Tweeting From the Barricades: The People’s Climate March and Twitter

When the C train slowed to a halt at Fulton Street station on last Sunday morning, I saw an assortment of anti-Tar Sands and anti-Keystone XL signs. As I boarded the train, I quickly realized that almost each passenger on the quick ride uptown with me were also heading to Central Park West, to protest against the climate inaction of the past twenty-five years. Seeing floods of protesters walking onto the train as we ventured uptown confirmed what I suspected, that the People’s Climate March would be larger than any protest I’ve been to in my whole life. When getting off at 72nd Street around thirty minutes later, the conductor said ‘have a good day at the march, make it count’ over the intercom. This wasn’t anything resembling a normal New York City demonstration. Concerned citizens from all over the United States were in Manhattan and it wasn’t for an over-hyped award show or fashion week. The people were here to save the climate.

At over 310,000 people, the People’s Climate March was the largest protest in the Big Apple since the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It was also touted as the largest climate protest in history, achieving the goal set by, Avaaz, and hundreds of other participating organizations. Even with established groups bankrolling the outreach for the event, including advertisements on ten percent of the subways in New York City in the weeks leading up to the march, the historic day came together from the ground up, via decentralized hubs which featured listservs, weekly conference calls, and frequent planning meetings. While thousands of people were lining up next to Central Park, thousands more were following the event on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

While all of the popular social networks featured content promoting and covering the march, I want to focus on Twitter, which has once again played a vital role in event planning and promotion for a new networked social movement. Below is the tweet frequency for #PeoplesClimate and #ClimateMarch, the two main hashtags used for the event, taken from Topsy Analytics:

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 1.35.05 PM

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 1.36.36 PM

While #PeoplesClimate was a far more popular hashtag, both were used prior to the march, likely to promote the event and feature content from news sites and blogs which pertained to climate issues. The frequency of both hashtags began to rise on September 19th, and subsequently spiked for the following two days: the weekend of the march. Once the sun rose on September 22nd, the hashtag frequencies were back at pre-event levels.

What kind of tweets comprised the activity spikes during the march? While it is impossible to outline the many variations of social media activity while climate activists marched through Midtown, I have provided some examples.

Many tweets were posted by new media websites, who were promoting their coverage of the event, while providing a brief description of the events taking place:

Other organizations and individuals live-tweeted pictures which were taken from the ground:

The People’s Climate March certainly could be seen as a unification of the climate movement, as labor, faith, radicals, students, and other active practitioners of democracy were marching in solidarity, demonstrating how climate change is the issue that could potentially unite the human race, as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise throughout the developed world. However, there were many in the crowd who believed that a permitted march, where the route was negotiated beforehand with the New York City Police Department, was not enough to disrupt the business as usual which is exacerbating the climate crisis.

Thus, the following morning, over a thousand activists gathered in Battery Park, before marching down Broadway in an attempt to Flood Wall Street, much like after Superstorm Sandy but this time with bodies, signs, and chants. While the activists weren’t able to actually shut down Wall Street itself, due to the network of police barricades and officers blocking their entry, they still held multiple blocks on Broadway for over 8 hours. I was following the event on Twitter, and noticed that #FloodWallStreet was the number one trend in New York for most of the day.

Below is the frequency from Topsy, compared with #PeoplesClimate: Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 1.43.37 PM Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 1.44.13 PM

According to the graph, #FloodWallStreet was never more widely used than #PeoplesClimate, except for the actual day of the action. #FloodWallStreet began to rise on the day of the Climate March, likely due to their active participation, and as #PeoplesClimate sharply decreased on the day after the march, #FloodWallStreet spiked, as activists were sitting on Broadway in Manhattan’s Financial District. The twitter content which comprised the spike was once again divided by live-tweets which came directly from the street, and tweets containing links to coverage, which were hosted on other websites.

Examples from the web:

Examples directly from the streets:

Looking through the top tweets for both hashtags, these two types of tweets were the most prevalent, although there were also users who simply commented on the event, also using the hashtag. These people could be considered the imagined audience of the event, either watching live streams or following live-tweets:

We must keep in mind that while a majority of the most popular tweets were covering the event or providing statements of solidarity and support, there was also oppositional messaging, which re-appropriated the hashtag by attaching criticisms of the movement and the protesters involved. Who comprises this group and what were the themes of their tweets?

In my next article, I will post tweets from the detractors, many of whom could likely be considered trolls, and will perform a content analysis to provide insight on how Twitter is not only used to build movements, but also provides an outlet to those who are in opposition to the aims, spreading their opinion in messages using the same hashtags. Does the Twitter usage of these two divergent groups in the same virtual space contribute to a deliberative democracy, or hyper-segmented echo chambers which reflect the polar opposite viewpoints which comprise the fragmented American political sphere?


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