The Internet was advertised as a field of participatory democracy, without limits, without social class. But this idealistic image has collapsed with the spread of misinformation and the rise of far-right theses on social media, according to Jen Schradie, author of a book on the subject.
The Arab Spring and democratic movements like #Metoo or Black Lives Matter seemed to reinforce the idea that the Internet was a participatory space for journalists or citizen activists.
But after a decade of research, American sociologist Jen Schradie observes the erosion of an ideal. In her latest book, the researcher even evokes “the illusion of participatory democracy.” This is at least the title of his newly translated book in French, subtitled “Internet est-il de droit?” and published by EPFL Press editions.
Marginalized people, women, people of color, are often harassed online, making the digital activism gap even bigger.
“For many years, far-right authorities have been using digital technologies,” Jen Schradie told Tout un monde. “But it wasn’t so obvious until the election of Trump, Brexit, and the simultaneous rise of far-right movements around the world, that they were really able to take advantage of the network’s possibilities and win online.”
The role of social class
Because in the digital world we are not all the same, according to her. As in real life, social class plays a role, as does high-speed Internet access, education, or skills. Inequalities persist and another more psychological factor contributes to the lack of numerical equality: fear. “Marginalized people, women, people of color, are often harassed online, which makes the digital activism gap even bigger,” says Jen Schradie.
A 2012 Occupy Wall Street protest. [AP Photo/Seth Wenig – Keystone]In the collective unconscious, we imagined that the Internet would allow us to circumvent the hierarchies and verticality of traditional organizations. But there, too, for Jen Schradie, it was an illusion: “One of the biggest myths surrounding digital activism is that it’s essentially horizontal. We’ve seen it with a lot of movements like Occupy Wall Street in the United States. “The Arab Spring. There’s this idea of a kind of leaderless, unorganized movement that can really take advantage of the Internet.”
“But what I found in my research is exactly the opposite. During the protests, you can definitely have a very strong increase in digital participation by a wide variety of people. But over time, these are the most hierarchical. , more “bureaucratic.” to impose yourself online: you need a strong organization and institutions. “
Left and right, different use
A strong and influential online presence requires time, money, organization and also strong convictions. At this point, the left and right do not play on the same ground, according to the researcher. On the right, the focus is more on a strong topic.
The far right tends to post very provocative and hateful messages against people of color, Muslims and women. And these kinds of posts are also more likely to go viral.
“Conservative movements, intrinsically, focus on issues of freedom. Both in the broadest sense and, more specifically, that of state freedom, we have seen this in opposition to the mandatory use of masks or vaccines. Freedom and this kind of messaging can work very well with digital technology because Twitter and other social media write short, focused messages, and at the same time there are conservatives who have this firm belief that conventional media does not. “They really care about their problems. So they see the Internet as a way to really get their message across. Not just to their members, but also as a key element in building their movement.”
On the left, there are a variety of messages on equality, gender issues, civil rights or the environment. This diversity and complexity is unfortunately losing its impact on the web, he says.
The harmful influence of algorithms
Jen Schradie also questions the excessive influence of algorithms controlled by digital platforms and highlighting the most controversial content. “The far right tends to publish very provocative and hateful publications against people of color, Muslims and women. And such publications are also much more likely to go viral.”
“In my research, I’ve found that left-wing groups post images on their social media instead of images, such as a photo of them at a protest or meeting, with their arms over their shoulders. Family member or other activist may like or share it, but will not go viral Conservatives are more likely to focus on aggressive, visual memes that are much more likely to go viral because they have a targeted message and they tend to be much more provocative. “
And the researcher concludes: “If the left wants to counter the dominance of the far right online, it must really develop its movement and unify it offline, because it is the key to digital technology. Like any communication tool that we have had. In history, it ‘s really about power. “
Radio theme: Patrick Chaboudez
Web adaptation: Melissa Härtel