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Carl Rowlands, New Left Project

Hashtag politics

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In Sum

Your action or campaign doesn’t just send a message, it convenes a conversation. By strategically defining the hashtag and curating the ensuing conversation, you can expand and deepen your support base.

Our contemporary media environment encourages absolutely everyone to participate in conversations about current events. This means your action won’t just send a message, but through social media like Twitter and Facebook, it will also convene a conversation. With hundreds of millions of people around the world participating in social networks, it’s become passé to try to “be the media.” Increasingly, activist storytelling strategies are designed to convene the conversation by practicing what one might call hashtag politics.

To explain the term: the users of the microblogging socialnetwork Twitter established a convention for organizing ideas, using a label called a hashtag. Twitter hashtags combine a “#” symbol and a keyword that connect posts from different authors (e.g., #noKXL for discussion about the Keystone XL pipeline, #OWS for Occupy Wall Street). Posts that share a hashtag can be viewed together in a single place, facilitating an ongoing public conversation.

Like a frame, a hashtag organizes and amplifies attention. Twitter hashtags are the most literal manifestation of a broader tendency of our highly connected, socially mediated environment toward greater interactivity. Each social media network has its own method for organizing conversations, from YouTube video replies, to Facebook’s friends talking about feature, to simple blog comments. The tendency is also manifested in cable network talk shows, which are nothing more than debates about current events, now more than ever supplemented with comments harvested from social media.

Typically, the hashtag that organizes a conversation is a highly polarizing proper noun that inspires people to pick a position in a discussion about it. For instance, in 2011, UK Uncut organizers started staging protests at Vodafone stores, organizing under the hashtag #UKUncut, to reframe the discussion about austerity to focus on corporate tax dodgers rather than public spending. The role of the organizer practicing hashtag politics is to polarize a discussion effectively, and then curate the conversation to make your side more compelling. The hashtag is a framing device that helps define the values  associated with a particular political position. To effectively practice hashtag politics, it’s important to strategically and proactively define the hashtag you wish to organize the conversation around. If your hashtag is well chosen, you will draw more people to your side of the debate.

A hashtag could be any number of things. Using narrative power analysis as one guide, you could choose to polarize a discussion around a character in your story — either a sympathetic  character or a villain — or perhaps a scene of conflict that locates the problem we must face (like Wall Street, or the tar sands). In an increasingly socially mediated world, to craft a winning frame, it’s critical to convene and curate an effective conversation that centers on a strategically chosen subject.

Duncan Meisel is a strategic troublemaker who lives in Brooklyn, where he conspires on how to respond to the impending end of the world. He is particularly interested in trying to stop the warming of the earth, ending the impoverishment of America by corporate power, and putting an end to the prison system as we know it. He is honored to have been a part of campaigns such as Tar Sands Action, US Uncut, The Other 98% and several different “Billionaires for X or Y” efforts.

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