Last week, Bill Scher argued that the Democrat Netroots, an informal group of left-leaning bloggers that came to prominence during the early 2000s, died because there were internal divisions about policy and the netroots became irrelevant as the Obama administration ignored them. Many bloggers from that era have argued for a more prosaic cause: the death of advertising revenue due to Google’s business model made blogging financially unsustainable.
Which brings us to this review by Richard R. John of Jen Schradie’s The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives. John (boldface mine):
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.
As an example, she looks at a unionization effect:
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.”
…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.
The difference, to me, between the left and right online, is that the right financially supports its activists. They realize the advantages of having somewhat independent online activists: they ‘catapult the propaganda’ while providing a veneer of deniability. At the same time, many conservative political groups (i.e., not official Republican entities or politicians) fund these activists–one can make a living doing what they do–and if it’s done well, there might even be a lucrative career path.
On the left (construed broadly), this doesn’t really exist. There are a few journals with sufficient backing, and some academics who can do this in a ‘pro-am’ sort of way (the latter has the problem of insufficient time to do this meaningfully). But the Democratic aligned groups, such as Center for American Progress, really haven’t had much success (consider the sorry saga of Think Progress). In part, this is the same problem that goes back a decade: professional Democrats are not sympatico with online activists. They are viewed as a resource to exploit, but not part of their movement (given some of the fundamental divides within the Democratic Party, this might not be incorrect). As a result, progressive bloggers don’t have the career paths that existed when advertising revenue could keep you afloat. To survive, they have either had to join mainstream news organizations, which have different goals than online activists, or establishment organizations that simply have never been able–or willing–to harness activists: this inability, as described in the quote above, has as much to do with ineptitude as it does attitude.
Finally, there is one other point that is rarely raised: the right was always more successful and prominent. I would argue that a key moment was the rise of the ‘warblogging’ right. They were successful in that they managed to latch on (and help drive to some extent) the pro-Iraq War movement. They also were successful in getting establishment media figures to listen to them–consider the one-time popularity of the Drudge Report with mainstream media figures. Conservatives understood how to use their ‘netroots’ to plant and drive issues, while the left, by and large, had disdain for this process*. Consequently, the netroots were never seen as part of the movement; instead, the netroots were seen as something to control and check.
Whether this applies to the ‘Resistance’ as well is left as an exercise for the reader.
*This is part and parcel of professional Democrats having disdain for any political activity other than passing sweeping incrementalist legislation.