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A Book Discussion on Digital Activism with Jen Schradie and Brooke Foucault Welles

By Jeff Sternberg

We are in an age where the internet has become a dominant tool utilized by various groups to leverage power and influence in the social world. One question that looms on the minds of many, in the midst of contemporary social movements and the resurgence of the American Right and Left, is who can use the internet towards these ends, what factors influence who is best able to use the internet and for what purposes? Jen Schradie and Brooke Foucault Welles pose very different but intimately related answers to these questions in their respective books, Schradie’s The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives and Foucault Welles’ forthcoming book, #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, co-authored with Moya Bailey and Sarah J. Jackson. Schradie and Foucault Welles’ books were put into conversation at the NULab’s recent Book Discussion and Signing Event on October 22nd at Northeastern’s Alumni Center, with each author giving a brief overview of their book projects followed by a question and answer session moderated by NULab Co-Director David Lazer.

Schradie framed the context and trajectory of her book by recalling that when she was doing her PhD nobody cared much about digital technologies, that she had even once received a reviewer comment asking “why does the internet matter?”. Time has shown that this type of attitude towards the internet cannot hold up against the events that have transpired in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, proving the internet to have a strong and lasting impact on politics in particular and the dynamics of the social world in general. How then have computers and the internet been integrated into the social world and by whom? What potential futures have different groups come to see in these tools and what politics can be performed through them?

Schradie began to shed light on these questions by presenting the historical imaginary that digital technologies and the internet have represented to social actors since their initial popularization in the mid-1980’s. Schradie started this history of the computer-related social imagination with an image of Apple’s famous Mac dystopian commercial, featuring a young woman running up the middle of a bland grey room ringed by people dressed in the same grey garb to smash a computer monitor broadcasting an authoritarian leader, freeing everyone in the society from his grip and revealing the Macintosh computer as the tool that will promise an end to the dystopian politics of 1984. Schradie then jumped to a slide showing events occurring five years later in 1989, where there were physical manifestations of smashing the authoritarian state, represented by the smashing of the Berlin wall. 1989 was also the year the world wide web debuted, in this context emerging as a revolutionary promise against the holdovers of authoritarian rule, lending a utopian tint to the political prospects of the internet that would last for the next two decades. These dreams of internet utopianism began to crumble with revelations of Snowden, and the upsurge of Gamergate, with 2016’s barrage of Trump tweets, Brexit, Cambridge Analytica, Russian bots, so-called fake news, etc., marking the death of widespread feelings of web utopianism.

Even amidst this change of context showing the dark side of the web, the main arguments in the literature around digital activism continue to highlight the web’s utopian aspects of participation, horizontal organization, pluralism, and personalization. Schradie argues that these highlighted aspects continue to be the focus of digital activism research because most research has focused on high-profile protest movements and events, which made sense initially, but has fallen into the danger of: selecting on the dependent variable, only looking at movements that use the internet a lot, increasingly relying on hashtags, ignoring the offline, and historically focusing on left-leaning movements. Schradie responded to these potential blindspots in digital activism research by taking a different approach. She wanted to re-center social movements and not only look beyond those who use the internet exclusively, but also examine how internet use in various social movements looks different and why. Schradie’s guiding research question was: how did the relationship between a group’s use of the internet and their overall activism look different based on organization, resources, and partisanship? Schradie narrowed her focus to attempt to answer these questions, conducting a case study of the different groups organizing in response to labor bargaining in North Carolina. In North Carolina, public sector workers cannot have a labor contract, while private-sector workers can. Schradie argued that this specific issue operates less like a narrow labor issue and more like a broader social movement issue, incorporating civil rights, human rights, and other types of left-leaning organizations into the field of maneuver and study. Schradie chose North Carolina because she wanted to look at a variety of social movement responses to this issue, breaking out of the literature’s narrow focus on left-wing social movements. Schradie ended up examining thirty-four groups active on this issue, collecting all the Twitter and Facebook data produced by these groups, as well as all text data available on their websites. Schradie also interviewed over 60 people in 12 cities to frame and give context to the quantitative analysis, serving as a robustness check to her computational findings.

Schradie shared the results of a study in which she found a digital activism gap existing between groups based on their organizational structures and class backgrounds. Schradie further identified three main factors contributing to this digital activism gap, which she described as the “Three I’s”: Inequality, Institutions, and Ideology. For inequality, Schradie highlighted the class inequality revealed by the organizations who were and weren’t able to leverage online tools as part of their activism, with a subsample of 5 of the 34 study groups qualifying as poor or working-class and producing almost no tweets. Schradie argued that we need to think about whose voices are online and whose are not, suggesting that people often feel disempowered, as if the internet is for something else, or not for them to use, quoting a working-class respondent who said “I don’t get up there [the internet]”. The other factor lending to this inequality was the fear these working-class groups felt using the internet politically, the fear of posting politically online, losing their jobs, the potential repression they would face based on their races and classes. In terms of institutions, the second I contributing to the digital activism gap, Schradie found that more hierarchical and bureaucratic groups over time were able to gain a lasting expertise and understanding in using online platforms, understanding the Facebook algorithms that determine whether a message gets traction, and having the stable division of labor to engage in this type of digital activism work. These three I’s don’t work in isolation; for example, the third I, ideology, intersects with the other two, with conservative groups tending to be more hierarchical and bureaucratic, but also having their own bottom-up and grassroots groups. Schradie argues that this should disrupt the common assumption that the right is top-down and the left is bottom-up, since far-right groups and civil society institutions show grassroots participation online. Schradie also remarked that the right uses the internet as one of their main activism tools, with one right-wing activist remarking “Paul Revere had a horse, we have the internet”. Schradie found that, in contrast to the right who seems to utilize the internet as one of its main organizing tools, the left saw the internet as one tool among many to organize folks, leading to different outcomes.

Schradie closed her talk by pushing us to focus on the resource and institutional structures that allow for success and failure in digital activism, noting that, though the internet is a tool that can be used for many purposes, social structures determine who can use it and for what purposes. She argued that we tend to focus on the tech villains (Trump, Putin, Zuckerberg) “misusing” these tools, thinking that if we can get rid of these figures, we can have our internet back. This focus on tech villains obscures the structural issues that drive the internet dystopia we are living through, obscuring the conditions and inequality driving the revolution that wasn’t.

Brooke Foucault Welles then took to the podium, offering a compatible but very different take on the potential uses of the internet and its prospects for digital activism. Foucault Welles began by presenting the phenomenon of #Hashtag Activism, the subject of her book co-authored with Sarah J. Jackson and Moya Bailey. Hashtag activism can best be understood as activism carried out on social media platforms in conjunction with events and actions on the ground, turned into broader social and cultural movements organized around the creation and utilization of a particular hashtag. Foucault Welles gave specific examples of hashtag activism movements, including Janet Mock’s #Girlslikeus hashtag, which advocates for positive and authentic representations of black transwomen; the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, which emerged after the extra-judicial killings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and which has turned into a full-fledged new civil rights movement; and the #Metoo hashtag, which was created by a black woman, Tarana Burke, in 2006 and then repurposed by mainstream media in 2017 to alert attention to the sexual harassment and assault plaguing the entertainment industry and beyond.

Foucault Welles, referencing these examples of hashtag activism, suggested that it isn’t obvious that we would talk about these things, nor that the mass media would cover these issues, nevertheless suddenly we seem to be discussing them in a mainstream way. The question that Foucault Welles and her co-authors ask is: how did we get here? In order to answer this question, Foucault Welles sought to situate the emergence of hashtag activism as the latest iteration of historical social forces, arguing that hashtag activism is a modern iteration of counterpublics that have existed throughout history in different forms. These counterpublics have been best exemplified by historical black presses, and women’s pamphlets and leaflets. The concept of counter publics represents the various historical ways people get together to talk about the issues of marginalized and underrepresented groups, including but not limited to movements that have proceeded past the production of counter-narratives to advocate for ways to lobby the mainstream and create policy.

The concept of counter publics is based on Jurgen Habermas’ public sphere theory which held that, in an ideal democracy, people come to gather in public spaces and debate the issues of the day, coming to consensus and arriving at conclusions that policymakers take note of. Black/feminist scholars have criticized public sphere theory, pointing out that marginalized individuals are not invited to those conversations and as a result their voices are not a part of the decisions making policy, creating the grounds for the formation of counter publics. The goal of counter publics is then to support and affirm the experiences of those outside mainstream discourse and introduce alternative narratives to challenge the status quo. Foucault Welles then observed that these theories are the historical product of when we mainly or exclusively gathered in physical spaces, and that they need to be updated to account for our increased gathering in online spaces. Building off of Benkler’s networked publics to describe this change in public sphere theory, Foucault Welles and Sarah J. Jackson proposed a theory of “networked counterpublics” in 2015; in her presentation, Foucault Welles noted that hashtag activism is a primary example of such discourse.

The goal of #HashtagActivism then was to study and explore hashtag activism both as an empirical phenomenon and as a ground upon which to extend and refine the theory of networked counter publics. The book utilized a mixed-methods research design, including both qualitative and quantitative methods, such as network analysis and discourse analysis. The book is the product of an interdisciplinary collaboration between its authors who represent the fields of Network Science, Critical Race, Gender & Sexuality Studies, and Communications. Each chapter of the book is focused around a specific set of issues, highlighting one or a few specific case studies.

For this talk, Foucault Welles presented a chapter focused on the #MyNYPD (New York Police Department) hashtag. The #MyNYPD hashtag emerged on Twitter from April 22–24, 2014, just after New York City ended the NYPD’s discriminatory stop and frisk policies and four months before the Michael Brown killing and events of Ferguson, MO. The #MyNYPD hashtag began when the NYPD sent this hashtag out with the intention of getting people to post posed photos with police officers, or their horses, creating good PR for the NYPD. While a few people posted smiling photos posing with police officers, thousands of others posted images of police brutality committed by the NYPD. Over two days, 100,000 tweets rolled out using the hashtag, spreading a very different message than the authors of the hashtag originally intended. Foucault Welles and her co-authors had access to these tweets and, as a network scientist, Foucault Welles set out to model the diffusion and communication networks through which these tweets spread and changed the use of the hashtag. Foucault Welles, based on other studies of Twitter, had hypothesized that famous people or individuals with large amounts of followers would be the ones driving this hashtag momentum. The analysis, however, showed that some of the biggest contributors to and sharers of the hashtag were activist accounts that were not as large as one might expect, clocking in at 10,000 followers or less. There was also a larger halo of smaller contributors and journalists, with a few individual accounts that did not have a lot of followers getting retweeted a considerable number of times. The results of the analysis show a different kind of contributor diffusion network than we would expect, one that might be helping differentiate the uniqueness of hashtag activism as compared to other social networks studied on the Twitter platform.

Foucault Welles then moved from a modeling of this particular network to a consideration of what this hashtag activism moment means. Foucault Welles referenced the NYPD’s reaction to the reuse of their hashtag with the NYPD commissioner commenting that the contents of these photos, the police brutality that they showed, were old news, that they have been around a long time. For Foucault Welles, that is the whole point, that the instances of police brutality chronicled in the #MyNYPD hashtag have been happening for a long time, and that people have been waiting to find a way to share these experiences, but had not been able to make these important experiences enter mainstream awareness.

Foucault Welles also tested how much the mainstream media picked up on this hashtag and what it was sharing, with CNN, the Washington Post, and others reporting on the story, not necessarily pushing the police brutality angle of the hashtag but sharing these photos and stories nonetheless. MSNBC even did a four-minute segment, in which they discussed how the moments in these photos had been recorded, and yet could not find representation in mainstream media until taken to the web. Foucault Welles argued that this helps counter the narrative that activism happens on the streets and not the internet, revealing the power that digital activism can wield in certain circumstances. The case study of the #MyNYPD hashtag serves as an example of how networked counter publics can set the stage for subsequent conversations in the mainstream, such as was the case with #blacklivesmatter and #metoo. Foucault Welles then put this case study into context within the overall arc of the book, pointing to the other chapters in the book and how, when taken together, they produce and add to different theories and approaches to digital activism as well as fleshing out the concept of networked counter publics. Before closing, Foucault Welles noted that she and her co-authors asked cultural workers and activists, both a part of and related to these movements online and on the ground, to read and review the chapters in the book to get their input on its analysis. Foucault Welles made the case that this does not go far enough but represents a critical step in representing social movements and the actors who make them, from both social justice and epistemic perspectives.

After Schradie and Foucault Welles finished their presentations, NULab Co-Director David Lazer moderated a discussion between the two authors which opened up into a general discussion with the audience posing questions. Lazer began the discussion by noting that the event was organized around the juxtaposition of the two books and their different takes on the prospects of digital activism, with Schradie’s book seeming to suggest that even with the introduction of the internet we are still seeing business as usual in politics, with continuing inequalities manifesting in a new way, while Foucault Welles’ book seems to suggest that there are new and different roles that the internet makes possible. Lazer then posed the question to both authors: How do we make sense of the fact that both of these things seem to be right? Under what circumstances is the publicness of the internet either oppressive or empowering?

Foucault Welles responded first, arguing that both of these things are true, and that one of the key factors she was struck by in Schradie’s talk that could explain the divergence between each of their findings is the difference in the outcomes that each group of study focused on. For Foucault Welles, it seemed as if the actors in Schradie’s book were people seeking specific structural policy changes, whereas the individuals that Foucault Welles studied seemed to be advocating for a change of affective responses in the short term with policy changes being viewed as more of a long-term goal. Foucault Welles argued that we face a dilemma now because people form coalitions around affect and create their own spaces, which happens regardless of political bent, and is constantly evolving in ways that are hard to predict. We could see these counter publics utilizing hashtag activism become more bureaucratic, abandoning their place outside the mainstream and reproducing inequality in different forms.

Schradie then agreed that both outcomes are happening and both are possible. Schradie asserts that the divergent directions that she and Foucault Welles chronicle in relation to digital activism really gets at the differences in research questions each of them asked and the research designs they chose to answer these questions. While it is true that the groups in her study were brought together by one issue, these groups were highly diverse in terms of class, race, organization and ideology, ranging from horizontal organizations tackling many issues, to more traditional bureaucratic organizations focused mainly on policy. Schradie argued that she takes a Gramscian perspective on ideology, specifically on approaches to hegemony, reform versus radical approaches, and so on. She wanted the research design to look at these phenomena and processes over the long-term and with more context. While talking to groups in North Carolina, a big social movement was emerging: the Moral Monday Movement. During her fieldwork, Schradie had been tracking the social media usage for the key organizers/groups of the Moral Monday movement and surmised that the Internet/hashtag side of the movement was merely a blip in the origin of the movement. This stood as an example of the type of conclusions reached about the role of the internet in social movements that is hidden from view by focusing solely on the digital side of movements. Schradie backed up her point by describing how, during this time, she had her students look at the Twitter feed amassed around the #moralmonday hashtag two months into the protest movement. From this perspective, her students came to the conclusion that social media was a big part of why it was happening, but they weren’t getting the whole picture. Being divorced from the on the ground experiences and interactions Schradie had with the movement in the field created a limit to her students’ understanding of the role the internet had in the broader movement.

The discussion continued with many audience questions, ending with Schradie and Foucault Welles remarking that they were happy to have this space for such a discussion. They said they could see themselves potentially collaborating in the future and noted that they would welcome collaboration from anyone interested in what seems to be a time of proliferating hashtag movements.

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