Hashtag Activism

jiatweetFor two weeks in August 2014, it seemed the entire country’s attention was turned toward an unknown suburb outside of St. Louis, Missouri: Ferguson. Even with serious competition for media headlines – from conflict in Israel, to the spread of Ebola, and the violence of ISIS – for a period of time, Ferguson was on the front page of what seemed like every news site, blog, and piece of print media in the US.

Twitter led the conversation, with over 3.6 million Ferguson-related tweets sent in one day at the height of the protests.

But on one mainstay of our daily communications, there was hardly a hint that an unarmed teenager had been shot to death by an officer that was supposed to protect him and serve his community. While #Ferguson was the tipping off point for some of the strongest outcry and most thoughtful dialogue on race, oppression, and the police state we’d seen in a long time, you would never know from looking at Facebook.

On Facebook, it seemed, it was all about the ice buckets.

Why did the national discussion about Ferguson fail to come through on our newsfeeds, even as thousands of ALS ice bucket challenges and nominations appeared daily?

According to digital media company Digiday, Ice Bucket posts outperformed Ferguson posts in terms of engagement (clicks, shares, etc) by more than 8:1. Digiday identifies Facebook’s algorithms, designed to “curate” the content it thinks users will be most interested in seeing, as the driver behind this significant divide.

The implications of this disconnect are huge for readers and publishers considering Facebook’s recent emergence as a major traffic referrer. Namely, relying too heavily on Facebook’s algorithmic content streams can result in de facto censorship. Readers are deprived a say in what they get to see, whereas anything goes on Twitter.”

In Time Magazine, blogger Jia Tolentino points to a more insidious reason for the discrepancy: “The world is flooded with injustice in two rough forms: random and systematic. The less privileged experience both kinds as a matter of breathing, but the privileged experience mostly one.”

While Facebook users were eager to share their support for ending a neurological disease, the complex, blame-inducing nature of the protests in Ferguson left most people content to remain silent in their social media spheres.

So what, you ask? It is inarguable that Ferguson made impression on our national consciousness – what does it matter if it wasn’t appearing on some mindless social network?

As mindless as it might seem, the reality is that Facebook has the power to shape what we consume online and in turn, more than any other social network. According to the Pew Internet Project, 71% of adults online use Facebook – and 40% check the site multiple times per day. By comparison, only 19% of adults are active on Twitter – not a small margin, for sure, but its clear where a majority of Americans are receiving social media updates.

Ten years ago, Facebook was a website upon which a relative handful of college students shared blurry photos of beer pong tournaments and “poked” one another. Today, it is an institution. The stories and discussions that trend on Facebook define the discussions, opinions and attitudes that are considered “acceptable” by society as a whole. The more a user sees her friends posting and sharing about a particular topic, the more likely she is to learn about it and do the same.

If Facebook – intentionally or not – is preventing critical stories, voices and perspectives from carrying through our newsfeeds, from being shared and spread and amplified, then it has become one more institution contributing to the structural inequality that is so pervasive in our daily lives.

Ferguson isn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen. When Women’s Equality Day was celebrated on August 26th of this year #WEmatter, a hashtag accompanied by calls for fair pay and labor protections for women in the workplace, trended on Twitter. That same day on Facebook, National Dog Day reigned as the trending topic. Perhaps not surprising in a nation where there are more shelters for pets than victims of domestic violence.

Social media can be an agent for change. The presence of #Ferguson on Twitter remains incredibly powerful, and “hashtag activism” from #whyistayed to #iftheygunnedmedown has brought significant attention previously unheard voices and issues.

But as two weeks of Ferguson and the Ice Bucket Challenge demonstrated, social media can also insulate our already siloed existences – and further marginalize people and voices that are already oppressed by our dominant institutions.

By Kaitlin Juleus 

Student at The New School’s Milano School. Follow her at @kaitlininbklyn

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