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 

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

Policy Ideas in a Digital Age – new conference paper


Next week I am off to Grenoble to present a new paper at  Session 3 New Ideational Turns, as part of panel 84 New directions in the study of public policy, convened by Peter John, Hellmut Wollmann and Daniel A. Mazmanian, the 1st International Conference on Public Policy, Grenoble, France, June 26-28. Friday 28 June, 8.30-10.30, Sciences Library Auditorium.

Policy Ideas Paper

It is a draft paper – I welcome your comments or suggestions


This paper argues that the discussion of public policy online is offering new and exciting opportunities for public policy research exploring the role of policy ideas.  Although considerable work focuses on political ideas at the macro or mid-range, specific policy ideas and initiatives  are overlooked, thought to be “too narrow to be interesting” (Berman, 2009, p. 21) .This paper argues that the prolific use of social media among policy communities means it is now possible to systematically study the micro-dynamics of how policy ideas are coined and fostered.  Policy ideas are purposive, branded initiatives that are launched with gusto; flourish for around a thousand days; and then disappear with little trace as attention shifts to the latest and loudest.  At best, media reports will document that Birmingham’s Flourishing Neighbourhoods initiative has been “scrapped”, “Labour’s Total Place programme has been “torn up”, or the Coalition’s big society policy is “dead”.  Save for a return to the policy termination literatures of the late 1980s, our impotence in conceptualising such death-notices reveals how little effort has been invested in understanding and theorising the lifecycle of policy ideas.  In response, this paper conceptualises policy ideas, their life, death and succession.  The paper draws on a case of the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections held across England and Wales in November 2012, and the attempts of the Home Office to coin and foster the hashtag #MyPcc.

 Acknowledgement: The primary research reported was funded by British Academy Grant – SG112101 The shape of ideas to come: harvesting and analysing online discussion about public policy.  And University of Birmingham Roberts Fellowship 2008-2013.  Heartfelt thanks to the research team: Gill Plumridge, Becky O’Neil, Tom Daniels, Pete Redford, Phoebe Mau, Diha Mulla, Misfa Begum, Sarah Jeffries and Osama Filali Naji for your empathetic coding, unwavering enthusiasm and crowd-like wisdom.


Policy Ideas in a Digital Age by Stephen Jeffares

Why do Public Policy Ideas Catch on?

Good question. Not quite a new one – actually the title of my Phd (2008). A PDF copy can be downloaded here

Here’s the Abstract –

Asking the question ‘why do ideas catch on in public policy’ reveals the inadequacy of ideational accounts to compete with the predominance of mainstream models of policy analysis. This thesis reasserts ideational accounts through the application of the political discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe. The approach posits ideas as demands operating in governing discourses and understands how general equivalent demands then become empty signifiers. This thesis develops current understanding on how general equivalents and empty signifiers function through an application to urban governance. It develops a qualitative account of governing in Birmingham using interviews between 2003-2005, and documents and media archives from the past twenty years. The thesis examines how mainstream ideational, rational, institutional and interpretative accounts understand the emergence of policy ideas and their role in coalitions, policy change and agency of actors. Discourse theory is revealed as a comprehensive approach for understanding these questions of ideas. The thesis develops a framework for the empirical application of discourse theory in Birmingham, exploring the relationship between two taken-for-granted governing discourses: renaissance and size. It shows how actors were motivated to reiterate and protect discourses from dislocation with development of the empty signifier of ‘flourishing neighbourhoods’. The thesis traces the credibility and emergence of flourishing neighbourhoods and contributes to a research agenda around hegemonic policy analysis