The Public’s Media: A Look at Twitter as a Space for Social Discourse and Activism

I’m obsessed with the Internet. I think it’s the best. People love to hate on it, but I’m just not convinced they see its potential. It is my query that there is now in the age of the Internet, the possibility of a new public sphere that can intervene, contradict, or resist the hegemonic capitalist structure. Woah, what? This structure of which I refer is perpetuated by mass media and manifested in what Guy DeBord calls the spectacle. Yeah! The spectacle! But first, to be clear, my use of the term “public sphere” is based on the derivative from the Greek, agora. The agora is anywhere public life (bios politikos) happens. This means the agora extends beyond physical spaces such as the marketplace, but includes discussion (lexis), common action (praxis), consultation, and sitting in a court of law. For the purposes of my analysis, I will focus on lexis and praxis as the key factors in examining the agora in the age of the Internet. This is because, the social-networking platform I will be focusing on, Twitter, is designed for dialogue. See, I told you I had high hopes for the Internet. And as we have seen, the discourse that is created on Twitter is a space for action and capable of shaping, creating, and manifesting social movements.

Here’s the thing, media, as commonly referred, cannot be free from the state or corporations. But media is also an integral part of everyday life that is constantly circulating and perpetuating ideas by the state and corporations, in which case the ideas produced by the capitalist structure become the norm. In Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle,” Debord reveals the idea that in a consumer society we are merely pawns in an amalgam of advertising and messaging in what he refers to as the “spectacle” “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Precisely, the spectacle is the manifest of the media. The spectacle is not the images themselves, but is the way in which people are the stakes of which the capitalist system stands. DeBord’s work is meant to reveal to the masses the seemingly inescapable trap of the spectacle. But because DeBord’s work came before the age of the Internet, it is my ambition to suggest social media’s potential of subverting the inescapable nature of the manifest of media (the spectacle). In order for social media to be able to contradict the spectacle, we must learn how to navigate this new type of media. With this is mind, this text will also address the ways in which social media is a new space for the public sphere, a new public space.

First, the dilemma of the spectacle is its one-way promotional structure; it is projected onto us with no space for reaction. As members of the society, we are intertwined in its lack of dialogue and thus the propellants. In DeBord’s 18th thesis he writes, “The spectacle by definition is immune from human activity…” Within the images of the spectacle there is no space for dialogue. It seems as though the spectacle is unbreakable and by definition it is true, as it is “the opposite of dialogue.”

Before addressing the ways in which the virtual public space of social networking has the capacity to subvert the spectacle, I want to elaborate the way physical public space can be negotiated. To begin, defining public space is no easy task. Public space is highly contested. Many spaces that are commonly referred as public are in fact privately owned. Private space is made public, only by allowing members of the public within the space. This brings up the question, can Twitter (or any social media platform) as a corporate owned site, be considered as a public space? With an application of the term public space to the virtual space of social networking, the contestation certainly does not end. However, considering the virtual world as an applicable space for publicity, it should be asked, what makes any kind of space public?

Geographer Don Mitchell writes about what makes space public in his work “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy”, “Whatever the origins of any public space, its status as “public” is created and maintained through the ongoing opposition of visions that have been held, on the one hand, by those who seek order and control, and on the other, by those who seek places for oppositional political activity and unmediated interaction,”. Mitchell suggests public space is created; for example, the way people can fill the streets in protest to march in solidarity. The reality is that even what has been called “public space” has never been free from mediation, it is space that a state rules. The Greek agora for example, as idyllic and essential for democracy as its legacy suggests, women would not have been allowed to partake. Therefore, creating “insurgent space,” as Jeffery Hou (public space theorist) calls it, is how we can oppose the charade of privately owned public spaces. Creating insurgent space is to resist commercial invasion with events or actions, be it protests or performance art. For Mitchell, it is precisely this struggle, occupation, and action of and in the space that maintains a space public. Therefore, for the purpose of my work, I will consider Twitter a public space for the way in which public citizens use, navigate, and play with the space.

The fight for public space comes from the same place as the fight for the freedom of the press; it is a confrontation against the hegemony. The two are battling with mediation from corporate and state governance. With this in mind, we can begin to imagine social networks, especially Twitter, as a different kind of media that can subvert such governance. This is especially true when applying the theories of public space. The tactics of creating insurgent public space can be applied to that of the virtual world. To illustrate, Twitter may be seen as capable of changing the surface of the hegemonic structure due to it being a space for dialogue: it is a space that affords communication for numerous publics, of which can occupy, act, and relay dissent. This is revolutionary compared to DeBord’s idea in which the spectacle was considered immune from human activity. Twitter was designed for human activity.

For my ideas to be clear with regards to the navigation of the spectacle, I’d like to combine the notions of mass media and advertising into the idea of the spectacle. If the spectacle is the relations of individuals within a capitalist society, then newspapers, news networks, magazines, and many of the like are a part of the heap that is the spectacle, for these media outlets are monetary. Just as well, mass media is all consuming and whether you like it or not you are living in it. As Debord makes clear, the fact that you are living in it means you are living by it, and unfortunately there is no room to speak back. In the age of the Internet however, I would argue that social media gives us the platform to respond and engage.


Among the various social networking platforms, I am particularly interested in Twitter. Tweets can be used as many types of messages. They can be status updates, spreading of other news, or responses to other tweets. An important factor is that the content is created by its users, and therefore media is more democratic than ever. But because the information content on Twitter is a constant flow and extremely fast, there is a way in which information can be organized through a system of data-tagging. Tweets can be located by a simple key word search. For an even more refined and organized search, a Twitter user can search for a “hashtag.” The hashtag is used for specific data-tagging as opposed to random word searches. Because of this, it can be assumed that those who use hashtags have the intention of adding to the information pool on that specific subject. Another use of the hashtag is its visibility. Once a hashtag has been used a lot within a concentrated amount of time the hashtag becomes visible for all Twitter users to see in their sidebar. Twitter users are capable of viewing worldwide “Trending Topics” as well as more local trending topics on both national and regional levels.

The hashtag was not always what we know it to be today, however. The first use of the pound symbol on Twitter was a suggestion based on its usage on Internet Relay Chat platforms in which the symbol was used to organize groups and topics. Even once hashtag usage began on Twitter, they were not hyperlinked until 2009, and Trending Topics were not introduced until 2010. Therefore, within the context that I would like to introduce the hashtag as a means to subvert the spectacle it should come with interest that the hashtag on Twitter as we know it today was born out of its popularity by users. That is to say, perhaps the hashtag itself, aside from the words behind it, is an example of the navigation of the spectacle.

Now that we understand the spectacle and its space, I will discuss how it can be intervened with, contested, and contradicted with the use of hashtag activism in a particular case study. Since August 2014, there have been many hashtags that have come and gone surrounding the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The hashtags began specifically addressing the event, but have since reached new meaning regarding many topics surrounding aggressive policing tactics against people of color. There are many of these hashtags, but these are some of the most popularly used: #HandsUpDontShoot, #BlackLivesMatter, #WeCantBreathe, and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

The hashtag, #HandsUpDontShoot began in Ferguson. It was meant to represent the innocence of the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown as he was allegedly holding his hands in the air when officer Darren Wilson shot him. The hashtag resonates with a voice of polite surrender, as in, I am innocent but I am following your rules, please just let me be. This is one of the first hashtags that began trending but has continued to be used, particularly when the Grand Jury decided not to indict Officer Wilson, and again when the verdict of murder of Eric Garner by a New York police officer, who was also not indicted, was decided.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown is another hashtag that gained popularity on Twitter after the media reported the shooting of Michael Brown with a photograph of Brown with two of his fingers extended. Critics of the photo say his hand gesture suggests gang affiliation. Despite the gesture in the photo, most likely just a colloquial “peace sign,” the photo spurred upset that lead to the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown movement. To participate in this hashtag, one must juxtapose two images of themselves. One of which the media would most likely use to portray “thuggish” or criminal qualities and one of which the individual feels they should really be portrayed.

Displayed below, a closer look at the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag demonstrates its subversive nature.

As seen above, these tweets consist of two photos, along with text that serves as a caption. As Roland Barthes has written, the caption anchors the meaning of a photograph. This is important in reading these tweets, because the text gives us the context in which to read the photos: the context being, the representation of black Americans in everyday life. Additionally, the photos carry complex meaning and can be read on various levels.

Plainly, what each of the photos exhibit are two representations of the same black male. One representation holds tropes that connote black criminality and the other representation is that of a “successful citizen.” This hashtag is remarkably poignant in that it embodies a concept by W.EB. DuBois, double consciousness. Double consciousness is a concept derived from the everyday strife of black Americans in which black Americans have a certain duality being both black and American. To have double consciousness is to have an awareness of how you are seen through a racial lens as well as how you see yourself apart from such lens. DuBois writes,

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

The confliction of being both American and black is inherent to living in a society in which races are polarized and is an unfortunate reality. This racialization comes from a long history of negative stereotyping in which black Americans have been represented as criminals across medias. However, as demonstrated with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, the consciousness of representation can be used as a tool to combat the commoditization of race.

Stereotypes like the young black man as a “thug” is a commoditized archetype that capitalizes on a system in which many black Americans are set up better for failure than for success. Instead of completely marginalizing the race, archetypes like the “thug” have made money: in popular culture as well in systemic policy. For instance, because black men have been bracketed as criminals, it is they who will be most targeted. This is profitable for police officers and prisons alike, of which must meet quotas. The concept of the “thug” is a spectacle in it of itself. The image of young black males is circulated through media in this negative light and is ultimately used for capital gain; drawing upon a historic legacy of stereotypes of young men of color as criminals, that in turn justify racialized policies in political, social, and economic structures.

The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag speaks volumes because it suggests that we are not all merely pawns in the spectacle DeBord describes to us, but are actually conscious of its perpetuation and its control. But the hashtag is also more than self and social awareness. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown is an example of the play that social media affords, and in particular the hashtag.

The common use of the hashtag is for organizing topics and groups. This is the basic concept of which the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag was created. However, this hashtag was used widely on many social media platforms, but is most commonly used on Twitter. This is of interest, because Twitter was not built specifically for photo sharing. To add the photo to the tweet is new compared to the typical Twitter usage. This is a representation of the capability to strategize the governing form. In “Walking in the City” Michel DeCerteau discusses that a society has the potential to manipulate spatial organizations no matter how panoptic because individuals use space as desired, no matter how constricting. This rings true in the virtual world as well. A Twitter user has the capacity to search for topics, users, or phrases, aside from their exclusive timeline of tweets from only those they follow. This is like walking in the city creating desire lines. Just as well, the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag is the manipulation of the space in the form of play. To “strategize”, or navigate as I have been calling it, is an answer to the propagation of the spectacle. The space for newness and play on the platforms of social media beyond their structures is crucial for such platforms to mobilize any sort of social change.

Another hashtag among many that became visible the night of the Grand Jury decision to indict Officer Darren Wilson is #BlackLivesMatter. It began before the death of Michael Brown, but became extremely visible after the lack of indictment. #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter rang loudly in the Twittersphere at a moment in which suddenly everyone had a voice on the matter. Before the jury’s decision, the hashtags were predominately used by those who actively use their political voice, but on November 24th 2014 it seemed everyone on social media, politically inclined or otherwise, had a say. It seems as though the finalized decision not to indict Wilson convinced the masses of the reality and the severity of the situation.

Finally, #WeCantBreathe. This hashtag was inspired by the last words of Eric Garner which can be heard in a video that was captured as Garner was in a chokehold by a police officer in Staten Island, New York, July of 2014. This fatality occurred a month before the shooting of Michael Brown but did not receive the media attention (social, print, or television alike) that the Ferguson case did until the verdict was decided just weeks after the Brown case. In the uproar amongst the Ferguson verdict, the Garner trial was sustenance to the fire. “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s last words then became the message of the protests both online and off. The hashtag #WeCantBreathe is a representative of the solidarity that can be held within a single tweet.

Amongst the outpour of the many hashtags used online in protest to racial profiling, discrimination, and social injustice, there is something incredibly poignant and revealing about the transition between the hashtag that started it all and the hashtag that hoped to end it. From #HandsUpDontShoot, a plea of surrender, to #WeCantBreathe, a cry and a dying last breath, in just five months, the flaws and injustice of the United States judicial system were extracted and exerted into the public sphere. The injustice that has stemmed from the beginning of the United States’ legal system and perpetuated by the spectacle has been kept in the dark, truly known only by those who have experienced it. In five months, over 200 years of injustice has been made visible. 
 Though it seems unquestionable these hashtags contain momentum, their effectiveness does come into question. It seems as though whether you are a Twitter user or not, if you are a participant on any form of social media or just an Internet user, you are aware of the massive conversation these hashtags have brought to the forefront. Conversely, is that all these hashtags are? Conversation? “Talk is cheap” as the saying goes, and the critique of hashtag resides precisely in that line of thinking.

A popular dispute during the Ferguson, and then Eric Garner, protests is the question of whether social media has been the catalyst of the awareness raising and uprising of people protesting in the streets. Would such protests have occurred without social media? Would they have been as massive and have occurred nation wide? The answers to these questions may never be answered, however at first glance it seems the answer is no. However, online activism did not just begin in 2014 and certainly racially charged police brutality has neither just begun, therefore the fact that these movements gained so much popularity points to a shift in the public sphere in which matters of race are becoming more crucial. So the question then becomes, why Ferguson?

The shooting of Michael Brown, though covered by national media, was at first mostly a local story. Ferguson’s citizens took to the streets, as many communities have done in the past and will continue to do. But it was not until two journalists from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, who were in Ferguson at the time, got arrested for “trespassing” did many major media outlets cover the story with a more impassioned vigor and until the tweeting went into full force. There are two aspects to this anecdote about the journalists that are important in seeing this movement of hashtags as subversion of the spectacle.

The first is that mass media took a greater interest in Ferguson once the journalists were arrested. Here, one can easily take a stance that says however seemingly grassroots hashtags are, they are only created by the spectacle itself. There have been many hashtags, or “campaigns” rather, that create a façade of people-for-people but are in actuality corporate directives. These are cases of the spectacle itself. For example, Dove soap has a #RealBeauty campaign that advocates for women to find their natural beauty and to say no to beauty norms. Ironically, this example is the spectacle asking its consumers to combat the spectacle, but only by perpetuating it since the use of this hashtag would stand as a corporate advertisement. Additionally, many hashtags are only made popular due to celebrity endorsement (who are also spectacle propellers). The #HeForShe campaign for example was made popular in only three days, but only from the participation by male celebrity figures such as Matt Damon and President Obama. In these cases, hashtags are not subverting the spectacle but instead perpetuating it, for they merely promote the producers of the spectacle themselves; policy makers and celebrities being spectacle producers. The hashtags that were created after the shooting of Michael Brown could be said to only have gained force because of the spectacle (the mass media coverage).

However, the second aspect is that the journalists went to Twitter first. The two journalists posted photos and tweets with play-by-play descriptions of what was happening to them. The two, both journalists for major papers have large followings on Twitter, and so it comes as little surprise that the hashtag mottos blew up from then on out. Despite working for corporations themselves, their stories were yet unscathed from the mediation of corporate information sharing. Their tweets were charged, certainly very different from professional reporting. For example, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post tweeted, “Apparently, in America, in 2014, police can manhandle you, take you into custody, put you in cell & then open the door like it didn’t happen.” This is consumer created content as opposed to corporate. Though there is room to say that these hashtags only exist because of mass media, the content in the majority of tweets from the public surrounding the Ferguson shooting say otherwise due to the exuberant amount of personal turmoil and testimony. This type of personal dialogue in the public sphere acts in an insurgent way in the space of Twitter, for it destabilizes a spectacle that declares the United States justice system is nondiscriminatory.

This is all to say, social media is not independent from other medias: it is also a part of the spectacle. However, the hashtag can also be used as a tool that can destabilize, intervene, or contradict the spectacle. The hashtag promotes dialogue and play, two very important facets in navigating the spectacle.

If then, the hashtag can be a successful tool in such a way, can we only determine its ultimate efficiency based on its reach? For the public sphere does not end at the edge of Twitter. Surely anyone who has an email address can create a Twitter account. However, here we are mainly speaking of the first world. Still in its infancy, social media is not as global or accessible as it seems. Even in the United States, not everyone has access to computers, phones, or public spaces where the Internet can be used, neither does everyone with Internet access use Twitter. This is particularly an issue in the instances of these hashtags that revolve around race and equality. If the information shared in the virtual world, ends in the virtual world, and is not spread otherwise, is it not as “for the people by the people” as we would like to imagine?

Another issue regarding the effectiveness of the hashtag is “what is it going to do?” The hashtags regarding aggressive policing are big issues. Unfortunately, these issues are intertwined amongst deep-rooted power struggles, a system that perpetuates violence and crime, a predominately white entertainment industry, and many other aspects of our society (all elements of the “immune” spectacle) that cannot be solved instantaneously. Yet, I’d like to suggest that these hashtags have done their job. Frances Fox Piven writes, “Movements that may appear to us in retrospect as a unified set of events are, in fact, irregular and scattered. Only afterwards do we see the underlying common institutional causes and movement passions that mark these events so we can name them…” Whereas the #Ferguson movements may have sparked and then faded, together each of the hashtags come together to portray a lump sum of what our society is talking about, of which is a discussion that still continues.

Unquestionably, these hashtags have brought awareness and people to the streets, but additionally, in it of themselves they constitute a new space for activism. If activism is the campaigning to bring about social change, then the hashtag is just that. And it seems other social networking platforms are recognizing this capacity and following suit accordingly. Only recently, Facebook launched a livefeed entitled “Near the Scene” that provides geo-tagged videos from users of on the streets protesting when searching for a hashtag. Clearly these hashtags have been the push for new ways of engaging with social media, and new features like this are being created just like the hashtag on Twitter was created: based on what their users are posting. We the people create the content and we the people are creating the tools of navigation.

To top it off, this upsurge of hashtag activism is especially of interest in discussing the navigation of the spectacle surrounding the Ferguson topics. Because we are all a part of the spectacle and act accordingly, as DeBord believes, the social relationship between people that is mediated by images is a largely exclusive one. However consuming the spectacle is for all people, a feeling of separation may occur when one is expected to buy, look like, or to act a certain way. This creates disparities for people of color when a society’s medias predominately targets, caters, and sways towards whiteness. In this series of events regarding aggressive policing, it is those who are marginalized that can demonstrate to the publics a new path. It is the communities of color who can help everyone navigate the spectacle because they are on the outside looking in.

With dialogue and play, the hashtag on Twitter is an important tool that can negotiate the encompassing spectacle of mass media that has since been immune from human interaction. Social media is a new type of media in which its users can create the content. With the abundance of users, there is so much content, it is a luxury that the haghtag can be used to organize and sort. When any topics or phrases can be easily found, the tweets on the topics are easily visible. Suddenly, we have a pool of voices, perhaps for or against the topic, but nonetheless a space of solidarity takes shape. Here we have solidarity that seems so important, to create a space for dissent and a space for destabilizing norms. Solidarity is where those can find an instance of solace, yet the hashtags that have amounted to great masses of solidarity are more than a place of comfort. They are spaces in which contestation and struggle can be seen and collected. The collection of tweets within a hashtag that speak for the same message are infiltrators, manipulators, and negotiators of the spectacle. As a mass and one hyperlink click away, they are the opposite to the mass media that had previously been incapable of dialogue. Solidarity for communities of color means the insiders have become aware of the outsiders struggle. Solidarity is what destabilizes the spectacle.