Social Media & Society 2014 wrap up, part 2: cultural acceptance and activism

October 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

For part one of my SMSociety wrap up, look here!

The first day of SMSociety 2014 continued with a panel on cultural acceptance. Irfan Chaudhry opened by discussing the Twitter Racism Project, which explores different ways of tracking and analysing expressions of racism online. Twitter, he notes, is interesting because it’s highly-visible and easily tracked, although there are still plenty of challenges, including the ways in which racism takes on news forms and expressions with changing social conditions, and the necessity of telling the difference between a racist tweet and an affectionate self-identification. The first round of research has focused an particular racist terms in the Canadian cities with the highest number of reported race-hate attacks (I found it interesting that one of the terms, ‘white trash’, is more classist than racist).

Tweets were then categorised to see whether they were a casual slur, a discussion of racism, an expression of a negative stereotype, and so on, with about 50 per cent of tweets being real-time responses to an event (such as a racist response to being seated next to someone of a different ethnicity on a plane). Chaudhry’s hypothesis that these tweets represent the externalisation of thoughts which were not able to be expressed in person present an interesting contrast to Hampton’s work showing that only 0.3% of people were willing to discuss potentially-controversial perspectives online, but not offline: this might be due to a different sample set, but this connection might also suggest that those expressing their racism online are also comfortable expressing it in person. Chaudry finished by noting that there’s also a need to track racism that’s expressed in more subtly coded ways, such as through the #whiteresistance tag used by white supremacists.

Click to see Oakley's slides in full.

Click to see Oakley’s slides in full.

The next presentation was from Abigail Oakley, looking at the online discourse around plus-sized women (and, to a lesser extent, the fat acceptance movement). Oakley noted that much of the abuse faced by plus-sized women sharing images of themselves online came from other plus-sized women. By exploring this through public sphere theory, Oakley proposed that factors such as strength of social ties and emotional involvement play significant roles in the participation of this type of negative online discourse. I’d be curious to see whether this research could connect with some of the practical work around online abuse, including efforts to use moderation to create healthier online communities.

The session wrapped up with Daria Dayter’s work on the ways in which complaints are used to build rapport online, focusing particularly on tweets about ballet. This research is grounded in linguistics, drawing on debates about whether language on Twitter is standard or in the intimate register. Dayter discussed the ways in which language can also be action, so, for example, “I will be there tomorrow” is doing promise, “My foot hurts” is doing complaint. Some of the results include the prevalance of complaint as a form of self praise; the tweet “Iced two ankles 9:07AM 31 DEC 2013” implies dedication both through the timestamp, and through the minimal information and emotional content (which indicates that the poster experiences this often, and doesn’t consider it a big deal). Dayter also noted that gender was not a factor: male dancers complained as much as women. This research really highlighted the benefit of in-depth qualitative analysis of online content.

The final session of the day looked at social media and activism, opening with Brett Caraway‘s discussion of the ways in which Canadian labour unions are using social media. This work draws on Bennett and Segerberg‘s distinction between ‘collective’ and ‘connective’ action, the former being linked to more hierarchical, professionalised movement organising, as opposed to the more individualised, complex, and horizontal forms of connective action. Caraway argues that while connective and collective approaches to organising overlap, in general unions with higher levels of membership, established histories, and emphasising servicing unionism are likely to have organisationally-brokered networks (in which social media is more cenrally controlled). In contrast, unions focusing on recruitment, activism, and issue awareness are likely to have organisationally-enabled networks (which are more open and horizontal). Unions in either of the above contexts may benefit from the integration of social media platforms with their campaigns, however the logic of action is fundamentally different in the contexts of self-organizing networks and organizationally-enabled networks.

Image courtesy of AK Rockefeller

Image courtesy of AK Rockefeller

Finally, Alfred Hermida discussed recent research with Candis Callison on Idle No More’s use of social media, focused on the period between December 2012 and January 2013, which included several big peaks in Twitter activity around national days of action. Hermida and Callison’s research show that much of the content on Twitter was directed at others within the Idle No More network, rather than being appeals to the mainstream media. This is in large part because Idle No More protesters are aware of the terrible mainstream coverage of Indigenous issues in Canada: journalists will only cover these issues if Indigenous people are ‘dead, drunk, drumming, or dancing’, as thus easily incorporated within dominant racist narratives.

Hermida and Callison used two different methods for measuring influence within the #idlenomore network. The first was similar to the Topsy algorithm, and showed the highest influence to be from institutional elites (such as mainstream news journalists). However, using a different measure that prioritised retweets told a different story, with far higher visibility for ‘alternative voices’, including visible Indigenous Twitter users such as @âpihtawikosisân and @deejayNDN. Retweets were not only a way of sharing information, but also a form of contestation, affirmation, and identity-building, a way of reaffirming (for example) the Indigenous character and leadership of the movement. This research shows social media as a ‘contested middle ground’, which is both affected by other power structures and open to people’s efforts to reshape the network around the hashtag. (This has some interesting connections with the Mapping Movements project I’m doing with Tim Highfield).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the second day of SMSociety, but you can check out the schedule on the SMSociety website (I’m particularly curious about James Cook’s work on The Bear Club). I also wasn’t able to bring promotional materials for my book, Global Justice and the Politics of Information: The struggle over knowledge, which is now out with Routledge – please do check it out!

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