Social Privilege Translates into Online Power 

21 October 2019

A doctoral dissertation demonstrates that groups who already enjoy a strong voice in society – for example, the highly educated in positions of power – benefit from the design of online platforms.

The comment sections of online newspapers, blogs and Twitter feeds are often described as a democratic forum; however, a recently published doctoral dissertation demonstrates how groups who already enjoy a strong voice in society also benefit from the design of online platforms. What were intended as inclusive forums even for otherwise marginalised groups may instead create obstacles for democratic public discourse. 

Malin Holm, a newly graduated PhD at the
Department of Government. Photo: Tove Hellkvist

“It is often said that marginalised groups have succeeded in making themselves heard via the internet. I was more interested in studying how privileged groups use the internet to influence and alter public discourse. I want to demonstrate the risks involved in this so-called inclusion; that it becomes an inequitable inclusion that threatens democracy. My research shows how the design of online platforms benefits privileged groups in various ways, including those who convey antidemocratic or antifeminist political opinions and demands; that online power is a reproduction of the situation in society as a whole,” says Malin Holm of the Department of Government at Uppsala University.

The point of departure for Malin’s research was the increasing successes enjoyed by right-wing extremist, antifeminist and climate-change denial movements on what are usually referred to as inclusive platforms; for example, newspaper comment sections, blogs and Twitter. Malin Holm began by studying how the design of these forums leads to already privileged groups gaining new opportunities to make their voices heard. How could these channels – intended to be inclusive of groups with little or no voice in society – instead become a channel for already loud voices?

Marginalised groups gravitate to one another

Through three different empirical studies, Malin Holm investigated how the democratic opportunities afforded to marginalised groups by the internet can also be co-opted to provide historically privileged groups with new ways to find one another. Together, they can call into question dominant ideas and concepts in the public sphere by forming what are known as counterpublics, a term that has previously served an important role in feminist criticism of the lack of a power perspective in theories of the public sphere. Generally speaking, research into counterpublics has concentrated on historically marginalised groups. 

When the public discourse was largely confined to the pages of printed newspapers, editors were forced to make selections by the limits of available space. Photo: Matton

In one of the studies, Malin Holm investigates how the design of comment sections in the digital editions of well-established local and national daily newspapers are justified by those responsible for these forums.

“Previously, When the public discourse was largely confined to the pages of printed newspapers, editors were forced to make selections by the limits of available space. There was not room for everything. Now that this public discourse has moved online, newspapers take much less responsibility for selection; they have more or less set the word free. This has indirectly provided privileged groups previously marginalised in the mainstream media (such as right-wing populists and climate-change deniers) with much more space in which to make their voices heard. I wanted to understand the motives behind designing the platforms in this way. What did the editors intend to achieve from their investments?”

Interviews with editors-in-chief

Malin Holm interviewed 27 editors-in-chief and editors at 14 different newspapers, both local and national. Her results demonstrate that, initially at least, the media had no conscious strategy with regard to comment sections. The editors referred to a desire for increased contact with their readers and that the digitisation of the public sphere placed new demands on their business model.

“The editors wanted traffic on their sites in order to earn more advertising revenue; so, compared to earlier similar forums such as [printed] debate articles and readers’ letters, inclusion has much stronger links to financial incentives.”

In another study, Malin investigated the emergence of an antifeminist counterpublic on 62 Swedish political blogs. These were selected for their ideological content; i.e., that the political opinions and demands stated in the blogs could be defined as antifeminist pursuant to previous research on similar political movements. Of those blogs studied, two thirds were anonymous and/or used pseudonyms.

Malin Holm’s analysis is based on the bloggers’ own descriptions of their educational and professional backgrounds. They are men (and some women) with a high level of education, some with a certain level of celebrity, all with a position in society. What they have in common is that they describe themselves as successful, as being correct in their world analysis and that they believe that their opinions should be heard by everyone.

Forced to share power

“These are not the socioeconomically marginalised individuals often portrayed in the debate: they are a privileged group. They themselves are convinced that they are right, that they have the right to be heard but that they have been silenced in the public discourse. Historically, highly educated men as a group have occupied a great deal of space. In today’s society, where they find themselves forced to share power with women and ethnic minorities, they are resentful of those groups who they feel have taken something that is theirs. And to have been deprived of something, one must have considered it a right from the beginning.”

In her dissertation, Malin Holm intends to show how the specific type of inclusion that characterises online platforms brings with it problems for structurally marginalised groups seeking to make themselves heard.

“Inclusion has been viewed as something entirely positive and exclusion as something entirely negative; however, some form of exclusion is necessary if everyone is to be heard. Greater emphasis is required on how democratic exclusion can be designed to create favourable conditions for equitable public discourse. Giving more individuals the platform to say their piece does not mean that more groups will be heard. In this they are correct, the invisible men behind these anonymous blogs; they must be politically marginalised as they are a danger to democratic public discourse.”



Holm M (2019); The Rise of Online Counterpublics?: The Limits of Inclusion in a Digital Age