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Top-down power: Hierarchies thrive on the internet

The internet was built to resist an Orwellian future. Now it's being weaponized.

JEN SCHRADIE: A key factor in the digital activism gap is that groups that are more hierarchal rather than horizontal are more likely to use the internet. And this really overturns this sense that groups and protest movements like Occupy Wall Street or other more horizontal movements are really tethered to the internet. In fact, the rise of a lot of these movements really rose in sync with the rise of digital technology. If we really go back even farther, if we look at the launch of the worldwide web over 30 years ago really coincided with the tearing down of Soviet symbols and structures, right. The Berlin Wall was coming down at the exact same time that the internet was spreading.

So we have in our psyche, right, this cultural connection to the rise of the internet as being this nonbureaucratic technology that even an early Apple commercial showed this very Orwellian group of people sitting listening to some leader. This is 1984, right. In comes a woman with a sledgehammer and she swings it around and she throws it at the screen of this leader. And Apple then says, you know, 1984 won't be like 1984 in reference to Orwell, right.

So we have this really strong belief that the internet is more horizontal and that out of those statues and walls crumbling will come the Phoenix rising of the internet that will enable everyday people to participate online. And certainly in some cases that's been the case. But what I found overall over time without just these spikes of political protests is that groups that are more hierarchal, that have systems in place and often this hierarchy goes in sync with systems really are able to over the long term engage and have high levels of online participation. Very much contrary to the image of a digital activist as a radical left anarchist protestor. It's much more likely to be an older conservative Tea Party member.

  • Research shows hierarchical groups are more likely to use the internet as a platform.
  • This might be counterintuitive, as the original rise of the internet coincided with events like the toppling of top-down structures.
  • Despite the strong belief that the internet is horizontal, these hierarchical systems achieve high levels of online participation.

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