2014: The Year of the Political Hashtag Campaign

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

Internet Blackouts: A Reliable Activist Strategy?

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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…

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Meme Templates: The New Tool for Political Activism

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Recently, my friend Peter Micek of the digital rights organization Access alerted me to how internet privacy activists are using popular memes to get their message across about Data Protection Regulation in the European Union (learn more about this important issue here). At the Privacy Memes Tumblr page, you can view dozens of user-generated one-liners that attempt to inject some accessible humor into a rather dense and complex policy debate. Here’s another entertaining example…

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What struck me about this campaign is not so much the specifics of how it is adopting popular memes for its own purposes, but rather how such efforts exemplify the broader trend of using standardized meme templates as a new form of online political speech. In the past few years, a fairly small repertoire of stock memes (Futurama Fry, Advice Animals, etc.) have emerged as a cultural phenomenon, with their familiar joke set-ups serving as raw materials for a plethora of aspiring internet comedians. Originally popularized on Reddit discussion boards, these memes can now be easily customized by using a variety of sites like Memebase (part of the Cheezburger empire). While the vast majority of this stuff appears to be just for giggles, savvy activists like those above are beginning to latch on to this phenomenon as a means of articulating their political positions in the rapid-fire comedic language of internet culture. Some may view this as perhaps the ultimate dumbing-down of political discourse, but there seems to be a clear strategic value to using humorous pop-culture references as a way of making a message accessible to a broader public (particularly the youth demographic).

I wonder, however, if this stable of meme templates presents new limitations as well as new opportunities. For instance, if you’re not a fan of the sort of male-oriented geeky culture typically referenced in these memes (Futurama, Lord of the Rings, etc.) would the above make much sense to you? Are there any cultural/ideological assumptions or frameworks embedded in these templates, or are they completely adaptable to express any idea imaginable? The very concept of ‘the meme’ seems to be taking on a more and more narrow definition as of late, which is very different from how it was conceived more broadly in the 1990s by authors like Douglas Rushkoff (who was among the first to apply evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins’ original idea of cultural contagion to the context of media-based activism). Although new memes are certainly being generated every day, the increasing dominance of a handful of archetypal characters and images is a development that new media scholars should be attentive to when examining their uses in the political arena.