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Scholarly articles have a hard time keeping up with the ever-changing media environment. Which is a great thing for all the future political scientists and sociologists I know – they will always have something on which to write.

However, Bruce Bimber, Matthew Hindman, and W. Russell Neuman’s The Internet and Four Dimensions of Citizenship, written in 2010, can already be considered outdated. The article questions how the Internet has revolutionized what they define as aspects of citizenship within a democracy: citizen deliberation and the public sphere, citizen participation in public life, citizen knowledge, and citizen mobilization and the organizational context for citizenship (page 2).

However, their definition of the Internet seems to focus around the blogosphere and chat rooms. And does not touch on social media, for the most part, because it is within the last four years that social media, especially twitter, has taken off.

A longer paper could analyze the relationship between social media and all four dimensions of citizenship. However, I want to focus on the relationship between social media and Habermas’ public sphere – specifically the concept of hashtag activism and the public sphere.

Philip Howard, the Principal Investigator for Digital Activism Research Project, defined hashtag activism as “…what happens when someone tries to raise public awareness of a political issue using some clever or biting keyword on social media” (Dewey, Washington Post). Some examples of hashtag activism posts include, #Kony2012, #StandwithPP, #JusticeforTrayvon, #BringbackourGirls, #YesallWomen, and most recently #ICantBreathe.

As the Washington Post points out, critics argue that this form of activism is lazy, because it is not really activism at all. Conducted from the safety of a computer screen, hashtag activism can often serve “…more as a flattering symbol of concern than concern itself.” (Dewey,Washington Post).

Supporters of hashtag activism argue, however, that any sort of awareness is good awareness. “It might not result in new legislation or a conviction, but it almost always does something – something small, perhaps, but something measureable” (Dewey, Washington Post).

I want to compare hashtag activism (its results, levels of discussion, etc.) with Habermas’ view of the public sphere and of democracy itself. The Internet and Four Dimensions of Citizenship explains how past scholars have expanded Habermas’ original criteria for the public sphere to account for online communication. Looking at these criteria, does hashtag activism realize this “idealized vision of democratic practice?”

  1. The inclusion of a broad array of citizens in rational deliberation.

I would argue that access to the Internet, and therefore social media, especially in the United States, is widespread. In 2013, Pew Research Center found that over 70 percent of Americans had broadband connections in their homes.

The Washington Post also adds that one major benefit of hashtag activism is its diversity: “The amplification of minority voices that other forms of media – or even other forms of activism – have historically ignored.” (Dewey,Washington Post). It’s true. Often, some of the biggest hashtag activism movements involve minority issues such as hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick or #YesAllWomen

However, the problem that arises with social media, and therefore hashtag activism, and its diversity of citizens is that a second digital divide has arisen – the divide representing large differences in Internet skill levels. Is a wide array of the population actually involved in the discussions involved with hashtag activism, if a large percentage of them, especially the elderly, do not understand how it actually works?

  1. The capacity to influence the agenda of public discussion

Four Dimensions argues that, “with the notable exception of political scandals, it is hard to find traceable instances where issues nourished online have driven broader public debates.” This is where I find the article to be specifically outdated when thinking of hashtag activism.

Look at the most recent and blatant example. With the incident concerning Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, the hashtags #Ferguson and #ICantBreathe were used almost 10 million times on Twitter during a span of 30 days, according to Topsy, a website that monitors web traffic (Brewster, NBC).

After the Ferguson decision, President Obama requested funding for 50,000 police body cameras, created a task force to get recommendations on building trust between communities and law enforcement and invited young leaders to the White House for a meeting. Hemly Ordonez, the Vice President of Digital Strategy and Mobilization at Fission Strategy, a company that uses digital tools to achieve social action, said: “This is an example of how hashtag activism, with massive public demonstrations and sustained news coverage, can produce big results. Hashtag activism kept the Ferguson events in public consciousness and the national headlines much longer than other similar incidents” (Brewster, NBC).

  1. Once the attention is evident, the Internet facilitates rational critical discussion and the capacity for collective will formation

This is a hard one. The article argues that the Internet “advances all kinds of discussions at once, from flame wars and mindless, juvenile commentary to thoughtful and engaged discussion among the well informed.”

This is definitely true concerning social media. However, one question that arises concerning hashtag activism is whether you can even have rational discussion in 140 characters? I think that it is possible, but it is also hard to accomplish. – especially with the passionate topics that arise from the issues that end up as hashtags.

  1. The capacity in collective deliberation to evaluate arguments by their sincerity and persuasive strength rather than the status of the speaker

I argue that hashtag activism accomplishes this for the most part. Social media can have a leveling effect and can generate a “surprising level of equity among participant contributions with less suppression of minority views than expected.”

With the trending function on Twitter, ordinary citizens can discover tweets from other ordinary citizens. Not just major publications, prominent names/celebrities or political bloggers.

  1. Absence of a coercive external constraint on open discussion

Social media seems to be relatively free of what we normally think of coercion. People are, for the most part, free to talk about whatever they want. Thus, people can use hashtag activism to promote whatever they desire.

However, there is the pervasive, and somewhat understandable fear, that the government is surveying every post. Every tweet is saved and monitored. That could actively prevent some users from speaking their mind.

  1. Absence of systematic distraction from political deliberation

Habermas’ original argument was that the decline of the public sphere was due to the commercial distraction. Therefore, some have cried foul at the influx of mainstream print and broadcast media sources into attractive online versions.

Do mainstream media sources’ online versions detract from public discussion amongst ordinary citizens? Not necessarily. It could turn into a public relations nightmare to get involved with such controversial topics. This does not mean that some of them do not still do it, but they are more likely to report on some of the conversation going on rather than join in the conversation.

In conclusion, I came to the same finding as the authors of The Internet and Four Dimensions of Citizenship. Does the Internet promote the public sphere? Maybe, according to the authors. Does hashtag activism promote the public sphere? Maybe. I contend that hashtag activism contributes to a more aware citizenship that cares about political and social issues. However, the article is skeptical that the Internet could produce a Habermasian view of rational and critical discussion. I agree when thinking of hashtag activism

Despite all this, I think the real argument stems from whether or not this Habermasian view of discourse and democracy is really ideal. And this is, well, an entirely different argument that I’ll leave to those future political scientists and sociologists.

Taylor Evans

Citations

  1. Bimber Bruce. Hindman, Matthew. Neuman, W. Russell. “The Internet and Four Dimensions of Citizenship.” The Oxford Handbook of American Public Opinion and the Media (2010): 1-29. Web. 20 Mar. 2010.
  2. Dewey, Caitlin. #Bringbackourgirls, #Kony2012, and the Complete, Divisive History of Hashtag Activism. The Washington Post, 2014. Web. 8 May. 2014.
  3. Brewster, Shaquille. After Ferguson: Is ‘Hashtag Activism’ Spurring Policy Changes? NBC News, 2014. Web. 12 December. 2014Brewster, Shaquille. After Ferguson: Is ‘Hashtag Activism’ Spurring Policy Changes? NBC News, 2014. Web. 12 December. 2014
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One thought on “Hashtag Activism: What Does it Mean for the Public Sphere?

  1. Pingback: WELCOME FELLOW SLACKTIVISTS – #HASHTAG ACTIVISM

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