Accusations of liberal bias in social media have reached a new level as President Donald Trump started another kind of Twitter war last week — one with the social media platform itself. In response to a fact-check advisory that the company posted on one of his tweets on Tuesday, Trump responded, “Social Media Platforms totally silence conservative voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down.” The White House then issued an executive order Thursday attempting to punish social media companies for political bias.
The result is the emergence of a dangerous digital activism gap, a gap that conservative movements understand and have increasingly used to their advantage.
Yet, Trump and his backers are wrong that social media shuts out those on the right. In fact, it's the opposite: Use of these platforms heavily favors conservatives.
This was the clear lesson that emerged from my research on thousands of social media posts and interviews with digital activists across the political spectrum. Social media increases power disparities due to social class and organizational resources. So, rather than favoring progressive activists, as the media spotlight on hashtag movements like #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter can suggest, the underlying dynamics of these societal differences enable conservative messages and voices to gain a large advantage.
This was true long before Trump came along. It was true before Russian disinformation and bot farms. But it’s even more true today. The result is the emergence of a dangerous digital activism gap, a gap that conservative movements understand and have increasingly used to their advantage. When there is any hint conservative social media might be restrained, even by a simple fact check, there’s an incentive to shift into fighting mode, as we are seeing now.
This imbalance between the power of left and right digital activism became clear when I began to study how a range of politically active groups used (or didn’t use) digital media in the fight over public sector workers’ rights in North Carolina. This was an ideal issue to study because both sides of this battle attracted groups from different social and demographic classes and organizational structures. In the mid 2010s, I analyzed thousands of tweets, Facebook posts and websites. To add context to this data, I interviewed everyone from far-right gun activists to left-wing labor organizers involved in this issue, observing their protests and their everyday political practices.
The lopsided digital activism gap that I observed tilted toward conservatives — and is the result of how digital platforms themselves intersect with long-standing social and economic realities.
To start with, middle- and upper-class political, labor and social movements use the internet far more than their working-class counterparts and generate much higher levels of online participation. Conservative activists are often wrongly portrayed as working-class; the reality is that those on the right tend to be from higher income levels than progressives.
Of the more than 60,000 tweets from 34 political, labor and social movement groups in the North Carolina campaign I studied, only one was from a leftist poor and working-class group. In fact, left-leaning groups were three times less likely to tweet or to post comments on Facebook. Middle- and upper-class groups, meanwhile, generated 50 times more Facebook comments per day on average.
This makes sense because people with more free time, more education and more digital training make greater use of social media and can better master their increasingly sophisticated dynamics. They’re also more likely to have the latest gadgets, broadband and software. Poor and working-class activists, in contrast, were less likely to have internet access, digital skills, the confidence to post online and simply the time to do so. The notion that free internet tools allow anyone to overcome such entrenched barriers is illusory.
This feeds into a further factor favoring conservatives: Organizations with more infrastructure are in a much better position to dominate online than the loosely organized or even leaderless groups more common on the left. Creating content on these platforms takes work. Groups with a social media staff or a large army of well-educated and dedicated volunteers develop the expertise to create and maintain digital engagement.
And it’s not only the Breitbarts or the OANs pumping out the news, it’s also those at the grassroots. In my interviews with and observations of more than 100 activists, these trained online activists, more likely to be right-leaning, included a retired physicist and a special needs school teacher who dedicated dozens of hours every week to foster online participation in their conservative group.
Furthermore, the political ideology itself of these groups is essential. Progressives focus on long and diverse messages of “fairness.” Conservatives obsess about “freedom” in their simple and consistent messaging, which works better given social media’s short attention span and character limits. From my online content analysis, their finely honed messages resonated far more strongly, as indicated by likes and retweets for instance, than diverse and lengthy left-wing themes, which often try to be more inclusive of issues ranging from labor and civil rights to LGBTQ and environmental issues.
People with more free time, more education and more digital training make greater use of social media and can better master their increasingly sophisticated dynamics.
And while the left wants to organize people and sees the internet as one of many political communication tools, the right sees social media as its most powerful weapon. In my interviews, left-leaning activists were less enthusiastic about the internet, seeing it as a necessary evil. But from grassroots activists to large think tanks, conservatives would tell me about their faith in what the internet could achieve. “Paul Revere had a horse. We have the internet,” one activist said.
Taken together, these factors amplify each other to multiply the impact. Which means placing an advisory on a Trump tweet is a Band-Aid that doesn’t acknowledge these harder, more fundamental facts. Platforms heavily favor conservatives, who not only have war chests of funding but also a swath of digital boots on the ground. And they will marshal their forces if they perceive a threat to that advantage.