May 31, 7 p.m.
Quail Ridge Books, 4209 Lassiter Mill Road, #100, Raleigh
Barack Obama made it look easy.
His 2008 campaign employed sophisticated digital tools and targeted mobilization strategies the political world didn’t fully understand and his adversaries seemed too stodgy to handle. The years that followed saw the Arab Spring and European anti-austerity protests and Occupy Wall Street, all branches of leftist (or liberal) activism with roots online and in social media.
For a fleeting minute, this looked like the future: young, engaged, and egalitarian. The internet was going to be a great equalizer—leveling the playing field between moneyed elites and the rising masses. More than that, progressives assumed, it favored those most adept at utilizing and shaping technology—the young and the educated.
In other words, themselves.
By 2016, though, this utopian fantasy had been laid bare: Donald Trump, Brexit, far-right populist, nationalist, and illiberal movements in Europe and beyond, all of which also germinated online.
Progressives blamed Russian interference and the proliferation of fake news. But as sociologist Jen Schradie argues in her new book, The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, that’s not the real story. The real story, she writes, is that the dynamics of digital activism aren’t all that different from those of traditional activism, and conservatives have the same advantages online that they did before the internet: time and money.
If anything, she writes, the web has tilted this balance further in their direction.
Schradie, who graduated from Duke in 1989 and spent more than a decade as a documentary filmmaker before going to grad school, reached this conclusion after spending several years on the ground in North Carolina in the early part of this decade—just as a state that appeared to be going blue took a hard-right turn—encamping with groups on the left and right as they campaigned for and against proposals to allow state employees to collectively bargain.
Ultimately, she found an “uneven digital terrain that largely abandoned left working-class groups while placing right-wing reformist groups at the forefront of digital activism.”
Schradie, who will be at Quail Ridge Books Friday evening, spoke to the INDY from France, where she’s an assistant professor at The Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po. This conversation has been condensed and edited for print.
INDY: Why did you choose North Carolina for your case study?
JEN SCHRADIE: I was in Northern California at UC-Berkeley, and because I wanted to choose a political issue that attracted both the left and the right, as well as groups from different social classes and different kinds of organizational structures. Because I was in Northern California, it’s really hard to find an issue that attracted the far right there, just around the San Francisco Bay Area. There just weren’t a lot of conservative groups.
I went to Duke. I stayed in North Carolina and was a documentary filmmaker and also became involved with a lot of the political issues that were happening at that point. I already knew about the collective-bargaining issue in North Carolina. Just a few years earlier, before I started this research in 2011, the state had just barely tipped over to Obama. And so it was this purple state, and as I was doing my research in 2012, Obama lost it by a hair. So it really was the perfect mix of having both the left and the right very active in the state.
Your book presents a counternarrative to the idea that the internet is a naturally progressive medium. I’m wondering what your preconceptions were going in.
[In 2011], Time magazine had “The Protester” as the Person of the Year, and the description was really about what a lot of the media were calling Twitter and Facebook revolutions. And these included not only the very well-known Occupy Wall Street, but also what was happening in Wisconsin with the takeover of the statehouse. And this was on the heels of the Arab Spring, and the [anti-austerity] Indignados Movement in Spain, etc. So, you have this image of digital activism as being the tool for radical left activists. What I really wanted to do was delve into what a wider spectrum of groups was actually doing. I expected some social class differences, but even I was surprised at the extent of the digital inequality.
But what I did definitely learn as I went along is what, at the time, people were slowly starting to talk about: this idea of filter bubbles. The hyper-focus [among journalists and academics] was on these left-wing activist movements, these very digitally visible movements. But meanwhile, underneath the radar, was a highly sophisticated group of conservative activists—some with a lot of resources and more elite, but some very grassroots and organic—that were engaging online.
So [with] the filter bubble, it wasn’t just that we were making claims about digital activism and being that egalitarian tool. We were also not really paying attention to what was happening with groups that were focusing on very, very different issues. And what I found in the process is not only that conservative groups with more resources and more vertical structures were using the internet more, but that how they used it was also very different.
You write about labor groups in eastern North Carolina that had no web presence at all. We tend to think of liberal groups as having sophisticated internet machines.
It’s fascinating, even talking to some conservative activists who themselves were really engaged online and were very sophisticated and still didn’t even recognize their own digital power. In many ways, that surprised people with Donald Trump’s election or even the 2014 election in North Carolina. I think people were really surprised at this infrastructure that had been brewing for a long time. I think North Carolina is a really good example of what was happening nationally: You had that really strong ecosystem of grassroots conservative organizations working in sync with conservative media. And it’s not just Fox News or even Breitbart, but a much broader spectrum, and locally.
What did conservatives get about the internet that progressives didn’t?
There are a couple of [areas where] conservatives really have got the advantage. One is that they have this ecosystem of information that they were able to share, re-share, etc. So you have resources there. And it’s not just funding; it was also time. Tea Party activists, in particular, tend to be older or retired. So they really had time to dedicate to the work of digital activism. It takes a lot of effort.
But there’s also the piece of purer political ideology that works to the advantage of conservatives. In very simplistic terms, conservatives tend to focus on freedom. Progressives tend to focus on fairness.
There was another difference related to this ideology. When I talked to activists on the left, they were very concerned with getting as many people to participate in this very egalitarian way. The internet was just one tool to enable that to happen.
But when I talked with conservative activists, their eyes would light up. They were so much more excited about how [the internet] could counter what they viewed as the disinformation of the mainstream media. They felt really alienated, and they really felt like it was their way to deliver the truth.
You reference the late economist Mancur Olson’s theory about collective action—that it’s irrational to participate, so those with a certain level of comfort are more likely to commit time and resources to do so—and the notion that this idea applies to something as basic as posting articles online. That’s an interesting way of looking at Olson’s research fifty years after he did it.
While the cost of participation is so much lower with [the internet], the problem is that not everyone has those same disposable tools or time to come to the table. Certainly, over time, more and more people adopt. But the problem is that if you don’t have those resources, it’s a constant struggle. And it’s not just the tools. It’s new platforms that are being introduced. It’s a moving target.
You wrote that, while a lot of people were shocked when Trump won the election, you weren’t. Why?
When I first started to present my preliminary results around 2014, I would talk about the general findings that you and I have been discussing, and, especially among more leftist scholars and activists, they were very wary. They were like, “What are you talking about?”
They didn’t disbelieve my data, but I think they just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that conservatives were more active online. And for me, it wasn’t just this idea now that that’s being promoted. It wasn’t just fake news or people being duped by Trump or what I think is kind of the narrative now. There was this groundswell of support that really has been growing for a long time, even before 2009, but really with the birth of the Tea Party movement. People on the ground were organizing extensively. I could see that they had a much better digital footprint that wasn’t separate from what was going on but really reflected the political organizing that was going on.
Is there something in the messaging that the left should be taking from these conservative groups, which were so focused on Obama and national issues like the Affordable Care Act and are now focused to a large degree on supporting Trump?
Being as catchy as possible without diluting your message is essential with social media. And it’s not just the words; the images are huge. They’re so important, and especially if we think about the movement toward Instagram in particular and other more [visual] mediums—images, memes, GIFs. That’s what people are sharing. That’s what people are laughing about. That’s what people get really angry about. It’s a powerful way to convey your message.
Last question. You did a lot of this research several years ago. The internet changes very fast—platforms change, algorithms change. The book’s coming out now. Do you think the fundamental premise of the book has been affected by the changes in how the internet works today versus eight years ago?
I think it’s even more dramatic and apparent now than it was before. I don’t think the digital activism gap has gone away.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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