In April 2014, the New York Police Department started a social media campaign, asking its Twitter followers to use the hashtag #MyNYPD and tweet photos of themselves with police officers. A few folks participated, snapping and sharing pictures with officers at a Yankees game or Central Park.
But in a New York minute, the hashtag was hijacked. Twitter users suddenly started sharing their stories of brutality, misconduct, and shootings by police officers, tweeting them in images and words accompanied by the hashtag #MyNYPD.
Two Northeastern professors, Brooke Foucault Welles, a computational social scientist, and Sarah Jackson, a scholar of social movements, were watching this play out on Twitter in real time. They knew they had stumbled upon something interesting. Together, they decided to investigate how the hashtag was spreading.
Jackson and Welles created a network from a sample of 13,631 tweets that included #MyNYPD. They assumed the network would show that popular accounts with large followings—such as mainstream media outlets and celebrities—were responsible for making the hashtag go viral. But instead, they found something unexpected.
“We saw a bunch of people we’d never heard of before—local community organizers, online activism accounts with few followers,” Welles said. In other words, not established social influencers with clout, but regular people with a story they wanted to share. And these people were largely women and people of color.
In total, more than 100,000 messages with the hashtag #MyNYPD were posted to Twitter. The vast majority of these tweets were critical of the police—a complete reversal of the original intent of the campaign.
This is a type of media activism called “culture jamming,” said Welles, an assistant professor of communication studies in the College of Arts, Media and Design. And Twitter was providing the perfect platform for people to engage in this tactic.
The case of the #MyNYPD hashtag played out before the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The incident helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement.
Seeing the hashtag #MyNYPD go viral as a platform for discussion of police brutality before it had become a nationwide subject of debate was surprising, Welles said.
Jackson and Welles outlined a new theory: marginalized populations could successfully adopt hashtags as a vehicle for 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.”
The story of #GirlsLikeUs
Joined by Moya Bailey, a scholar of critical race, feminist, and disability studies at Northeastern, the researchers began an interdisciplinary project called #HashtagActivism: Networked Counterpublics in the Digital Age. They are also writing a book based on their research, which will be out in early 2019.
They have broadened their investigation to include hashtags concerning race, gender, and sexuality.
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