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Protest Hashtags as Contested Ground: The Case of #idlenomore

Today's first keynote at ASMC14 is by the excellent Alfred Hermida, who uses the Canadian protest hashtag #idlenomore as an example of contested media spaces. In such spaces, which voices are being listened to, and what coverage does this enable?

The #idlenomore movement for Indigenous rights had been going for some time, but really went off when one of the Canadian Indigenous leaders went to meet with PM Stephen Harper about the issued it raised – a move condemned by the protesters who felt that this leader did not speak for the protest movement, since the movement had not emerged from organised Indigenous groups. That condemnation was especially strong on Twitter, with protest leaders actively encouraging followers to tweet their indignation.

The roots of the protests lie in the policies of arch-conservative PM Harper, whose government included in a "jobs growth" omnibus bill a range of provisions to streamline and hobble existing environmental protections – but the mainstream media coverage was largely about another minor aspect of the bill, the phasing out of the Canadian one penny coin. A further omnibus bill continued to gut environmental protections further; such measures were felt to be especially problematic for Indigenous groups, as the traditional custodians of the land. Eventually, the #idlenomore protests emerged in response, from a first tweet using the hashtag in November 2012.

From December 2012 to January 2013, some 750,000 hashtagged tweets were posted, including some 460,000 retweets and 33,000 @mentions. 45% of tweets were posted from mobile devices, suggesting significant use by protesters during demonstrations. The hashtag creates an ad hoc issue public, or an information neighbourhood, in which information is published, broadcast, and listened to.

Alfred's study sought to explore the social influence of participants within this network (e.g. by retweets), as well as the influence through established institutional positioning which stems from professional or other roles. Amongst the top 25 institiutionally influential actors he predominantly found mainstream media representatives and other institutional elites, accounting for more than two thirds of actors. Traditional journalistic sourcing approaches may seek comments from such actors, then.

But if we take retweet patterns as a popular vote on who has influence and power the picture looks remarkably different: institutional elites are still important (accounting for about one third), but now contain different actors (especially Indigenous artists rather than mainstream celebrities), while mainstream media sources shrink and alternative voices grow substantially in influence. Most notably – far more Indigenous voices are present in the widely retweeted group.

Everyday citizens are also able to break into this leading group, with one activist even staging a protest in front of the Canadian embassy in Cairo (and receiving some media coverage). Such everyday citizens may have only transient visibility – they are not conventional news actors, who maintain a continuing role in the issue, but are crowdsourced, temporary leaders.

What sources are being shared in this hashtag, then? Mainstream (35%) and alternative media (31%) make up the majority of the links, so people continue to pay attention to mainstream media content, but it no longer dominates the discussion. There are significant differences between #idlenomore linking patterns and more conventional political discussion hashtags like #cdnpoli, which is dominated by MSM links, in fact.

And what is being shared here tends to support the protests – the mainstream media articles which receive considerable attention are those which are sympathetic to the protests, and they are often opinion rather than straight news pieces. There is also an element of Canadian cultural cringe here – coverage of Canadian politics in publications outside the country is rare, so articles from The Guardian and similar publications are being shared as a sign of international validation for these protests. By contrast, critical coverage is being shared in order to mount a counter-argument.

Overall, then, the hashtag as a protest tool assists the articulation of a collective identity – it facilitates more than just sharing information and channelling discussion. Participants have a shared connection, determined by what they care about; social media provide a shared resonance, and tweeting and retweeting helps negotiate what it means to be part of this movement, which is characterised by multiple voices and multiple values.

Multiple voices are often seen as problematic by the mainstream media (the movement is not unified), but in reality they show the continuing negotiation of complex issues which affect a substantial part of the population. This is in some ways an attempt to redistribute power, to contest a mainstream media narrative, and to show that actors in the protest do not inherently retain that power – it remains fluid and changeable. This is especially important in the current, conservative Canadian media environment, which generally does not know how to cover Indigenous protests and tends to write about 'natives' in a highly patronising tone.

Social media, then, provide a contested middle ground on which positions of authenticity and power are up for grabs. There is a chance here to go beyond simple stories of Indigenous-white relations, and to understand current debates as more complex than this. The mainstream media and institutional actors have a certain importance because of what they are, but such positioning is not incontestable.