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The revolution that wasn't: how digital activism favors conservatives

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Abstract

Now that we are arguably several decades deep into the digital revolution, scholarship weighing its impact is flourishing, and the rosy imaginings of the late twentieth century are being revisited—often with disheartening results. An insightful addition to this literature is documentary filmmaker and sociologist Jen Schradie's new book discussing the intersection of the digital revolution with activism. As Schradie observes, many believed that the digital revolution would counteract the entrenched advantages of resources, infrastructure and class power among activist groups. With barriers to engagement eased through online organizing, some expected to see a new era of democratization, characterized by increased participation among groups who previously struggled to make their voices heard. In reality, she argues, the opposite has occurred. To build this argument, Schradie conducted research on labour activist groups in North Carolina working to challenge the state ban on collective bargaining for public-sector workers. She created a digital activism index for 34 groups across the state and made use of extensive interviews and group observation to assemble a cohesive portrait of the people behind these movements. She discovered that, on the whole, conservative groups were better organized, funded, and trained in the use of online tools, and gained more benefit from them. Left-wing working-class groups, meanwhile, seemed to be playing a game of catch-up, only without the same socio-economic advantages. In short, as she has written elsewhere, Schradie observed a digital divide across class lines, which only served to undermine some groups' ability to be heard.
Book reviews
International Aairs 96: 1, 2020

In their conclusion, Visoka and Musliu identify a set of common themes and,
more importantly, advance ‘five practical steps that could contribute to local-
izing and decolonizing knowledge’ (p. ). These prescriptions are in themselves
straightforward but, if implemented by the many external scholars who write
about Kosovo, would catalyse a genuinely transformative shift that is long
overdue.
This is, ultimately, a very valuable addition to the literature on statebuilding—
both in Kosovo and more generally—and not simply because it is authored by
locals; the analysis presented is empirically rich, innovative and informative, and
should serve as the basis for future debates about this perennially important case.
Aidan Hehir, University of Westminster, UK
The revolution that wasn’t: how digital activism favors conservatives. By Jen
Schradie. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. . pp. .. 
    . Available as e-book.
Now that we are arguably several decades deep into the digital revolution, scholar-
ship weighing its impact is flourishing, and the rosy imaginings of the late twentieth
century are being revisited—often with disheartening results. An insightful
addition to this literature is documentary filmmaker and sociologist Jen Schradie’s
new book discussing the intersection of the digital revolution with activism. As
Schradie observes, many believed that the digital revolution would counteract the
entrenched advantages of resources, infrastructure and class power among activist
groups. With barriers to engagement eased through online organizing, some
expected to see a new era of democratization, characterized by increased participa-
tion among groups who previously struggled to make their voices heard. In reality,
she argues, the opposite has occurred.
To build this argument, Schradie conducted research on labour activist groups
in North Carolina working to challenge the state ban on collective bargaining for
public-sector workers. She created a digital activism index for  groups across the
state and made use of extensive interviews and group observation to assemble a
cohesive portrait of the people behind these movements. She discovered that, on
the whole, conservative groups were better organized, funded, and trained in the
use of online tools, and gained more benefit from them. Left-wing working-class
groups, meanwhile, seemed to be playing a game of catch-up, only without the
same socio-economic advantages. In short, as she has written elsewhere, Schradie
observed a digital divide across class lines, which only served to undermine some
groups’ ability to be heard.
Aside from the continued influence of class, Schradie also found that the digital
revolution has not reduced the importance of organization and hierarchy for eec-
tive political mobilization. Rather than bolster a new style of grassroots activism
characterized by a horizontal structure, digital tools continue to be most eective
when used by well-organized, hierarchical groups which streamline messaging,
responsibilities and partnerships. Groups that embraced a more horizontal struc-
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Governance, law and ethics

International Aairs 96: 1, 2020
ture—tending to be left leaning—found that digital tools were less practical or
helpful for combining voices, ideas and priorities.
Beyond the factors of class and organization, Schradie astutely notes the impact
of ideology on groups’ ability to garner support online. Conservative messages
were unified in their ‘freedom ideology’ of ‘limited government, fiscal responsi-
bility, and the free market’ (p. ). Liberal groups, conversely, promoted multiple
perspectives out of a sense of fairness, and therefore lacked a unified, simplified
message. Schradie thus found that digital tools were better suited to conservatives
short, straightforward mandates, while liberal groups instead preferred in-person
advocacy. This may be her most important contribution: highlighting the boost
which uncompromising views receive through being well suited to digital platforms.
Although she discusses this dynamic as a conservative trend, it is certainly key to
the success of more radical left-leaning groups as well.
Structurally, Schradie’s argument leaves something to be desired; the book is
roughly divided into chapters on each of these three factors—class, organization
and ideology—with ideology split into two separate chapters examining the right
and left individually. However, each chapter is littered with winding anecdotes
which, while insightful and engaging, have the eect of obscuring rather than
clarifying the book’s overall structure. Combined with the frequent and criss-
crossing employment of the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’, as well as ‘reformist’
and ‘radical’, this book may prove to be confusing for non-US audiences.
Schradie’s research is thoughtfully formulated. It is, however, necessary to
question the generalizability of her conclusions to a larger population, not only
within the United States but also in an international setting. Unfortunately, labour
rights are an issue traditionally upheld by the liberal working class. If a dierent
case were considered, one that is more strongly identified with the conserva-
tive working class, for example gun ownership, the study might have come to a
dierent conclusion. Similarly, the labels of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have specific
meanings in this context, and altogether dierent connotations in other settings,
both domestically and internationally. Their heavy usage in the text therefore
diminishes the broader applicability of the research.
Schradie has clarified in various interviews that digital tools are in themselves
neutral, and tried to dissuade readers from an alarmist interpretation of the book’s
tagline. A more apt summary of her research may be that the conservative digital
apparatus in the United States is more powerful than most would believe, and
that its organizing abilities are not to be underestimated. What is crucial, Schradie
asserts, is that we avoid ‘deluding ourselves into believing that traditional methods
of organizing are no longer valuable or relevant’ (p. ). Instead, she notes that ‘the
reality is that throughout history, communications tools that seemed to oer 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’ (p. ). This is no less true for the new tools provided by the digital
revolution.
Amy Kasper, Leiden University, The Netherlands
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