The Internet has declared itself as an arena of participatory democracy, without borders, without social class. But this ideal has collapsed as misinformation and far-right theses emerged on social networks, according to Jane Shradi, author of a book on the subject.
The Arab Spring and democratic movements like #Metoo or Black Lives Matter seem to reinforce the idea that the Internet is a participatory space for journalists or citizen activists.
But after a decade of research, American sociologist Jane Shradi noted the erosion of one ideal. The researcher even evokes in her latest book “The Illusion of Participatory Democracy”. That’s at least the title of his book, just translated into French, entitled “Internet est-il de droit?” and published by EPFL Press editions.
Marginalized people, women and people of color are often harassed online, which widens the digital activism divide
“For many years, extreme right-wing authoritarian forces have used digital technologies,” explains Jane Shradi on Tout un monde. “But it wasn’t until Trump’s election, Brexit and the simultaneous rise of far-right movements around the world that they were really able to harness the potential of the network and win online.”
The role of social class
Because in the digital realm, we’re not all equal, according to her. As in real life, social class plays a role, as does high-speed internet access, education, or required skills. Inequality persists and there is another psychological factor that contributes to numerical inequality: fear. “Marginalized people, women and people of color are often harassed online, which widens the digital activism divide,” says Jane Shradi.
Protest by the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012. [AP Photo/Seth Wenig – Keystone]In the collective unconscious, we imagined that the Internet would make it possible to circumvent the hierarchies and verticality of traditional organizations. But there, too, for Jane Shrady, it was an illusion: “One of the biggest myths about digital activism is that it’s basically horizontal. We’ve seen that with a lot of movements like Occupy Wall Street in the US. The US or the Arab Spring. There is an idea About the kind of unorganized movement that lacks leadership that can really harness the Internet.”
“But what I have found in my research is the exact opposite. During protests, you can certainly achieve a very high rise in digital participation by a variety of people. But over time, these are the most hierarchical, more ‘bureaucratic’ groups that have the advantage. Staff or volunteers. They really understand the ever-changing dynamics and algorithms, and they know what can and can’t spread. This is really the key to continuity and self-imposition on the Internet: you really 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, left and right are not playing on the same ground, according to the researcher. On the right, the focus is more on a strong subject.
The far right tends to spread extremely provocative and hateful messages against people of color, Muslims and women. These types of posts are also more likely to go viral.
“Conservative movements, at their core, focus on issues of freedom. In the broad sense, and more specifically, liberation from the state, we’ve seen that with opposition to compulsory masks or vaccinations. This issue of freedom and this kind of message can work well with digital technology because Twitter and the medium of Other social media write short, focused messages and at the same time you have conservatives who have this strong conviction that the mainstream media doesn’t really care about their issues. So they see the Internet as a way to really get their message across. Not only to their members, but also as a key element in building their movement.”
On the left, there are a variety of messages about equality, gender issues, civil rights or the environment. This diversity and complexity, unfortunately, is losing its impact on the network, she said.
The harmful effect of algorithms
Jane Skradi also questions the excessive influence of algorithms controlled by digital platforms that highlight the most controversial content. “The far right tends to publish very provocative and hateful posts against people of color, Muslims and women. These types of posts are also likely to go viral.”
“In my research, I’ve found that left-wing groups post visuals on their social media feeds instead of pictures like a picture of them at a demonstration or meeting, with their shoulders raised. This man’s message might be liked or shared by a family member or other activist, But it won’t go viral, conservatives are likely to focus more on aggressive memes, and visuals that have a much higher chance of going viral because they have a targeted message and tend to be more provocative.”
The researcher concludes: “If the left wants to counter the domination of the far right online, it has to really develop and unite its movement offline, because it is really the key to digital technology. Like any communication tool we have made in history, it is really about power.”
Radio theme: Patrick Chapods
Adaptation to the Web: Melissa Hartell