Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

This is (Not) What Democracy Looks Like: How Ideology, Hierarchy and Inequality Shape Digital Activism


This dissertation addresses longstanding sociological questions about organizational democracy in the context of contemporary advances in digital technology. To date, most of the scholarship on digital activism suggests that the Internet enables social movements to be less hierarchical, more participatory, and more egalitarian. However, such claims are weakened by researchers' tendency to study only high levels of digital activism, rather than investigating digital practices across a range of organizations with differing levels of digital engagement. In contrast, I explore political, labor and social movement organizations across an entire political field. My units of analysis are the 34 groups in North Carolina active on both sides of a political issue: public employee collective bargaining rights. The organizations range from Tea Parties to rank-and-file labor unions and from conservative think tanks to progressive coalitions. I collected data on over 60,000 Tweets, Facebook posts and Web site metrics of the organizations. I then created an index to measure the extent of digital engagement of each group, and I developed a typology of online social movement activities and platforms. An analysis using this index indicates that rather than digital technologies simply shaping social movements, I find that social movement organizational differences affect Internet use. Groups that are more hierarchical, conservative, reformist and composed of middle and upper class members are much more likely to have higher digital activism levels than less hierarchical, progressive, radical and working class organizations. Using in-depth interviews, ethnographic observations, and content analysis, I also uncover the mechanisms of these digital differences. First, contrary to the literature that suggests that digital activism is tied to non-hierarchical groups, I find that groups that are more hierarchical and bureaucratic have the infrastructure to develop and maintain online organizational engagement. Next, rather than the typical image of the digital activist as a left-wing radical, the highest digital activism levels are among right-wing groups because of what I call their organizing ideology: their ideas and practices of liberty and spreading the truth align with their Internet use. In turn, reformist groups embrace the Internet to reach those in power in their lobbying efforts while radical groups simply treat digital technology as one of many tools for mass organizing, resulting in lower digital activism levels. Finally, digital activism is not an egalitarian participatory space due to low costs of entry because of a social class gap, which derives from the high costs of online participation, as well as power and entitlement differences between working-class and middle-to-upper class groups. This study demonstrates that the Internet does not render obsolete sociological theories of collective action, oligarchy, and stratification. Instead, this research points to how ideology, hierarchy and inequality shape Internet use, challenging the theories of digital democracy.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View