The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, by Jen Schradie

John Gilbey assesses a sobering account of why the internet doesn’t work for radicals

June 27, 2019
Crazy internet hat
Source: Getty

Many of us whose careers have evolved around the development of the internet had a vision of it as a great levelling force, an open environment allowing free access to intellectual debate across a range of platforms. Increasingly, there are indications that this view has become worryingly, perhaps dangerously, naive.

In this timely and thoughtful book, sociologist Jen Schradie uses her own comprehensive research to build a picture of the factors that constrain grass-roots movements from taking advantage of the power of the internet – and, more specifically, the World Wide Web. She contrasts this with the “digital evangelism” adopted by well-resourced and powerful political groups, especially those on the right, and discusses the impact of this imbalance.

At the core of the book is a set of factors that the author terms ASETs – access, skills, empowerment and time. While we tend to believe that internet access in Western nations is to all intents and purposes universal, it is clear that some areas of provision are more equal than others. Schradie points to low-income, disadvantaged areas in the southern US with poor network access and patchy mobile phone coverage – a significant barrier to effective communication for those seeking to be socially or politically active. Skills are a related issue, with literacy – digital and otherwise – and access to effective training far from universal.

Empowerment – or the lack of it – covers the sense of disconnect experienced by those who, for whatever reason, feel that access to digital resources is “not for them”. Time is perhaps the clincher, as even those in marginalised groups who have the wherewithal to own a full-function smartphone – a portal to so much potential for activism – are likely to be in a type of employment where carrying (let alone using) a phone is powerfully discouraged. These factors combine to place the “have-nots” in society at the back of the queue in terms of their potential for effective digital activism.

Conversely, groups and structures already blessed with power and resources have been able to use the new technologies in increasingly sophisticated ways to maintain and further develop their influence. The evolution of the global social media platforms, along with systems for multimedia distribution, have gifted the powerful with the means to dramatically extend their reach – as has become painfully obvious in the international political upheavals of the past few years. The playing field for digital activism is far from level, but perhaps it is only by increasing awareness of this that checks and balances can be put in place – allowing movement towards truly democratic debate.

This well-researched and provocative text is likely to make uncomfortable reading for anyone who believes that the internet has gifted us a political “digital utopia”. A particular strength is that the book is very much a personal narrative, with the author relating first-hand accounts of meetings, discussions and public events involving the digital activists of the title. The style is conversational and intimate, recalling how John Steinbeck approached similar socio-political issues in his road trip “in search of America”, Travels with Charley (1962) – which is about as big a compliment as I can give.

John Gilbey teaches in the department of computer science at Aberystwyth University.

The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives
By Jen Schradie
Harvard University Press, 416pp, £21.95
ISBN 9780674972339
Published 31 May 2019

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