Summary of “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States” by Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa

Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa in “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States” discuss and explore the social, political, and technological phenomenon of hashtag activism. One of the main arguments they illustrate is that social media, specifically Twitter hashtags, can be implemented as an influential tool that can help propel activism and movements.

Social media is an interactive virtual technology where individuals can post, share, and reply to others. According to the article, when it was released in 2015, social media was prevalent, with over 56% of the US population owning video-enabled smartphones (Bonilla and Rosa 2015, 5). As the use of technology and social media increases and becomes more ubiquitous, anthropologists inquire whether hashtags should or should not be analyzed in ethnography. Bonilla and Rosa indicate that hashtag ethnography has potential, but anthropologists should be aware of its issues. For example, they discuss the protests and demonstrations that were triggered after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson (Bonilla and Rosa 2015, 4). Following this, there was an upsurge in posts and hashtags on Twitter, with over 3.6 million posts reflecting Brown’s death, and over eight million posts with #Ferguson (Bonilla and Rosa 2015, 5). With such a myriad amount of posts and hashtags, Bonilla and Rosa discuss their interest and concerns for the analysis of social media by anthropologists. They illustrate their interest that with Twitter, people can quickly retrieve a lot of information that is constantly updated as users post and utilize hashtags to help file and arrange specific information. However, they note their concerns that anthropologists must examine the variations in perspectives, and contexts of posts, including why and for whom it was posted. They also introduce the hashtag filtering effect that can dilute information and perspectives as users receive a specific perspective from people in their social network.

Some consider hashtag activism as a poor substitute for real activism as it might not provide a permanent impact. However, even though hashtag activism is digital it still provides a sense of unity and participation as people connect. In the article, hashtags like #HandsUpDontShoot, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, and #NoAngel also created connections and movements as they portrayed the misrepresentation of African Americans in mainstream media. Similarly, “How a Hashtag Defined a Movement” depicts the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement explaining that with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, they wanted to create a space to collaborate and impart messages (Schmidt Gordon). In this article, Bonilla and Rosa help us understand that language isn’t only a confronted interaction, it can be communicated through posts and hashtags on social media, a space to spread information and reflect. They note that this new form of language should be analyzed by anthropologists, but anthropologists should be aware of factors like perspectives. These hashtags were overall powerful socially, politically, and technologically. It provided a public communications platform that spread awareness, where anyone can obtain quickly updated information and news, publicize their notions, and join together in solidarity.

Bonilla, Yarimar, and Rosa Jonathan. 2015. “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States.” American Ethnologist 42 (1): 4-17.

Schmidt Gordon, Sabrina, director. “How a Hashtag Defined a Movement.Youtube, uploaded by Emerging US, 26 Sept. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8-KZ0RIN3w&feature=youtu.be. 

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