When a Hashtag goes wild on Twitter


When a Hashtag goes wild on Twitter

You might be aware of the social media campaign started by the New York Police Department under the hashtag #MyNYPD. The Department announced on its Twitter to use this hashtag while tweeting their photos with police officers. It was merry for a whole, with a handful of people sharing pretty harmless pictures with officers. However, the tide turned when the hashtag got hijacked. In an instant, stories of police brutality, misconduct, and shootings were tweeted under the same hashtag.


Brooke Foucault Welles and Sarah Jackson are two Northeastern University professors, who closely followed this hashtag on Twitter in real-time. What they discovered was simply interesting, which urged them to investigate into the hashtag’s web that spread all over Twitter. Welles and Jackson first created a network from a sample of tweets they picked up from the site. They thought that the accounts with a large number of followers would be the reason for the hashtag to go viral. It was, however, not the case.


“We saw a bunch of people we’d never heard of before—local community organisers, online activism accounts with few followers,” Welles said. These are just the people – mostly women and people of colour – who wanted to share a story. Such critical tweets ruined the original intent of the hashtag and the overall campaign. This is called, according to Welles, ‘culture jamming’. What’s more, Twitter provides a proper platform for the society to engage in this ‘jamming’.


An incident of police shooting helped start the Black Lives Matter movement. This gave Welles and Jackson an idea to outline a theory – People from marginalised communities are the ones to start the hashtags’ movement to propagate the activism.


“These groups that have been historically excluded from mainstream spaces came together online and advocated for change together,” Welles said. “They were spreading this counter-narrative that was very different than the story about police we normally hear in the mainstream outlets.”


There are a lot of hashtags that have claimed worldwide attention, including #MeToo, #GirlsLikeUs, #CrimingWhileWhite, and #YesAllWomen, which started off as a response to the #NotAllMen. The reason behind them trending is the architecture of Twitter, which promotes the hashtags that people’s personal network is not even discussing.


“Many, many people use social media to get their news and understand what’s going on in the world,” Jackson said. “As citizens, we’re able to have conversations and debates with each other and see perspectives we maybe hadn’t considered before through a hashtag going viral, and that makes a difference.”


Pranjali Wakde

pranjali wakde


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