Hashtag activism in the online-offline continuum

Hashtag tactics: Algorithmic activism in Chile

7 minutes to read
Column
Juan Eduardo Bonnin
09/03/2020

Online activism requires not only a group of activists and specific demands, but also certain knowledge regarding the workings of the media in which the actions take place. Such knowledge may be real or assumed, and does not necessarily always achieve its intended objectives. It does, however, inform specific forms of action, i.e., communicative tactics based on activists’ attempts to understand and use the algorithm's afffordances, for example, through hashtag tactics.

Whether spontaneous or organized (though it is usually spontaneous first, and organized subsequently), algorithmic activism is one of the rare opportunities to exert agency in social media. As such, it cannot be seen simply as detached hacktivism, because it involves a community, a set of shared knowledge and political actions defined by an online-offline continuum.

Hashtag tactics and political protest

The political and social conflict which began in Chile in October 2019 has not yet ceased. After two intense months of violent protests, repression, torture and other human rights violations, only a few government officials have resigned and some political measures have been taken in response to popular demands: a shorter workweek, lower tolls and most importantly, a referendum to create a new Constitution to replace the one sanctioned by the dictatorship of A. Pinochet in 1980. The new Constitution is expected to be more democratic, not only in terms of the political system, but also in terms of redistribution of wealth and more egalitarian access to education, healthcare and pensions.

The first week of the protests is especially interesting to observe, as the online-offline nexus was apparent: the hashtag #EvasiónMasiva (“Mass evasion”) was Trending Topic all day on October 15, while thousands of students en masse evaded metro fares in protest against the latest increase. While these students were being repressed by the Chilean police (the carabineros, deprecatorily known as “pacos”), offline shouts of “¡Pacos culiaos!” (“Fuckin’ Pacos”) during protests were transmitted via Twitter with the hashtag #PacosCuliaos, a recurrent HT in the TT list. By the end of the week, while approximately 1.2 million people demonstrated in Chile’s biggest march, more than 506 thousand tweets had shared texts, pictures and videos with the HT #LaMarchaMasGrandeDeChile (“Chile’s biggest march”).

Social protest and resistance show the persistence of handcrafted activism.

Protest hashtags were used to encourage affirmative actions of civil disobedience, either regarding the metro fare or the curfew imposed by President Piñera. At the same time, anti-protest hashtags were used to challenge and compete for the prominent TT places in the Twitter confrontation. To face #EvasiónMasiva, the judgmental #EvadirEsRobar (“Evading is stealing”) condemning the metro fare evasion was launched, with some success. This “anti” HT, however, would be rapidly counter-attacked, both by appropriation (using it to spread protesting content, thereby subverting its original aim) or rewording (propelling the HT #EvadirEsLuchar, “Evading is fighting”, which contradicts its meaning and recalls the original formulation).

Since 2016, Twitter has developed a more active policy towards automated campaigns aimed at imposing Trending Topics (TT) in the platform. It therefore uses some measures of speed, synchronicity, similarity of content, etc. – also automated – to detect and deactivate bot campaigning. With bots hiding behind better constructed profiles, human networks and even human agents, current tactics to fight for TTs involve handcrafted communicative actions. I will describe two of them.

Trending hashtags and off-hour tweetstorms

TTs are not established based solely on the number of tweets or number of people tweeting. For a topic or hashtag to be considered a TT, it has to be “newly popular, or popular with a new group of people”. It is therefore easier for a topic to trend when there is a low baseline, either because there are fewer users or because users are still discussing old topics. For algorithmic activism, off-hour tweetstorms are ideal, not only because of the “Trending topic” badge, but especially because they will remain at the top during the first hours of the morning, thus influencing online and offline conversations, including radio and TV.

We can identify three main features for this kind of tactics: a) the preferred hours for these tactic tweetstorms are between 1 and 4 AM; b) they present a sudden rise in activity, in a short time lapse, with a relatively small amount of tweets; c) they are written as hashtags, usually using uppercase to segment words, and index very specific, ideologically identified meanings.

For instance, on October 20 at 1AM we observe the following trending HT:

October 20, 1 AM

Topic activity during the last 8 hours, on the right, shows the stability of the first 4 HTs. The second one, #ChileDesperto, had more than half a million tweets and stayed atop the TT, as the green line on the right shows. However, this very stability is a reason not to be the number 1 TT, as it was replaced by a less popular (98.9K) but rapidly growing TT #ToqueDeQueda.

By 2AM, however, the TT list had changed significantly:

October 20, 2 AM

#ChileEnResistencia (#ChileIsResisting) climbed to 3rd place out of nowhere, with a relatively small number of tweets (less than 10K, which is the lowest amount the system registers) in a very short time span. Besides, it has a very identifiable left-wing flavor in the term “resistencia” (“resistance”), which is unlikely to emerge from more moderate, center users. As a result, it gained visibility for a short time, but disappeared from the TT list at 3AM:

October 20, 3 AM

At this time, while many HTs were still trending after many hours of use (#ToqueDeQueda, #Concepción, #CacerolazoNacional), two new ones appeared, both in the very early hours of the day, forming a short phrase and using uppercase letters to segment words, with less than 10K tweets each. Number 4 is #GuerraCivil (#CivilWar), an ideologically extreme denomination used to describe the situation of social and political violence. As can be seen, this HT was used in a tactic tweetstorm but immediately lost traction because it was not adopted by other users:

#GuerraCivil peak

The other HT in this context was #ChileDespierto (#ChileAwake). Not only was it the result of early tweetstorm tactics, but also, it used syntagmatic variation.

Syntagmatic variation: wording and orthography in hashtags

In Screenshot #1, we see that at 1AM #ChileDespierto had trended at Twitter all day, with an impressive number of hourly tweets. At 2AM, however, it disappeared from the ranking, either because of a sudden loss of messages or, more probably, because of the redundancy of the users’ network; in other words, because no new people were tweeting about it.

However, small syntagmatic variations (either in wording or orthography) count as new topics, especially under the form of a hashtag, which is only counted according to its exact spelling. This is why the small variation from #ChileDesperto (#ChileAwoke) to #ChileDespierto (#ChileAwake) – only one letter in Spanish – enabled the sudden reappearance of the topic as a TT, still with less than 10k tweets, but recognizable and retweetable nevertheless, with potential to remain in the ranking for several more hours, as it did until 11AM.

This syntagmatic variation, with the purpose of introducing formal changes and thereby renewing the same topics under new forms, allowed for some playful spelling:

  • - Changing the verb. As mentioned above, changing the verb not only changes the form, but also the meaning of the HT, in this case, passing from an action (“Chile despertó”, “awoke”) to a state which is a consequence of that action (“Chile [está] despierto”, “is awake”).
  • - Challenging spelling rules. The first variation of this kind was registered on October 16, when after 24 hours of TT, the HT #evasionmasiva (“massive evasion”) began to disappear from the TT ranking. Then, the “misspelled” version #EvacionMasiva (“massive evacion”, spelled with a “c” in place of the “s”), appeared third in the ranking at 1PM, securing first place until 8PM.
  • - Misspelling proper names. The main target of misspelling was Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, whose name appeared in several HTs which were then transformed via misspellings: #PiñeraDictador became #PineiraDictador. In other cases, different syntagmatic variations were combined: #RenunciaPiñera was first misspelled as #RenunciaPineira, and then reordered as #PinedaRenuncia (a plausible tactic which we only found once).

Handcrafted activism

As social media are increasingly perceived as a field of esoteric (pseudo)science, only available to big data specialists and hackers, processes of social protest and resistance show the persistence of handcrafted activism. They help to configure a space of agency in digital political discourse, in which time-consuming activities and interpersonal organization help to establish and consolidate the continuum between online and offline practices.

As groups are an effect, not a condition, of interaction, we can see these small successes – such as establishing a TT, beating a rival HT, etc. – not only, or not mainly as ends in themselves, but also as steps towards forming new groups and political identities. How effective they can be in the democratic political arena, we will only be able to tell in the future.