more a reflection of a clash between reformist/radical groups. When it came to organization the bias was towards “reformist” groups (right and left) that replicated present power structures and worked within the already existing social systems; the groups that lose out here tend to be the ones that more fully eschew hierarchy (an example of this being student activists). Though digital democracy can still be “participatory, pluralist, and personalized,” Schradie’s analysis demonstrates how “the internet over the long-term favored centralized activism over connective action; hierarchy over horizontalism; bureaucratic positions over networked persons” (Schradie, 134). Thus, the importance of organization, demonstrates not how digital tools allowed for a new “participatory democracy” but rather how standard hierarchical techniques continue to be key for groups wanting to participate in democracy.
Beyond class and organization (insofar as it is truly possible to get past either), the ideology of activists on the left and activists on the right has a profound influence on how these groups use digital tools. For it isn’t the case that the left and the right try to use the Internet for the exact same purpose. Schradie captures this as a difference between pursuing fairness (the left), and freedom (the right)—this largely consisted of left-wing groups seeking a “fairer” allocation of societal power, while those on the right defined “freedom” largely in terms of protecting the allocation of power already enjoyed by these conservative activists. Believing that they had been shut out by the “liberal media,” many conservatives flocked to and celebrated digital tools as a way of getting out “the Truth,” their “digital practices were unequivocally focused on information” (Schradie, 167). As a way of disseminating information, to other people already in possession of ASETs, digital means provided right-wing activists with powerful tools for getting around traditional media gatekeepers. While activists on the left certainly used digital tools for spreading information, their use of the internet tended to be focused more heavily on organizing: on bringing people together in order to advocate for change. Further complicating things for the left is that Schradie found there to be less unity amongst leftist groups in contrast to the relative hegemony found on the right. Comparing the intersection of ideological agendas with digital tools, Schradie is forthright in stating, “the internet was simply more useful to conservatives who could broadcast propaganda and less effective for progressives who wanted to organize people” (Schradie, 223).
Much of the way that digital activism has been discussed by the press, and by academics, has advanced a narrative that frames digital activism as enhancing participatory democracy. In these standard tales (which often ground themselves in accounts of the origins of the internet that place heavy emphasis on the counterculture), the heroes of digital activism are usually young leftists. Yet, as Schradie argues, “to fully explain digital activism in this era, we need to take off our digital-tinted glasses” (Schradie, 259). Removing such glasses reveals the way in which they have too often focused attention on the spectacular efforts of some movements, while overlooking the steady work of others—thus, driving more attention to groups like Occupy!, than to the buildup of right-wing groups. And looking at the state of digital activism through clearer eyes reveals many aspects of digital life that are obvious, yet which are continually forgotten, such as the fact that “the internet is a tool that favors people with more money and power, often leaving those without resources in the dust” (Schradie, 269). The example of North Carolina shows that groups on the left and the right are all making use of the Internet, but it is not just a matter of some groups having more ASETs, it is also the fact that the high-tech tools of digital activism favor certain types of values and aims better than others. And, as Schradie argues throughout her book, those tend to be the causes and aims of conservative activists.
Despite the revolutionary veneer with which the Internet has frequently been painted, “the reality is that throughout history, communications tools that seemed to offer new voices are eventually owned or controlled by those with more resources. They eventually are used to consolidate power, rather than to smash it into pieces and redistribute it” (Schradie, 25). The question with which activists, particularly those on the left, need to wrestle is not just whether or not the Internet is living up to its emancipatory potential—but whether or not it ever really had that potential in the first place.