Author Talk: #HashtagActivism

MIT Press Live! presents a virtual author talk with the authors of #HashtagActivism.

In this session, Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles look at how marginalized groups use Twitter to advance counter-narratives, preempt political spin, and build diverse networks of dissent.

For a sample of what we talked about, here’s a transcript of the introduction to the talk, to share what inspired the collaboration between these three authors. (The video also has captions available).

Hannah Nyren: Hi, everyone. Welcome to MIT Press Live! a new virtual event series, brought to you by The MIT Press. My name is Hannah Nyren and I am the Digital Marketing Manager at The MIT Press and I will be your host for this series. Today, we are speaking with the authors of #HashtagActivism. Great to see you all today. How are you doing?

Sarah J. Jackson: Great.

Moya Bailey: Thanks for having well thanks for having us.

Hannah Nyren: Yeah, I'm so glad that you all could join us. We're really excited about your book. So, just to make sure everyone knows all about you guys before we began. Could each of you go around and introduce yourself?

Sarah J. Jackson: Sure, I'll go first. My name is Sarah Jackson, I'm a Presidential Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and I study media, social movements, and particularly black and feminist activism.

Moya Bailey: Hello everyone, my name is Moya Bailey. I'm an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University in Africana studies and women's gender and sexuality studies, and I'm really interested in how race, gender, and medicine come together in media.

Brooke Foucault Welles: Hi everyone. I'm Brooke Foucault Welles. I'm an Associate Professor of communication studies and network science at Northeastern University. I study online communication networks and marginalized communities.

Hannah Nyren: Great. So, does one of you want to tell us a little bit more about what this book is about?

Brooke Foucault Welles: Sure, I can take that one. So in #HashtagActivism, we explore how marginalized communities have harnessed the power of the internet and Twitter in particular. In order to infiltrate and change public debate about topics that are of great importance to them.

Brooke Foucault Welles: We specifically focus on race, gender, and their intersections and we use several different methods, including computational network analysis, qualitative discourse analysis, and historical analysis, along with responsible responses from activists themselves to really paint an in-depth picture of how various contemporary hashtags have changed the issues we’re talking about and how we're talking about them.

Hannah Nyren: Awesome. So, um, what inspired this book? What brought you all together to write it?

Sarah J. Jackson: Yeah, thanks for asking that. So, it's actually a fun story. Brooke and I, our offices used to be next door to each other. And I was at work, and on Twitter, which those things aren't mutually exclusive.

Sarah J. Jackson: In early 2014--and so you have to kind of transport yourself back to early 2014--This was before most Americans had seen or heard of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. It was before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson.

Sarah J. Jackson: The New York City Police Department attempted a public relations campaign with a hashtag. They started a hashtag #MYNYPD

Sarah J. Jackson: And they sent out a tweet that said, share your photos and videos with the New York City Police Department, with the hashtag #myNYPD

Sarah J. Jackson: And we'll choose the best ones and share them to our Facebook and our Twitter account. Now of course, in 2020, hearing that we can all imagine how quickly, something like that could go downhill. But it's 2014, and people didn't quite have the savvy. And so what was fascinating was that immediately, this hashtag--that was started essentially by those with power by the New York City Police Department, which they even had provided a sample photo of what they wanted, which was a smiling tourist wearing an I love NYC hat in Times Square with police officers--was overtaken by ordinary people. First New Yorkers. And then, increasingly, people from all over the world...talking about police brutality and sharing images of police brutality and not only contemporary cases but also historical cases, talking about the Amadou Diallo case, talking about cases even earlier than that. And I thought, as somebody who studies the question of who has the power to shape the narrative...

Sarah J. Jackson: When we talk about issues of inequality, when we talk about issues of race, when we talk about issues of identity. I thought this was a fascinating, fascinating case in which the people who theoretically we would always think, have the power, which are those in a more elite social position, in this case, the police really lost control of this hashtag.

Sarah J. Jackson: And it was overtaken by ordinary people telling their stories and sort of insisting on really reorienting and rethinking the role of police in society. So, I had walked next door to Brooke and said, “Is there a way for us to study this?” Because I am a qualitative scholar and I knew how to study it theoretically, and I knew how to do discourse analysis on what I was seeing people tweet, but I also knew that I was seeing millions of tweets.

Sarah J. Jackson: Which is a huge data set and Brooke, because she's a network scientist, had the skill and the tools to be able to sort of sit down and work with me on how to collect that data. And that was one of the first studies that we did prior to starting this book, and at the same time...that was happening Moya--who is a digital humanist--was studying issues of race, gender, feminism, the body, etc. online and had particularly been studying the #girlslikeus network which is a hashtag network we'll talk more about today...

Sarah J. Jackson: That was started by Janet Mock for trans women, in particular, to talk about their experiences and concerns and sort of build both a collective identity and a kind of body politic. So that's, that's where this all started.

Read the full transcript here.

Learn more about the book.

Hashtag Activism

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