Tangles in the web of activism
Friday 04 September 2009
This week the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported on its study of the internet and civic engagement.
It found that online political involvement tends to mirror offline activities – the well-off and well-educated are far more likely to contact government officials, sign petitions, write to newspapers, make donations and communicate with political groups, whether on or off the internet.
The researchers did find “hints that forms of civic engagement anchored in blogs and social networking sites” are changing the situation and getting poorer people more engaged in politics.
But there’s certainly no sign of a massive surge in grass-roots involvement, despite the hype surrounding Barack Obama’s use of the web as a campaigning tool in the presidential elections.
So were the evangelists wrong about the net’s potential to change politics?
Well, first off, it’s not at all surprising that few poorer people are signing e-petitions or emailing newspapers and politicians – and not only because, as the researchers acknowledged, “those who are lower on the socio-economic ladder are less likely to go online or to have broadband access at home.”
And in the US even more than Britain, politics and the media are dominated by the interests of the wealthy – the Democrats have never been a workers’ party in the same way as Labour, nor are there any really successful populist tabloid papers, let alone a daily workers’ paper like the Morning Star.
So the internet is hardly going to cause the lower-paid to suddenly engage enthusiastically in US politics when there’s nothing much in traditional politics for them to engage with – nothing that acts for their interests or is controlled by them.
But that doesn’t mean poorer people are ignoring the net entirely, or that technology has failed to shake up political engagement.
The research also found that engagement through blogs or social networking sites is “not characterised by such a strong association with socio-economic stratification” – although this is partly because such sites are dominated by younger people, who are generally less well off than their elders.
The economic divide re-emerges – although it isn’t as big – when you look only at older bloggers.
This is encouraging, particularly if today’s younger people turn out to keep their blogging and social networking habits even as poorer-paid and less well-educated adults.
It’s a much easier way for them to speak out and be heard than trying to go through the conventional channels of the media and political parties, because the wealthy and privileged dominate the media message and breaking that down is much more than a matter of weight of numbers.
Just remember how rare it was to get a rational anti-war voice even on the BBC in the build-up to Iraq, despite massive public opposition to that war.
Or think how, since Thatcher, anyone who has raised the possibility of nationalising an industry is treated like a raving lunatic beyond the bounds of rational debate, no matter how strong the economic case or how much public support there may be.
But it’s not as simple as “internet debate = true democracy,” either.
In a free-for-all debate, the voices which shout the loudest tend to drive out everyone else. That means the articulate, the well-educated, those trained from birth to think they’re the natural and deserving top dogs.
Just take a look at the comments section of pretty much any newspaper website. They’re almost all dominated by rightwingers – white, male and wealthy, as far as it’s possible to tell on the net – confidently declaring themselves right about everything.
Racism’s over and any black person claiming otherwise is just playing the victim game. Sexism’s over – the reason why women are still paid less than men is because they’re just not as good, of course.
And similar nonsense spouted over and over and over, obnoxiously and with casual racism and sexism thrown in, with the smug certainty of the privileged.
Confronted with this kind of nonsense, people wanting to get seriously engaged in debates and action on racism, sexism, low pay, exploitation, peace, war and remaking society don’t bow out altogether.
They just go and set up a community where they can do so without being shouted down by the same privileged people who control the discourse elsewhere.
So, for instance, supporters of Swedish copyright reform didn’t bother lobbying their existing parties for change – they just went out and set up the Pirate Party, which has now been followed by a British equivalent (www.pirateparty.org.uk).