Why the Left Is Losing the Information Age

Liberals assumed digital technology would help their side. They forgot how power works.

Conservatives decry “shadow bans.” Liberals bemoan Russian bots. The one assumption that everyone seems to share is that digital platforms matter. But how?

Sociologist Jen Schradie has an answer, and it will not sit well with the legions of academics who have been climbing the tenure ladder studying online political mobilization. For Schradie’s arresting thesis is that digital activism favors conservatives. This conclusion may not seem particularly startling to political observers familiar with Breitbart News, President Trump’s tweets, or the ubiquitous online harassment of women, Jews, and African Americans. Yet it runs counter to the techno-optimism that has long informed the research agenda of media scholars charting the influence of the internet in public life. Schradie’s analysis suggests that the consensus view of the internet as a progressive, democratizing force overlooked a simple reality: building and sustaining an audience online costs money, and conservatives have more of it. “The reality is that throughout history, communications tools that seemed to offer new voices are eventually owned or controlled by those with more resources,” she observes. Inequality, institutions, and ideas all matter; and, in the digital arena, each favors the right.

The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives
by Jen Schradie
Harvard University Press, 416 pp.

Schradie faults communications researchers for their preoccupation with the superficial indicators of online activity: tweets, hashtags, Facebook posts. To gain a more well-rounded perspective on how social media works, she adopted a different approach. Instead of studying an online organization, she focused on a particular battle around a controversial political issue: the legal status of public-sector unions in North Carolina. How, she wondered, did left-leaning and right-leaning groups use social media to advance their position? To answer that question, she studied thirty-four groups that mobilized in the 2010s on either side of an initiative to overturn North Carolina’s ban on collective bargaining by public unions. An unabashed liberal, Schradie was not pleased with the outcome: the pro-union push failed, and the ban remains on the books. 

While Schradie recognizes the quantitative dimension of online engagement, the primary strength of her book lies in her fine-grained ethnographic analysis of the ways in which left-leaning and right-leaning groups did, and did not, take advantage of digital media. Her main conclusion is simple. The online activism of the left-leaning groups that supported public unions was qualitatively different from that of the right-leaning groups that opposed them. Liberal groups such as the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP were less critical of mainstream media, more skeptical of social media, and more committed to building and sustaining real-time personal relationships. As a consequence, they invested less in online activism and more in face-to-face interactions. Committed to inclusivity, they cultivated an ethic of fairness. While in-person canvassing has long been the gold standard for political strategists, it failed to win the day. Right-leaning groups such as the Caldwell County branch of the Tea Party, in contrast, demonized the mainstream media, invested heavily in digital tools, and mobilized online to bombard their members with carefully curated anti-union information. Freedom from big government trumped fairness for teachers and social workers, and the enemy was at the gates. 

For the NAACP and the public employee unions, the primary goal was to embolden supporters to speak out; for the Tea Party, in contrast, nothing was more important than confounding the mainstream media by getting out “the Truth.” Digital media proved more useful for information sharing than for community building: Twitter, in particular, was widely dismissed across the political spectrum as useless in mobilizing support for a cause.

In the contest between left and right, the deck was stacked. Left-leaning groups were typically poorer and less digitally savvy than their opponents, and, as a consequence, less likely to possess the knowledge, equipment, and resources to thrive online. Not everyone knows how to manage a social media feed, let alone update a website. And even digital adepts feared that they might suffer reprisals from their employers should they identify themselves online.

Inequality looms large in Schradie’s analysis, and she is not afraid to write candidly about class. The left-leaning groups that favored the public unions were poorer, less well educated, and, though she does not emphasize this as much as she might, more likely to be African American. Few used Twitter, many claimed to be intimidated by new media, and a surprising number were not even online. In North Carolina, the “digital divide” has lasted well into the age of iPhones, Androids, and mobile apps. Bureaucracy matters on the internet as well as off, and the left in North Carolina simply could not keep up. Notwithstanding media scholars’ much-hyped “ ‘post-bureaucratic’ information revolution,” even in cyberspace “organizations still matter.” 

Digital activism, in short, did not level the playing field. Instead, it entrenched the economic and political advantages of groups that were already relatively well off. Tea Partiers were reformist in the sense that their ultimate appeal was to the ballot box. To the Tea Party’s right in the anti-union drive were the survivalists, a genuinely radical group, colloquially known as the “Preppers,” that had given up on American institutions altogether and were biding their time until infrastructure collapsed and a Hobbesian war of all against all commenced. Schradie has little sympathy for either group. Yet she has no doubt that both had a solid base of grassroots support. Neither, that is, was merely a sock puppet of the libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch. To be sure, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity earned the highest digital activism score of the thirty-four groups Schradie studied. Yet their money would have been squandered had they lacked a loyal cadre of homegrown “organic intellectuals”—a phrase Schradie borrows from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Right-leaning groups were “digital evangelizers in their own right.” Since they had more resources than their rivals, their digital activism was creating a “digital activism gap” between the rich and the poor that threatened to exacerbate inequality and undermine democracy.

Schradie’s fieldwork will give little comfort to journalists confident in their ability to reach across the partisan divide. For the conservative activists Schradie studies, journalists were part of the problem: outsiders to North Carolina who had graduated from elite journalism schools located in other parts of the country, they were mostly Democrats, and were widely derided for their supposed pro-government bias. No matter what journalists did, they inspired suspicion. 

Whether digital activism actually worked is a question that Schradie leaves to others. This is not a how-to book. Rather, it is social-scientific takedown of the digital utopianism of the left. To be sure, Schradie has no doubt that the internet is the “most essential communication medium” of our time. Yet, like many media scholars—and to the exasperation of activists from across the political spectrum, no doubt—she is unwilling to speculate about its effects. Her more modest goal, instead, is to puncture the pluralist assumption that different groups compete in the public arena on a more or less equal basis; at least in North Carolina, the right has most of the chips, and the left is barely at the table. To merely study hashtags is not enough. Instead, media scholars should probe what lies behind a particular tweet. Power is interconnected, and it is by no means self-evident that the internet will live up to its “pluralist, personalized, and participatory ideals.” Authoritarian governments, Schradie provocatively concludes—in an implicit rebuke to Hannah Arendt—flourish best not in countries where grassroots groups are weak, but in those where they are strong. And as the outcome of the public union fight in North Carolina suggests, conservatives have discovered in digital media a potent tool to rally their supporters. Arendt linked individualism with atomization; yet for the right, the libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand has ironically become a poster child for a mass movement that the internet has emboldened. And unless something changes—Schradie does not say what that would be—the possibility of a “truly democratic society” will remain out of reach.

A historian tackling the public debate over public-sector unions in North Carolina would have written a different book. Though Schradie’s book is full of people, few really come to life. And while Schradie is by no means unmindful of the power of racial hatred, her historical lens is confined to the recent past. Had a media scholar turned her attention to this subject, in contrast, she would almost certainly have lingered longer in chat rooms and had more to say about filter bubbles, platform network providers, and algorithms. 

But sociology has its virtues. Bureaucracy is out of fashion these days, and community building is often regarded as so . . . 1960s. Yet Schradie reminds us that both remain indispensable if we are to confront the “long night” that lies ahead now that digital utopianism is dead. Schradie dedicates her book to “all the revolutionaries that were.” The left has a proud history of confronting the prerogatives of power and wealth. The best way for today’s left-leaning activists to lose the digital future is to keep assuming it’s theirs by default.

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Richard R. John

Richard R. John is a professor of history at Columbia University, where he teaches courses on the history of capitalism, communications, and American political development.