Subterranean Hashtag Blues
What happens when some of the most influential people go online and communicate their support for a campaign using a single hashtag? (I should add, when the campaign is to free 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls).
One answer is 2.8.
2.8million tweets that is. Put it into perspective: 418 tweets in one day a week after the abduction, a quarter of a million in one day a week later, rising to half a million tweets in a single day on the 11th May. Open letters are nothing new, but pictures of political figures holding up handwritten pieces of paper, akin to Bob Dylan’s iconic video for Subterranean Homesick Blues, is a relatively new phenomenon.
This is human endorsement, and there is no doubting that it achieves its aim to escalate the plight of the kidnapped girls by not only bringing their case to the attention of the world’s media, but also maintaining it there for several days. To sustain a rate of over 100,000 tweets a day for over two weeks is by no means easy.
Michelle Obama’s endorsement of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign was dubbed – and dismissed – by some tweeters as ‘Hashtag politics’:
- “Hashtag politics won’t stop these monsters, plenty of outrage not much action”
- “It is only re# Our government is being run by trend-hoppers”
- “Dangers of simplistic #hashtag politics”
- “Since when has the FIrst Lady been so classless? Getting into = #hashtag politics now?”
- “The trivialisation of a serious issue to feed a domestic audience and achieve nothing. Hashtag politics at its worst”.
And then, four days later, we find our own David Cameron with his tweet on the Sunday morning Andrew Marr Show: “Proud to support #BringBackOurGirls”
Whilst over 1,000 people retweeted or favourited his message, the replies were overwhelmingly similar to those Michelle Obama received – that this is bandwagon politics, it is opportunistic, that Cameron does not care about domestic issues, let alone the plight of African children. Such sentiment was consolidated by Jonathan Miller’s tweet an hour later: “Aw. When I sought a Cameron comment 2 wks ago I was told ‘Not one for us, Jonathan'”
This is hashtag politics, but I want to argue that the discussion of an image of a political actor holding up signs or even, for that matter, coining hashtags for political aims, only scratches the surface of a working definition of hashtag politics. To remain at this surface level definition is to portray the use of Twitter for political purposes as tokenistic and shallow, and echoes the critique that Twitter is filled with meaningless, banal discussion not worthy of serious attention. RTs alone will not free kidnap victims, but 2.8million tweets cannot be sniffed at.
In search of a definition of hashtag politics we need to acknowledge something deeper – in part revealed by the activity of government departments corporately tweeting hashtags like #GreenDeal, #FreeSchools, or #TransformingRehabilitation.
Consideration of this activity reveals a determination to be noticed, to be acknowledged in an era of high volume, high velocity and high variety communications.
Just as #BringBackOurGirls focused minds and attention on the plight of 200 kidnapped schoolgirls, the hashtags created by party machines and civil service departments seek to maintain and focus attention on a policy initiative long enough for it to be implemented.
This deeper definition takes us beyond how we tag messages on social media platforms, to thinking about how and why policy ideas must be so carefuly named and branded with a unique, traceable, aspirational, instrumental name. In that sense, Green Deal and Free Schools are as much about hashtag politics as holding up a piece of handwritten paper with a symbol for which few people had a name for 5 years ago.
‘Hashtag politics’ therefore refers to the practice of policy actors adapting to the new pressures and new opportunities offered by an era of social media and mobile communications. Bob Dylan showed that you can say much with hand written cards – but with hashtag politics you can say and do much more.