2014: The Year of the Political Hashtag Campaign


As 2014 draws to a close, it seems destined to go down in history as a breakthrough year for the political hashtag. Of course, we’ve seen numerous examples of this phenomenon in the past, but in 2014, hashtag campaigns dominated political discourse on social media (and beyond) and reached a whole new level of prominence. Last year, it was the profile picture that emerged as a central locus of digital-era political expression, from the red equal signs for marriage equality to the Trayvon Martin-inspired blackout campaign. This year, however, hashtag campaigns were the story for viral politics. I’m not just talking here about the use of hashtags to classify, coordinate, and publicize broader political movements, which has been popular on platforms like Twitter for quite a while now (#OWS, #arabspring, etc.). Rather, what solidified in 2014 was the widespread use of hashtags as political memes in their own right, complete with a set of corresponding actions for each participant to take in the course of spreading endless variations on a theme. In other words, the hashtag emerged not just as a tool for online political mobilization, but also as a distinct advocacy tactic.

To illustrate the delineation I’m making here, let’s consider the most significant viral politics story of the year (at least in the United States): the online-fueled movement to protest the police killings of unarmed black civilians like Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Over the course of the year, many different hashtags were connected to this movement, from the catch-all #blacklivesmatter (which came to function as both the movement’s de facto name and its key rhetorical rallying point), to emotionally-charged references to the Brown case (#handsupdontshoot) and the Garner case (#icantbreathe). As they trended, these hashtags were mostly used within the movement as rather traditional political slogans, originating on Twitter and migrating to offline venues of protest like hand-held signs and T-shirts. However, it was another hashtag, #iftheygunnedmedown, which highlighted the use of the hahtag for distinctly participatory digital advocacy. The behavior, or instructions, for the #iftheygunnedmedown meme was quite straightforward: to create their own versions, young blacks juxtaposed two photographs of themselves, one fitting the media stereotype of the “thug” and the other showing a conventionally “proper” appearance in the eyes of mainstream society (in graduation robes, military uniforms, etc.). The campaign thus critiqued the way in which black victims of police violence like Michael Brown are negatively depicted in the news media, and furthermore worked to expand and reframe the visual representation of young black men and women in the public sphere. #iftheygunnedmedown was only a small piece of the broader social media activity surrounding the #blacklivesmatter movement, yet it most acutely demonstrates how networked digital platforms in fostering unique and innovative modes of grassroots political expression.


This sort of hashtag-as-participatory meme popped time and time again in the online political discourse of 2014. Another example used in conjunction with #blacklivesmatter, #crimingwhilewhite (in which whites offered testimonials of their own privileged treatment when dealing with police), proved to be a source of controversy within the movement. The tactic was also employed repeatedly in the course of feminist online activism, another major viral politics story of 2014. In particular #yesallwomen and #whyistayed both worked to incorporate women’s personal testimonies into larger feminist advocacy efforts, epitomizing the emergent hashtag-as-meme trend. #yesallwomen was actually a response to another hashtag, #notallmen, which has been used to critique feminist arguments about the widespread nature of misogyny in society; both appeared in the aftermath of the May 2014 mass shooting in La Isla, California, perpetrated by a young man who was apparently inspired by his hatred towards women. #yesallwomen became a venue for women to share personal stories about their experiences with sexism, misogyny and the threat of gender-based violence, bringing visibility to the issue one tweet at a time. In a similar fashion, #whyistayed grew out of another high-profile violent incident in the news (involving professional football player Ray Rice’s assault on his wife), and provided an opportunity for women to collectively share stories about domestic violence in order to shine a public light on this often-ignored problem.


What I find particularly interesting about #yesallwomen and #whyistayed (as well as #iftheygunnedmedown and #crimingwhilewhite) is how they use major news stories as springboards for addressing how the larger issues at stake affect the lives of individuals throughout the society. Rather than just spreading awareness or showing support or solidarity for a cause, they seek to expand the narratives and conversations surrounding political issues and provide ways of systematically linking them to the experiences of everyday citizens. This seems to me to be one of the most important aspects of viral politics more broadly: how social media and participatory culture can be used to make the personal political—and the political personal. Indeed, the many hashtag campaigns popularized in 2014 look to be a major step in this direction.

#Blackout: Justice for Trayvon and Profile Picture Campaigns


As anyone paying attention to the news for the past few weeks knows, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the high-profile Florida trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin has galvanized one of the largest protest movements in recent American history. Of course, in addition to marching in the streets, protestors have taken to social media in droves to express their outrage at the verdict and their dissatisfaction with racial profiling, gun laws, and a host of related issues. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict announcement on July 13th, social media sites were flooded with impassioned personal reactions, links to petitions, and numerous agit-prop graphics that went viral in a matter of minutes. Over two weeks later, much of the initial fervor has died down, yet one class of social media responses largely remains: the profile pictures.

Following the lead of the red equal sign for gay marriage and other similar recent campaigns, many supporters of Trayvon Martin have transformed the visual representations of their online identities into soapboxes to advance their cause. Perhaps the most popular strategy has been to use a stark black square, an idea that was promoted online with the hashtag #blackout and has since received the support of the Martin family. There have also been profile picture memes incorporating Trayvon’s portrait, a silhouette of the symbolic hoodie he wore the night of his death, and other graphics associated with this burgeoning movement.

As an observer of social media and politics, I’m struck by how these campaigns confirm the popularity of the profile picture as a primary space for political expression and engagement in the online world. Yet what I find most interesting about this latest round of politically-charged profile pictures is their sheer endurance in the rapid, blink-and-you-missed-it maelstrom of social media discourse. While links and image shares come and go very quickly, the profile picture enjoys a relatively stable digital presence, reappearing each time a person posts new content. Every time I log into Facebook and see the ominous black squares and hoodies in my news feed, I am reminded of the passion of this movement and the commitment of its supporters to anti-racism and social change.

The profile picture thus seems to have a weight that a lot of other social media strategies are lacking – in a way, its the strongest kind of link or association a person can make in the digital environment. To throw one’s entire online identity behind a cause, giving it an overarching presence in each and every activity they perform, provides politically-engaged social media users with a powerful symbolic tool unlike any other. Like the red equal sign campaign before it, the Trayvon profile pictures are blazing a trail for long-term social media activism that I imagine will be utilized by many more movements to come.

The Red Equal Sign Meme for Marriage Equality: A Look Back

red equal sign liberty justice

With the Supreme Court decisions striking down DOMA and Prop 8 last week, the red equal sign meme supporting marriage equality has been taking a victory lap on Facebook. As I wrote in an earlier post, this campaign is a significant moment in the development of viral politics, particularly for its use of profile picture-changing as a way of displaying a collective identity around an issue. Now that the dust has settled on this historic campaign coinciding with a major triumph for gay rights, it’s time to look back at some of the most interesting coverage that has appeared online in the past few months.

Anatasia Khoo, the head of marketing for Human Rights Campaign (HRC), gives an inside look at the creation of the red equal sign meme in pieces for Huffington Post and Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the former article, Khoo recounts an intriguing anecdote about the impact of the campaign:

“For many, this act marked the first time they had come out as a straight ally, or in some cases, the first time they had come out as a member of the LGBT community. Since then, we’ve heard so many stories, but one really sticks out for me. One day, we got a message from a gay soldier who had come out to his mother and unfortunately, it wasn’t the positive experience he was hoping for. It wasn’t until he saw that his mother had also changed her profile picture to the HRC logo that he felt accepted by her. It’s incredibly powerful to know that something so simple could provide such a strong feeling of support.”

In the latter article, Khoo offers a key lesson for organizations who wish to create a similarly viral social media campaign:

“We documented close to 100 different variations on the logo, and we made an important decision: We were going to not only embrace the memes, but also promote them. Politicians, celebrities, and corporate America embraced the logo. Bonobos, Bud Light, Martha Stewart, and Beyoncé all picked up the red logo—it became synonymous with equality… Most organizations are very protective about their brands, but for this campaign, HRC put our logo out into the universe without any organizational language, making it easy for individuals to embrace. It was a bold move for the organization… We certainly could have taken a much different approach to try and control the campaign or to brand it more tightly, but success relied on allowing people to make our logo their own and feel like they were part of something bigger.”

In a blog post for Scientific American, social psychology scholar Melanie Tannenbaum outlines a compelling theory for how the red equal sign meme may work as effective political persuasion. Basically, it all comes down to modeling behavioral norms (i.e. setting ‘descriptive norms’), which parallels my own argument in “Visual Identities, Visual Rhetoric” regarding the importance of visually articulating ‘the people’ as a way of changing perceptions about social reality:

“People look at an issue like marriage equality, and the first inclination is to set prescriptive norms. We should do something, the justices should rule a certain way, you should support a given cause. But based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn’t to tell people what they should do — it’s to tell them what other people actually do. And you know what will accomplish that? That’s right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious. That is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm: Publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs.”

Finally, in a thought-provoking piece for the New Yorker Online, Matt Buchanan compares the red equal sign campaign with Malcolm Gladwell’s famous castigation of “Facebook activism” as so-called slacktivism in the same magazine:

“While the HRC’s profile-picture activism relies on weak ties, like those between celebrities and their followers, it’s designed to exploit the stronger personal connections that lurk among the web of weak ties in a Facebook profile. That is, you are true friends with at least a few people that you are ‘friends’ with on Facebook… The odds that the HRC’s campaign, as wildly successful as it has been, will directly influence the decision of the Justices are nil, which speaks quite loudly to the limits of online activism: twenty million avatars are not twenty million people in the street. However, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote, as people and politics change, so does the Court. And online activism has shown, most notably through its role in the defeat of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act last year, that maybe it can change people.”

In other words, Buchanan is saying that while online activism may not have a direct effect on public policy, it may have a long-term impact on public opinion that can eventually trickle up. It’s an intriguing thought, and one that seems to be supported by Tannenbaum’s point about the power of social media to shape social norms, one Facebook friend at a time.

The NSA PRISM Leak, Edward Snowden, and the Online Response


The leak of PRISM, the NSA’s online surveillance program under the Obama administration, currently has internet users around the world in an uproar. Originally reported by the Guardian with the aid of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the PRISM leak along with several others have mobilized internet privacy activists like never before. In fact, in Snowden’s interview published in the Guardian, he drew attention to a movement gaining traction on Reddit called Restore the Fourth Amendment, which is now planning public protests across the U.S. on July 4th. There is also a “We the People” petition to pardon Snowden up on Whitehouse.gov that has received over 27,000 signatures, along with a predictably vast array of humorous critical responses that have popped up online. Early on, a hilariously biting image morphing Obama’s face with George W. Bush’s appeared on the homepage of the Huffington Pteam edward snowdenost and quickly went viral. As for the response on social media, CNN has a good roundup of the funniest tweets mocking Obama and the U.S. government regarding PRISM, while Buzzfeed has compiled some of the Snowden-related memes that have appeared in the last few days.

It is becoming clear that the PRISM leak and Snowden’s perceived heroics will reverberate online for a long time to come. This is because the story itself concerns the ability of internet users to communicate freely, in this case without fear of government intrusion. As the PIPA/SOPA movement from last year demonstrated, internet freedom-related issues are particularly amendable to viral politics, as legions of netizens are inspired to use the very technologies in question to mount a defense of their digital rights. Scholars and activists who are interested in the political uses of social media should pay close attention to the online anti-PRISM and pro-Snowden efforts in the weeks (and perhaps months) to come, since they may serve as a model for how political protest movements are orchestrated in the digital age more broadly.

That being said, I’m still unsure of what the long-term effects of this online response will be. While we may very well be at a tipping point in terms of internet privacy becoming a major global political issue, the fears about PRISM and the U.S. government’s online spying are still speculative in nature. The Obama administration continues to claim that these tools are only used to stop dangerous terrorists, while critics who worry about abuses of power are left making sometimes-hyperbolic ‘what if?’ comparisons to Orwell, Stalin, and the Stasi in order to drum up popular outrage. What we still don’t have yet is a ‘smoking gun’ that clearly shows a program like PRISM being used in an abusive manner, such as against the administration’s political opponents (i.e. along the lines of Watergate). If and when such a story emerges, we can expect movements like Reddit’s Restore the Fourth Amendment to really take off.

Protesting Zuckerberg on Facebook: The Campaign Against Fwd.Us

HeyZuck Facebook Group

In the past few weeks, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has raised the ire of liberal and environmentalist groups for a series of ads released by his new political organization Fwd.Us. The ads, which advocate for the Keystone XL pipeline and other conservative-friendly measures, have convinced MoveOn.org, Sierra Club, Daily Kos and others to pull their own advertising from Facebook’s site. Furthermore, activists have taken to Facebook itself to protest the actions of Zuckerberg and Fwd.Us. A new Facebook Group called HeyZuck was launched to put pressure on the man himself on his home court, and the page has received nearly 20,000 Likes so far. On the other hand, a group called CREDO Action had its anti-Zuckerberg ads blocked by Facebook, purportedly because it violated the site’s policy of using Zuckerberg’s likeness without permission.

This story hasn’t been getting much attention lately, but it’s quite fascinating from a social media and politics perspective. The very fact that a social media platform can be used to speak out against the CEO of that very same platform says something fairly profound about the democratizing potential of Web 2.0. In terms of media history, such a development is  unprecedented – imagine activists using the pages of one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers (or the airwaves of FOX News) to protest his political donations and lobbying efforts. While Facebook may be blocking certain ads (like CREDO’s) for political reasons, they have not clamped down on the use of the site for political speech that puts its founder in a negative light.

It is important to remember, however, that Facebook can potentially take down a page like HeyZuck if they wanted to – the fact that they haven’t probably says more about their brand reputation management than anything else. As Felix Stalder reminds us in his contribution to the NYU Press Social Media Reader, the so-called ‘back-end’ of the web is becoming increasingly important in questions of digital democracy. While we may like to think that participatory platforms like Facebook and Twitter are true free-for-alls where anyone can say and do whatever they wish (for political purposes or otherwise), these platforms are in fact controlled by for-profit corporations that operate with their own political agendas. When we use these platforms for political speech, we are taking the risk of leaving our voices at the mercy of a commercial entity that may or may not like what we have to say. While it is encouraging in a sense that the HeyZuck Facebook page has been thriving on the site, I have to wonder whether such an arrangement will continue to be viable as Silicon Valley entities become more and more significant political players (which the very formation of Zuckerberg’s Fwd.Us underlines). For now, we can remain tentatively optimistic  that these platforms allow more opportunities for dissent than was previously possible in earlier media regimes.

HeyZuck Dislike Facebook Dislike

Internet Blackouts: A Reliable Activist Strategy?

stop cispa blackout

Earlier this week, internet freedom activists and privacy advocates (led the group Anonymous) launched a blackout day to raise awareness about the CISPA bill in the US Congress. Officially named the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, this bill would have allowed commercial entities and the government to share private user data for the ostensible purpose of fighting international cyber attacks, while raising Big Brother-like concerns about the expansion of internet surveillance. While the current bill has apparently died in the Senate after passing in the House, the issue will likely continue to be debated contentiously in the coming years. Meanwhile, the news media has labeled the Stop CISPA blackout a flop, failing to catch on virally in the way that the Stop SOPA and PIPA blackout did so famously last year. Despite the fact that the bill has now been shelved, the efforts of Anonymous and other internet freedom activists to make CISPA the new SOPA seem to have fallen short.

This raises the question – are internet blackouts a reliable strategy for online activists moving forward, or was the success story of Stop SOPA and PIPA a fluke? An obvious issue here is the amount of websites who agree to participate – after all, who is really going to notice if only a relatively small fraction of the internet goes dark? While the SOPA blackout effort last year inspired over 50,000 websites to shut down completely, only 917 sites participated in the CISPA blackout earlier this week. In addition, the CISPA blackout didn’t get any heavy-hitters on board, whereas the SOPA/PIPA blackout famously included Wikipedia – one of the highest-trafficked websites in the world. While this may suggest that the issue of internet privacy simply does not get people as excited as restrictions on copyrighted material, there also appears to be a degree of blackout fatigue here as well.

One of the most remarkable things about the Stop SOPA/PIPA blackout was how unprecedented and surprising it was – people were absolutely shocked to see major sites like Wikipedia and Reddit go dark as an act of political protest. In other words, the impact of the blackout appeared to have a lot to do with its novelty value. Perhaps we should not expect websites to pull the plug every time a piece of controversial internet legislation appears before Congress, as such an act may quickly shift from shocking to merely annoying. Calling for such a protest on a regular basis (as Anonymous seems to be doing) may therefore not be a successful strategy in the long run. It will be interesting to see if they try it again, and what the level of participation and public impact will look like.

In the meantime, check out TechDirt‘s infographic about the runaway success of the SOPA/PIPA blackout. It’s a hard act to follow…


Laughing Off the Threat: “The Internet” Takes on Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong Un Parody Buzzfeed 1

In the past few weeks, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has been dominating international headlines with his repeated saber-rattling, and the story has gone on to inspire a vast amount of internet parody memes. Buzzfeed recently published a big roundup of the funniest examples, while Know Your Meme has been tracking the “Hungry Kim Jong-un” set of memes for a few months now.

Kim Jong Un Parody Buzzfeed 2

The title of the Buzzfeed article, “The Internet is Really Not Afraid of Kim Jong-un,” is particularly interesting from my perspective. Here, “the Internet” is framed as a singular entity – one that is characterized by the derisive humor of Reddit-style meme culture. Obviously, this sort of activity only constitutes a small fraction of the online discourse that is currently taking place around the North Korea issue (some of it “high-minded,” some of it “low-minded,” and much of it in between), and yet somehow it comes to stand in for the whole. Of course, humorous memes are the bread and butter of a site like Buzzfeed, so it’s unsurprising that they would focus on this specific facet of what the internet has to offer. It just seems to me that this sort of reductionist talk about “the internet” is becoming more and more common as of late (as in the AV Club’s “Great Job, Internet!” feature), and it would be wise to take a step back and appreciate the breadth and variety of online political discourse. After all, “television” is not just late-night comedy monologues (the obvious precursor to these sorts of memes), so why is “the internet” so often painted as merely a factory of flippancy?

That being said, I would refrain from labeling the Kim Jong-un memes as “bad” discourse, political trivialization, etc. As scholars of mediated political satire like Jeffrey P. Jones have shown, this sort of seemingly-frivolous humor can enliven the public sphere and bring new entrants (particularly young people) into the realm of civic participation and citizenship. Indeed, it is rather heartening that the meme-spreaders of “the internet” are tackling the latest developments in international politics in addition to the usual repertoire of cute cats and celebrity gossip. While it might be merely laughing in the face of serious global tensions, these memes are getting people to think and talk about issues that they may have otherwise ignored. Great job, internet, indeed.

– Joel Penney