Written by Casper Frohn
Introduction: Concluding a Journey
In my previous blogpost, I presented a theoretical foundation to showcase my journey in exploring the role of hashtags in activism. I argued how democracy is not merely a set of institutional prerequisites, but a continuous process involving ongoing matters of agenda-setting – and how activism serves as an example of this. I also argued how activism is not a concept easily defined. It does, however, encompass causes, actions, and organization – three dimensions that each entail their own complexities – and in an online setting these can be aided by hashtags. Likewise, I argued how hashtags must not solely be thought of as simple ‘tools’ of curation. They are mobilized in the context of intricate actor-networks – and they are part of complex power structures that both enable and constrain the potentials of these networks.
This second blogpost concludes this journey by discussing the power dynamics involved in utilizing hashtags in activism. I recognize that this is not a small matter. It requires substantial empirical work to understand and assess the various dynamics that take place through activist networks, hashtags, and social media platforms. Acknowledging the scope of this, I am relying on the empirical work of others who have also researched the implications of activism in a social media context.
Power Potentials: (Mis)Alignment Within Hashtags
I have previously argued that hashtags in particular help mobilize actor-networks through their capacities of facilitating relationality between various kinds of actors, as well as their nature of containing spaces of semantics that potentially foster shared meaning throughout these networks. I have also argued, however, that the distributed nature of hashtags means that discourses – and in extension: causes – are not necessarily stabilized across networks if different actors contribute with new (or directly contest existing) narratives within the hashtag.
Dumitrica and Felt (2019) discuss similar impositions of social media. They argue that through ‘network logics’, social media affords various actors to create and share content with others – e.g., by attaching it to a specific hashtag – but that the lack of control over who else engage or contribute with content can interfere with and disrupt the original message intended by a given social movement. Based on a series of interviews with social movement actors, Dumitrica and Felt demonstrate how this lack of control not only inhibits activists from organizing but equally impose labor in the form of constantly monitoring the discourses revolving around the hashtag they are trying to mobilize (ibid.).
I clearly remember an example that initially sparked my interest about the use of hashtags in activism: namely the phenomenon called ‘Blackout Tuesday’ that took place on June 2nd, 2020, where images of black squares were flooding social media. While the Black Lives Matter movement was at the time protesting in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, two members of the music industry – Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang – initiated their own campaign in relation to racial injustice under the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused aimed at disrupting ‘business as usual’ within the industry to hold it accountable to systemic racism.
This initiative was soon adopted beyond the music industry, where people started posting pictures of black squares coupled with another hashtag: #BlackoutTuesday. Different interpretations of what was actually asked of people in relation to the initiative meant that various actions were taken, and throughout the day black squares were eventually shared with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter by individuals across the world with the intention of showing solidarity. This, however, was not the intention of the Black Lives Matters movement (nor the organizers behind #TheShowMustBePaused), who relied on the #BlackLivesMatter-hashtag for disseminating various information. Ultimately, this change in content surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter-hashtag led to an unintentional disruption of the Black Lives Matter movement in mobilizing this hashtag. As a result, the trend of sharing pictures of black squares was criticized for interfering with the original intentions of the Black Lives Matters movement, as it was disrupting various information flows (Coscarelli, 2020).
Image: An Instagram screenshot posted in a tweet by YouTuber Meg DeAngelis on Blackout Tuesday with the caption: “hey heads up for tomorrow: it isn’t helpful to use the “blacklivesmatter” or “blm” hashtag on your Instagram blackout tuesday photos because it’s wiping out important info and when people click on the hashtag it’s just black squares”
This example showcases how hashtags indeed afford opportunities for engaging in networks of actors, but likewise how the distributed nature of social media makes up for a lack of control of specifically intentioned agendas. This (mis)alignment thus co-determines how hashtags can be mobilized – and it is something that counter movements can take advantage of in efforts of disrupting hashtags, as I exemplified in my previous blogpost.
Algorithms: The New Gatekeepers of the Agenda
While the dynamics described in the previous section mainly represent inconsistencies in interpretations, intentions, and agendas across social actors, we must also acknowledge how the technical actors of algorithms (and of course hashtags) take part in central power relations. Etter and Albu (2021) argue of an algorithmic distortion, as algorithms contribute to information overload, hiding relevant information, and spreading disinformation, thus hindering social movements in mobilizing and realizing their agenda-setting efforts.
Dumitrica and Felt (2019) discredit the myth of social media as ‘democratizing message flows’, by arguing how the gatekeepers of traditional mass media (i.e., news corporations) merely are being replaced with the algorithmic gatekeepers of social media. These algorithms are trained to consider a set of ‘objective’ indicators such as newness, likes, comments, and shares – leading to the promotion of already mainstream opinions and agendas, rendering the less predominant agendas in a disadvantaged position.
Algorithms try to maximize user attention by filtering, ranking, and suggesting content to users depending on what they assumingly want to see, not necessarily what they ought to see. While I am in no position to decide what the users of social media ought to see (nor think that I or anyone else necessarily should be), I share this concern about an existing uncritical understanding of social media as a democratic force. Not only are these platforms driven by profit-seeking corporations with private interests and agendas, but the ways information is disseminated risk being perceived as objective. The more obvious normativity of traditional mass media corporations is thus replaced with the perceived ‘neutrality’ of technological algorithms. This move from the immediate awareness of potential manipulation and obvious agenda-setting powers of news corporations to the failure to understand similar risks of manipulation and agenda-setting by algorithms is – in my opinion – a move away from democracy. Our sense of critical thinking is prone to the interference of external forces, without us even realizing it – nor properly understanding who promotes these agendas.
Similarly, the widely acknowledged echo-chamber effects of social media’s algorithmic curation seem to have a dual role in terms of activism and democracy. On one hand, the echo-chamber effects might in fact help promote a common ground across the actor-networks enabled by the hashtags – ultimately allowing these social movements to organize action. However, simultaneously they pose a counter-effect in terms of promoting alternative agendas to those who do not already agree – ultimately doing little to foster democratic coexistence.
Conclusive Reflections: So, Who Are (Dis)Empowered by Hashtags?
When I wrote my project proposal to join the Junior Researcher program in ETHOS Lab, I argued that hashtag activism and traditional activism were different things, with different potentials, and different real-life outcomes. I suggested that hashtag activism must be understood in different terms – and I was set on exploring how.
I soon came to appreciate that this simplistic distinction was narrowing my understanding rather than expanding it – and I embraced activism as a complex matter that cannot be delineated either as online or offline, but can be understood through causes, actions, and organization. Hashtags can help mobilize actor-networks around these causes, they can enable action and afford organization – but they are not an inherent part of some sub-genre of activism exclusively concerned with online participation.
Throughout this project, I have also been very preoccupied with the idea of democracy, and how activism serves vital matters of agenda-setting in society. Along the way, I started to understand how hashtags not only help social movements in promoting causes and organizing action, but likewise – by being curated by profit-driven algorithms – might inhibit the agenda-setting influence of these movements. As such, I went from thinking about the power ofhashtags (as somehow residing within them for everyone to tap into), to consider power through hashtags (as empowering some, while disempowering others).
D’Ignazio and Klein (2020) argue how power structures in society uphold the interests of dominant social groups while oppressing minoritized social groups. This distinction is particularly interesting as it does not naturalize power as residing with a majority, but rather addresses how some social groups are devalued and oppressed by influential groups with access to more resources and power. If social media is governed by privately designed and profit-seeking algorithmic systems, then how can we be sure that power through hashtags does not serve and reinforce the influence of dominant groups while rendering the agendas of minoritized groups further invisible – if not completely silencing them?
With this reflection, I ask: what does our increasing reliance on social media mean for democracy and inequality? Does social media empower the people by allowing us all to partake in agenda-setting? Or is this empowerment an illusion created to hide the seemingly ever-increasing power of dominant groups and private corporations who care more about profit than democracy? Can we design social media in a way that fosters equity beyond power imbalances to allow hashtags to promote alternative agendas – and thus ultimately distribute the agenda-setting power to also encompass those minoritized groups with the courage to contest the already established agendas?
I leave you with these questions in the hope that my Junior Researcher project has not only been a learning experience for me – but might have provided reflections for you as well.
Coscarelli, J. (2020). #BlackoutTuesday: A Music Industry Protest Becomes a Social Media Moment. [online] The New York Times, June 4, 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/02/arts/music/what-blackout-tuesday.html[Accessed 19.06.2021].
D’Ignazio, K. and L. Klein (2020). 1. The Power Chapter. In Data Feminism. MIT Press.
Dumitrica, D. and M. Felt (2019). Mediated grassroots collective action: negotiating barriers of digital activism. In: Communication, Information & Society, 23:13, 1821-1837. DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2019.1618891.
Etter, M. and O. B. Albu (2021). Activists in the dark: Social media algorithms and collective action in two social movement organizations. In: Organization 2021, Vol. 28(1) 68-91. DOI: 10.1177/1350508420961532.