Interpreting Crashtag Politics

I was interviewed on Wednesday for a show the Austrian radio station ORF1. The interviewer asked me to comment on a story in the Austrian news, about that country’s Foreign Minister’s campaign -#Stolzdrauf (translated #ProudOfIt). The aim of the campaign was to promote the idea that, regardless of birth place, residents of Austria are proud of their Austria. This is a familiar approach at the city level – we are proud to be Londoners, or Rotterdamers; the aim of this hashtag was to encourage people to tweet reasons why they are proud of Austria. It is easy to see why the advisors thought it a good idea – it encourages users to contribute to a conversation. One of the first ever such hashtag campaigns – Audi’s #ProgressIs, launched during the 2011 Superbowl Ad break – revealed to marketeers that choosing the right hashtag and launching it at the right time can promote engagement and, in turn, awareness. #ProudOfIt evokes something of the MacDonald’s ‘LovinIt’ campaign, and seeks to repeat successful hashtags like #MakeitCount (Nike), #CaptureEuphoria (Ben and Jerry’s ice cream), or #LiveforNow (Pepsi). Note that these do not include the name of the sponsor – rather they embody a positive sounding slogan that hopes to encourage related content.

Yet organisations have found that the creation of such hashtags also opens up a space for critique and ridicule. #WaitroseReasons, #McDStories and #QuantasLuxury will forever be early precedents of bashtagging or crash tagging.  More recently the New York Police Department found that their #MyNYPD tag was not used as intended but instead provided a high profile platform for pictures of police brutality. You can probably guess what happened with #Stolzdrauf (#ProudOfIt): It sparked high volume of tweets that both engaged ridiculed the hashtag in equal measure.
If crashtagging is crashing and subverting a hashtag, then Fashtagging (work with me on this…) is fashioning a hashtag following an event or activity with the principal aim of creating a space for critique or ridcule. The exemplar here should be of interest to the Austrian Foreign Minister and his social media team: in summer 2014, the then British Secretary for State for Education, Michael Gove, advocated a need to celebrate British Values, and the #BritishValues tag was born. If Twitter is as liberal and lefty as some research purports then any campaign with so much as a whiff of nationalist pride will be met with the full force of tweets such as Stuart Brown’s: #BritishValues “Being wary of foreigners while having a Belgian beer with an Indian curry in your Spanish villa wearing Indonesian clothes.” Perhaps the Austrian advisers were unaware of the #BritishValues fiasco , or saw that Cameron reignited the idea of Britain as a place that he was “proud to call home” in his party speech in September 2014, despite blogs pointing out the mocking responses to Gove.

As Twitter matures, the use of hashtags, although tempting, is risky. For there is another kind of hashtag abuse that differs from crashing, bashing or fashing, and that is plain, simple ignorance. For every notorious hashtag there are 10 others that are launched, propagated and quietly dropped.  As one Viennese student said during a seminar last week, “if your campaign fails you need to find a better campaign manager”.  Maybe. Or perhaps failure is to be expected. The ease with which hashtag campaigns can be conceived and attempted means that, if it fails early, it fails cheaply (both in terms of cost and reputation) and that is better than sparking widespread media controversy. Or perhaps sparking conversation of this kind is a responsibility of policy makers in a digital age. We need to remember that social media campaigns are about more than buying votes or selling ice cream and fizzy drinks.  This is hashtag politics.

Now read

Or if your German is okay listen to the interview here 

Les politiques urbaines et Twitter

This is a blog to accompany a lecture I gave to the Altervilles Masters Programme in September 2014. In my talk I laid out the following argument: the Urban policy actors are engaging in practices of hashtag politics. That is, they are coining memorable and uniquely named policies, and these names give such policy a life and ultimately a death. I argue that social media is aiding the process but playing a role in their demise. As a public policy academic I think we are well placed to explain these transitions but we must continue to adapt our repertoire of analytical tools to include new forms of data.


My interest in this comes from ten years of encountering policy ideas – something I first saw when exploring Birmingham’s renaissance, how those I interviewed talked without hesitation of how Birmingham during the 1990s had returned to its former glory. I argued at the time that such a discourse had to be continually reiterated to maintain its efficacy. In the early 2000s one such mechanism was a policy idea called “Flourishing Neighbourhoods” – here I encountered tens of different ways of expressing the idea, with associations made with everything from civic pride to feeling safe, involvement and sustainable communities. Such ideas often have vague beginnings and few can remember from where they came. Many will claim it was their idea – name times and places where it was first adopted, stolen, adapted, coopered, corrupted.  Few however can remember when it was forgotten. Such is the way with policy ideas – policy actors prefer to discuss the latest and loudest.


In my first project as a post-doc I visited Rotterdam and Copenhagen, there too policy actors framed their work in terms of policy ideas, such as city citizenship and integrated Copenhagen. I am sure if I returned there some 7 years on, many of the practices would be familiar but the branded policy ideas different. Every project I have been involved in has followed similar patterns – Transforming Birmingham, Total place, the big society. They operate at different scales and degrees of scope but they share common properties – they are branded ideas and visions with instrumental intent and container-like elasticity.


Around the time of studying the big society – 2010 or thereabouts – something else was happening. Watch the tour de France and you will see it on the roadside – compare audiences of the Pope in 2005 and 2013 and you will see something different. Every month websites will inform you that 1.19billion people are active on Facebook, 1.3 billion on YouTube and Google-plus, 232 million on Twitter, with growing numbers on the likes of Instagram, Pintrest and Tumblr. As smart phone ownership grows so do these numbers. Particular social networks will come and go, but mobile internet is here to stay.


Not every country is the same – in the UK Twitter is extremely popular in policy circles; in France, for now, less so, but it is growing. Facebook is extremely strong in France and DJs and footballers have followerships of over 15 million. French President Francois Holland has almost 700k followers and has tweeted over 4000 times – a similar number to David Cameron, although his office has 2.8 million. It is where news is announced – and it is where people react. Some call this the biggest focus group in the world, with people retweeting messages and replying to authors or mentioning users.


Cities too are now on Twitter: although mainly remaining in the communications department, cities are working out how to communicate messages and interact with residents. Who has control of the account remains a massive learning curve, just as airlines, train companies and brands have found when trying to promote their brands and defend their reputations. Government departments launch hashtag campaigns – like the Home Office in the UK promoting the police commissioner elections with #MyPCC and photos to make it seem personal. As the NYPD found, these campaigns can easily backfire, with users hijacking the #MyNYPD hashtag to reveal photos of police brutality. Similarly the highly effective #BringBackOurGirls spearheaded by the likes of Michelle Obama clearly put pressure on governments to respond to the plight of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls – and yet opened up those who got involved to harsh scrutiny of the Twitterarti. 


So thinking about the big society back in 2010 led me down the route of asking two questions: What does all this mean for policy practice, and what does this mean for policy research?


Starting with practice, it leads to questions like how is Twitter changing how policy is made, or named, or implemented; how is it helping or hindering those who promote policy? When you delve into the literature it is somewhat fragmented. The biggest chunk is unsurprisingly focused on the profit motive – how can brands launch successful campaigns, how much does dialogue matter, how much does sentiment matter, can we predict sales or market performance or measure return on investment, and understand the needs of our customers?  These questions have a policy relevance because businesses are the early adopters of Twitter – they have realised that two-way communication is advantageous yet difficult, but possible. They have realised that automated sentiment meters are unreliable, that there are many kinds of twitter user, that the mass media continue to exercise a hold on whether brands sink or swim. Furthermore they have sophisticated metrics that can understand which Tweets get more shares and our motivations to do so. But the literature is not all about profits and bottom lines.  Much is made of the democratic potential of Twitter – the ability to mobilise and organise mass movements for or against a cause. Here they are interested in the contagion, the virility of a tweet and how these can redress democratic inequality.  These literatures give many examples of countries where revolutions were fuelled by Twitter, where governments tried to switch it off or mount astroturf movements. It is changing so many ways in which professions operate – journalists sourcing stories, broadcasters creating viewertariats, emergency planners maintaining lines of communication, intelligence agencies listening in, health officials dissuading smoking, charities promoting donations. Political actors are also discussed in this literature – cultivating their micro-celebrity, self promoting, interacting, hoping to improve election outcomes, while others use Twitter data to predict the outcome, or exercise a Trial by Twitter, pointing out scandals and malpractice.


But Twitter has implications beyond just the practice of psephologists: it has wider implications for policy research. It begs questions like – what are these data – what is the role they play in the rise and demise of contemporary policy ideas – the modern day flourishing neighbourhoods, Total Place or indeed the Big Society (an idea we do not mention any more)? What can we do beyond our existing methods of counting newspaper articles and such?  One of the main implications is a clamour for bigger and bigger datasets.  This is comfort-data. Researchers have a classic fear of missing out – so try to collect everything, try to capture the full transaction of searchable talk. All of this brings with it issues of ethics and challenges of data management. Some choose to subscribe to companies that index social data, others essentially record it from Twitter through the APIs, and increasing numbers are buying packages of historic tweets from resellers.


Beyond the challenges there are some obvious exciting potentials – alternatives to costly case studies, alternatives to interview and document analysis, an opportunity to get to where debate is taking place, and permit the introduction of innovative methods and automated qualitative processes.


In the talk I set out a range of techniques that might be used, ranging from the most hands off to the most hands on. At the most macro levels, it is possible to count frequencies with relative ease – to track the fluctuation of mentions of a given policy and draw conclusions as to its vitality. We can drill down and explore the influencers, including a new generation of Twitter celebrities and mega-users who have tweeted over 120,000 times. We can apply algorithms to divide messages or parse parts of messages into positive and negative sentiment without the need for human input. If you are dissatisfied or worried about the reliability of such automation then you can capture the tweets and sift through them manually. If desired you can work in small teams coding and classifying items in order to isolate just those tweets expressing an opinion on the policy idea in question and then explore how the debate is changing shape over time. At perhaps the most hands on is to take samples of tweets and feed them back into Twitter itself, asking users to rank order tweets into order of preference and then subjecting these rankings to factor analysis. This Q-methodology reveals shared viewpoints that structure the data and in turn can inform further research – be it qualitative or quantitative by design.


What I conclude is that Twitter data offers a wealth of research possibilities. Whilst user numbers continue to grow and how it is used continues to evolve, so must policy research to keep up. It might be early days for some countries, but all signs suggest more and more policy actors across the world are taking to Twitter to launch and foster policy ideas. I am confident we are now well placed to be able to explain what is happening using a variety of hands on and automated tools. Returning to where we began – although social media has a relatively recent history, the techniques of policy making using memorable branded policy ideas has a much longer past; what is different are the tools that make and break them.

This talk draws on my most recent book: Interpreting Hashtag Politics: Policy Ideas in an Era of Social Media, published by Palgrave and available in a range of formats on Amazon.


Subterranean Hashtag Blues

Subterranean Hashtag Blues

Stephen Jeffares

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.

WindblowsMObama HashtagPol

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”

DC hashtag politics

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'”

Cameron Hashtag politics

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.

Read Next: The Big Society lasted 1000 days.  Will we ever see ideas of its like again?

The rise and fall of policy ideas

Featuring a series of media clips, this video demonstrates how David Cameron reiterated his support for the idea of “Big Society” over a three year period. The image is overlaid with a graph tracking the frequency of newspaper articles mentioning “Big Society” between 2009 and 2013. The earlier clips relay a grander vision: “strong and concerted government effort”, “legacy” designs to “mend the broken society”. They capture what Kingdon calls the “take-off point” of ideas. By November 2011 Cameron continues to outline his “big idea.” It is during this time that the newspaper mentions peak, from 33 in 2009 to 2,293 in 2011. But from 2012 onwards the focus narrows, becoming a brand for a specific initiative: Big Society Capital. So although the language remains upbeat, what is meant by “Big ”Society changes. In part this can be quantified (as the graph shows with a drop to 1,377 mentions in 2012 and 401 mentions in 2013). But the video is also arguing that we can do more: we can go beyond counting frequencies, to explore alternative sources of data, and focus on the accumulation of new meaning over time.

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Hashtag Politics describes the practice of coining and fostering unique branded policy ideas in an era of social media. “Interpreting Hashtag Politics” explores the opportunity of monitoring, visualising, capturing and sifting social media data to understand the lifecycles of these policy ideas: their rise, and, ultimately, their fall.


The Big Society lasted 1000 days. Will we ever see ideas of its like again?

By Stephen Jeffares, University of Birmingham.

A story by Chris Giles in last Friday’s FT started as follows:

“Mark Carney Bank of England governor, has signalled that his policy of linking interest rates to the unemployment rate [Forward Guidance] will be buried less than six months after its birth. The British economy was ‘in a different place’ from last summer, he said…and…  Although his big idea for monetary policy has bitten the dust, Mr Carney said the BoE (Bank of England) had no plans to raise interest rates ‘immediately’ “.

This is not the first time in the last year we have heard reports of “big ideas” “biting the dust”.  The same has been levelled at Cameron’s purported big idea in politics: The Big Society.  How funny that sounds just a few months after thousands of policy actors were deliberately inserting Big Society terminology into their strategies, job descriptions and articles. A friend who recently attended a meeting at CLG told me that the last remnants of the Big Society team have now left their posts; organisationally, at least, the Big Society is dead.

As the title suggests,  and in a new book, I argue that Big Society lasted around a 1,000 days.  That is rather neat, I admit.  Wayne Parsons has argued that you need a sensitive measuring device to understand the death and termination of public policies, but as a starting point you can think about newspaper citations.  Although a crude measure, this reveals the date when a policy idea first entered the public realm, the peak of discussion, and the point after which it is never uttered again.

It reminds me of Frazer’s description of how Saharan Tuareg tribes would up camp when somebody died, and never mention the deceased’s name ever again. Although government actors do not quite up camp, they shuffle around, renaming units and amending job titles, renewing websites and pulping documents.  As for the newspapers, for a while they write of the policy’s death, of u-turns, and discuss hints of decline (as in the article above); more important is to focus on the point where they stop mentioning it – that is when the idea is dead.  It is also a point in time seldom acknowledged.

So where does my 1,000 days come from?  Well, counting citations in British Broadsheet newspapers (see Figure 2.1) you can see that in 2008 there were no mentions of the Big Society, a few hundred in 2009, great excitement by 2011, and just over one mention a day in 2013.


My prediction is that at some point in 2014 we will not speak of Big Society again – it will be the end.

But will we see anything on the scale of Big Society ever again? If Forward Guidance is anything to go by, it is quicker and easier than ever to discuss, endorse, but also critique and deride policy ideas. But it is also quicker and easier to coin and foster them too.

Some critics of the Big Society pointed to how many times it was relaunched, but like iPhones or Apps, we are in an age where we can release beta versions, test things out, get feedback and quickly offer updated bug fixes or new versions. We cannot measure the longevity of a policy idea by expectation alone – no, we can speculate about decline but it is not until the tribe up-sticks and moves to a new part of the desert, vowing never to mention its name again, that we can be sure that it is truly dead.

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Interpreting Hashtag Politics: policy ideas in an era of social media will be published by Palgrave in April 2014.  Preorder or follow @hashtagpolitic

Interpreting Hashtag Politics – book out soon

Yesterday I approved the front cover image for my new book – Interpreting Hashtag Politics: Policy Ideas in an Era of Social Media.  It will be published by Palgrave in April.


Why do policy actors create branded terms like Big Society and does launching such policy ideas on Twitter extend or curtail their life? This book argues that the practice of hashtag politics has evolved in response to an increasingly congested and mediatised environment, with the recent and rapid growth of high speed internet connections, smart phones and social media. It examines how policy analysis can adapt to offer interpretive insights into the life and death of policy ideas in an era of hashtag politics. This text reveals that policy ideas can at the same time be ideas, instruments, visions, containers and brands, and advises readers how to tell if a policy idea is dead or dying, how to map the diversity of viewpoints, how to capture the debate, when to engage and when to walk away. Each chapter showcases innovative analytic techniques, illustrated by application to contemporary policy ideas.