How the Right-Wing Attacked the “Dirty, Unwashed Hippies” of #FloodWallStreet and #PeoplesClimate

Countless journalists and social theorists have postulated a link between Twitter and democracy, ever since Bouzazi sparked the flame which burned him to death while igniting a wave of protest which quickly engulfed the Middle East in early 2011. Revolutions obviously aren’t new, they have occured throughout the course of human history, but never has the contagion been as quick as 2011, with movements spreading across populations in months, sometimes even a couple of days. Theorists like Lotad, Boyd, and others explored the information flows of these short-form messages networked to the twitterverse via mentions and hashtags, and hyperlinked to a multitude of other locations on the world Wide Web. They examine who was tweeting with the #tunisia and #egypt hashtags as the revolution spread, and demonstrate how these messages and articles flowed throughout the world in minutes.

This spread of communication across long distances can certainly have a positive effect on democracy. individuals have the ability to seek a dizzying range of information quicker than ever before, as decentralized Web 2.0 technologies facilitate the bottom-up production of information with a much lower participation cost. A television studio, millions of dollars, and a contract with a cable network are no longer required for producing content which has the ability to go viral and spread through global networks. As Castells wrote in “Networks of Outrage and Hope”, virtual social networks facilitate spaces of autonomy which are “largely beyond the control of governments and corporations that had monopolized the channels of communication as the foundation of their power, throughout history.” The increased ability of marginalized populations to communicate instantly, with only an Internet connection can subvert governments, as state control of media discourse becomes much more difficult to maintain. Social movements which used to be suppressed by the state-controlled media now have participants chanting ‘the Whole World is Watching’. We live in a global village, and social networks such as Twitter cam be seen as facilitating a new global democracy, beyond the traditional structures of state and corporate media.

While this view is certainly tempting, especially considering the role of social media in spreading movements ever since the Green Revolution in Iran in 2010, it is technologically deterministic, as technologies such as social media and blogs are extensions of identities and power relations which comprise our physical world. Sure there are a wider range of information sources, but how many of these blogs and news sites are just echo chambers of strict belief systems?

In other words, while information is more accessible and easy to disseminate, thus raising the possibility of spreading education and as a result, democracy, the Internet alone might not be useful for fostering the deliberation necessary to construct a functioning democracy. For example, there are right wing blogs like Red State and National Review, and left wing blogs like Daily Kos and Truth Out, with viewpoints that reach a wider audience than before the internet transformed the media landscape. However, are there actual debates happening? Are the citizens of the Internet discussing issues and ideologies or are these blogs and message boards creating segmented communities, where individuals meet others with the same narrow viewpoint, thus sparking virtual interactions which continuously echo their construction of reality?

A majority of the tweets using the #ClimateMarch and #FloodWallStreet hashtags were positive. However, some of the volume which caused them to trend were actually oppositional tweets. These messages barely challenged the actual issue of climate change itself, and seemed to be focused primarily on attacking the protesters, which served to distract from the narratives which fueled the collective action.

Even the tweets which did actually address the issue weren’t an aspect of a deliberative democracy, but rather, seemed like a weird combination of the Tonight Show and Fox News. For example:

#ISIS is responsible for thousands of deaths. #Globalwarming hasn’t even claimed it’s first Polar Bear yet… #FloodWallStreet #tcot

— Paul Tully (@Papatul) September 23, 2014

After the march, rather than actually interviewing the participants about their views and why they felt like it was important to travel to New York for the event, the Gothamist posted an article which focused on the large amount of trash left by protesters. While the debris left by the massive protest is certainly a legitimate issue, it is just another example of how the messaging of protests is frequently littered by attacks on the actions and appearance of the participants, rather than the content of their signs and chants. Many of the oppositional tweets referenced this article, or others which were spawned from the Gothamist’s narrative:

Other tweets focused on the crowd numbers, framing them as underwhelming despite the turnout of over one-thousand people on a Monday morning. The below tweet also ignores that the event wasn’t only New Yorkers, but featured activists from around the world.

A few tweets framed Flood Wall Street as having a lack of diversity, due to Monday’s actions including many white members. While this could very well be a valid criticism of the event’s inclusivity, it ignores the notion that participants included only those who could afford to get arrested on a Monday morning in New York City.

Here is a similar example from Occupy Wall Street in 2011:

The most prevalent criticism found through searching through #FloodWallStreet and #ClimateMarch is typical of the conservative framing of left-wing movements as comprised of privileged rich youth, commonly coded as “hipsters” or “hippies”, who either live in their parents’ basement or have their housing costs paid for through family trust funds. Thus, they are considered lazy ‘leeches’ of the system, rather than active members of our society who are voicing valid systemic criticisms. This serves to minimize the messaging of the protesters, and is a very broad stereotype which can’t possibly apply to such a diverse movement, and attempts to de-legitimize the protesters.

For comparison, here are examples of the same oppositional framing, utilized during the height of Occupy Wall Street in 2011:

A variation of this attack is the idea that since protesters were participating in capitalism, via their consumption of clothing and electronics, they are hypocrites for challenging the current system. While the movement may certainly contain hypocritical elements, this is a ridiculous premise, since it would be impossible to survive in our advanced capitalist society without active participation, even if working toward an alternative system. For example, if someone doesn’t have a cell phone or internet access, they are far less likely to obtain a full-time job, thus rendering survival impossible. However, right-wing twitter used this false contradiction quite widely:

Here is a similar example from 2011:

While the tools of Twitter certainly provide the framework which could foster a deliberative democracy through interactions among diverse groups, we must remember that each technology is just an extension of our divisive society. Twitter can spread information that builds movements, and can provide live coverage which was previously impossible, but as these oppositional tweets show, when there is conflict, the medium takes on a form similar to the echo-chambers of MSNBC and Fox News or the message boards on DailyKos and The Blaze, rather than any sort of debate which compares and contrasts viewpoints to build consensus.

Another glaringly obvious feature of these tweets which I have mentioned numerous times, is that they usually criticize and attack the character of the participants, rather than actually addressing the content behind their protest. This is also characteristic of how the mainstream media represents dissent, especially regarding predominantly left-wing protests. This was seen frequently during Occupy Wall Street and is also emblematic of how the press covered the Global Justice Movement, especially the anti-WTO Protests in Seattle and Washington DC during the turn of the millennium. Rachel Coen analyzed these media reports in an article for FAIR and found a similar trend. These mainstream sources used a “tactic of interviewing Jane or Joe (or better yet, Mango) Protester and identifying his or her views as representative of what is, in fact, a complex global movement…References to hair color, body-piercing and clothing were also frequent.”

Jules Boykoff also performed a study on both television and newspaper coverage of the same protests, presented in her article “Framing Dissent: Mass Media Coverage of the Global Justice Movement”, where she defines the five frames which the mainstream media utilized to represent the anti-globalization movement. One of these was the freak frame, where “the more radical elements of the global justice movement – in terms of both outward appearance and ideology- are transformed into a synecdoche for the entire movement”.

Similar dynamics were present during the 1960s anti-Vietnam War/Civil Rights Movement, in how hippies and other counterculture protesters were framed by the mainstream media. For example, Todd Gitlin, in “What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy”, described how Time portrayed the participants in the October 1967 March on the Pentagon, as “hard-eyed revolutionaries and skylarking hippies, ersatz motorcycle gangs and all-too-real college professors.” Once again, protesters are framed as the “other”, freaks who are fundamentally different than the majority and are thus not to be taken seriously.

Another topic which would be interesting to explore is how a hashtag itself can provide multiple virtual spaces, which could possibly foster the networking necessary to build both on and off-line communities. Take this tweet as an example:

In a future post, I will also analyze the content posted by popular Twitter accounts who contributed to these oppositional tweets to ascertain how they use Twitter on an everyday basis. I also want to unpack the sociological definition of a “troll” and determine if it applies to these users.

For now, I will leave you one final question: How can we use networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to either organize debates or use social media directly to debate issues, thus contributing to a real democracy?

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