Hashtag Politics: Discourse Cycles in Catalonia

By Daniel Bogre Udell

The idea of ‘hashtag politics’ refers to the way that public discourse has come to expand and contract around the wax and wane of viral hashtags. It’s a phenomenon as embraced and as it is reviled, but one which has nonetheless saturated the global stage as various public-sphere factions, from revolutionaries and activists to politicians and corporate stalwarts, have utilized social media to steer the direction of our collective dialogue.

Though today it may seem like a fact of online life, the hashtag in its modern form is a recent innovation, having entered popular culture in 2009 when the microblogging service Twitter rolled out a new functionality, which allowed users to categorize their posts, or ‘Tweets’ in the site’s native parlance, by placing a hash sign (#) before any word or phrase. In this way, a Tweet containing the hashtag #politics could be automatically displayed alongside all other Tweets with that same marker. Conversely, a user who felt #politics was too vague could instantly create a new hashtag — let’s say, #politicsUSA — to specify their message and connect their voice to others with a similar vision. It’s important to note that Twitter’s corporate leadership would refrain from launching their own hashtags or restricting the creation of new ones, thereby proposing a radical innovation: the democratization, or at least decentralization, of their data’s taxonomical organization.

By 2013, the hashtag was a core functionality of the photo-sharing service Instagram, as well as a feature on Facebook. As such, it has transformed from merely a feature of a single online service into a foundational element of the world’s social media infrastructure. Conversely, it had crept in the global community’s discursive flow as a powerful tool for sloganeering. Some have argued that the hashtag was politicized as early as 2010, when activists from Iran’s Green Movement used Twitter to organize their protests and clarify their message. By 2012 it had experienced a similar shift in the United States, when the non-profit organization Invisible Children launched their polemic #Kony2012 campaign in an attempt to shine light on atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Christian militant group from Uganda. More recent examples of hashtag politics include the way #BlackLivesMatter was catapulted off a banner at a single protest in Oakland, California as the core message of a movement against racialized policing in the United States, or how #JeSuisCharlie served as the a catalyst for a public debate over the meaning of free speech and why some deaths are more mourned than others.

To a certain extent, the dawn of hashtag politics seems like a hyper-extension of longstanding phenomena, such as the close relationship between traditional mass media and popular politics. However, by lowering the barrier of entry to the means of media production — accessing Twitter is much easier than accessing a printing press or radio broadcast tower, for instance — hashtag politics has become a more nebulous and popularized expression of media and political discourse. For instance, when American First Lady Michelle Obama posed for a photo with a poster bearing the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, in reference to the schoolgirls kidnapped by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, she quickly became the target of the hashtag #BringBackOurDead, which was launched by the friends and families of American drone strikes victims. And while the hashtag did little to halt the onslaught of American aerial warfare, the fact that beleaguered citizens of Yemen and Pakistan can today so seamlessly address the government of the world’s leading military power signals a structural transformation that cannot and should not be taken lightly.

Though the aforementioned examples may be fresher in the memory of the English-speaking world, I happened upon hashtag politics while researching the nationalism of Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain of which Barcelona is the capital city. Home to a unique language and a history reaching as far back as the tenth century, Catalonia has long maintained a fraught relationship with the rest of Spain, defined by a constant struggle to negotiate cultural and political autonomy as Spaniards. As such, when Catalan nationalism emerged at the tailend of the nineteenth century, it was distinct from its European counterparts in that it rejected the concept of the nation-state in favor a ‘multinational federation’ of Spain. This remained true even after the dictator Francisco Franco seized power in 1939 and actively persecuted Spain’s minority languages until his death in 1975.

However, something changed dramatically in 2012, when over a million people marched on Barcelona under the banner ‘Catalonia: a New State for Europe’. (The original Catalan-language phrase, ‘Nou Estat d’Europa’, made for a fine hashtag.) The following day, Catalan President Artur Mas, who had built a career on the promise of Spanish federalism, came out in full support of a referendum on independence with or without the central government’s approval. This made him the first Catalan leader to engage in a deliberate face-off with Madrid since the 1930s and the first to support full independence since the seventeenth century.

Since then, support for independence has continued to grow, from a parsley 17% in 2009 to between 45% [es] and 60% [es] today. Each year, another million-person protest has been organized by activist groups that keenly employ social media. Most importantly — and contrary to claims by critics of Catalan nationalism, who tend to cast the movement as post-recession propaganda by Catalonia’s political elites — the debate on Catalan independence is no longer guided by political stalwarts and state media outlets, but rather by the amalgamation of average citizens, that nebulous entity so-called ‘the people’.

There is no better example of this than the story of the hashtag #jomacuso9n, which translates literally to ‘November 9th: I accuse myself’. After Artur Mas went ahead with his plans for an independence referendum (which, though unofficial garnered the turnout of nearly three million voters), Spain’s Attorney General filed criminal charges against the Catalan president as well as two of his ministers, for the alleged allocation of public funds for ‘unconstitutional’ activities. When the news of this legal attack arrived in the 300-person town of Torrebesses, a local schoolteacher named Jordi Puig, who had volunteered to staff his local polling station on the day of the vote, sent out a tweet of indignation to his seventeen followers:

[I’m a democrat, I was a vocal volunteer, I voted, and therefore, #(9n: I accuse myself).]

Within two days, the hashtag #jomacuso9n had become so popular that three of Catalonia’s major Catalan-language dailies reported on its creation as newsworthy. As the week dragged on, two new hashtags, #jomautoinculpo9n [9n: I indict myself] and #autoinculpacions9n [9n: self-indictments], surged as splinters of Puig’s original message, and within two weeks, #jomautoinculpo9n found its way [ca] to the Spanish Congress in Madrid when a band of Catalan senators printed it on posters and held them up before the Spanish Prime Minister in protest of the Attorney General’s lawsuit.

Before dawn the hashtag, it would have been unheard of for a rural villager to so directly and effectively guide the discourse of politicians on the national level. In this sense, hashtag politics may represent a new relationship between media and political culture that is more decentralized, democratic and attuned to the structural needs of popular dissent. On the other hand, it may also signal a discursive bend towards mob mentality, since the accelerated pace of public dialogue requires individuals to stake out claims whether or not they’ve had time for proper reflection. Such tension begs the question as to whether the development of hashtag politics is for better or for worse. Like structural innovations in history, the answer is invariably ‘both’.

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