This month’s post, the third in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Michael Trice (MIT). In his post, Michael implores us to move away from online targeting as a form of activism related to the elections, and he discusses the relationships among identity, online presence, social media activism, and local activism. In doing so, Michael argues for activism to focus on outcomes.
In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.
Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark
Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Online Targeting for Activism
By Michael Trice
Social media is always also personal media.
We make an account. Assign it an identity or pseudo-identity. Generate content. Yet, the content is never far from the identity. When my content is retweeted, I’m retweeted. When I receive a like on Facebook, my picture is right by the post. Personal identity (real or anonymous) exists in the structural foundation of social media. This personal foundation is what makes online targeting so effective. Retweeting a bad take is tied to the person expressing that take. That person’s account becomes the focus of the replies and attention, not the content of the post. Moreover, nothing spreads a message on social media like engaging a popular account—or being called out by a popular account. The importance of celebrity in spreading messages online is why so many accounts rush to be the first critical or supportive reply to every tweet from President Trump. Successfully targeting the President is rich with reward for both successful praise and successful attacks.
But the President isn’t just a target on social media; he excels in political targeting himself. In fact, the ability of the politically powerful to effectively use social media targeting as means of oppression has replaced a lot of optimism around social media activism (Tufekci, 2017).
Online targeting by politicians and their supporters has become a central theme in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The President’s regular targeting of political foes has already ratcheted up to include not only members of Congress and Democratic primary candidates, but even going so far as to openly accuse the foreperson in a trial against of one his oldest political allies of bias. And while the Democratic candidates have not descended to the President’s level, we have seen the supporters of multiple Democratic contenders rely on online targeting. By way of example, supporters of both Yang and Sanders managed to trend #FireChuckTodd over completely different episodes of Meet the Press in the past three months. While neither activity was openly sanctioned by either candidate, existing networks of supporters on Twitter and in subreddits spread and championed both hashtags, including support for media personalities sympathetic to the candidates. And these are far from the only examples of online targeting that supporters of various candidates have used online. Surrogates and supporters of candidates have learned that what DeVoss and Ridolfo (2009) call rhetorical velocity (or the fastest way the re appropriate content to new a space) means targeting individuals and identities in order to spread support online.
Part of what separates the GOP and Democratic candidates for president is that no Democratic campaign has made the President’s direct-style targeting and aggression a hallmark of their official campaigns—a wall continues to exist between the campaigns and the online supporters and friendly pundits (such as Chapo Trap House) who engage in online targeting. That said, supporters of the Democratic candidates have engaged in significant targeting online to serve indirectly the needs of the campaign. For example, the online targeting of Chuck Todd by Yang supporters served as a means to raise donations and protest exclusion from news coverage. Sanders supporters targeted Todd for an on-air quote of pundit Jonathan V. Last, who had referred to a segment of Sanders supporters as Brown Shirts in an article for The Bulwark. What is notable here is that online targeting of a person, Chuck Todd, stood in for either fundraising or protesting the quote of another, far less well-known, author. In the realm of social media, #FireChuckTodd is a complicated signifier for outcomes that rely on the attention drawn by a specific celebrity target.
Yet, the use of targeting for simple in-group versus out-group dynamics with no other strategic outcome is social media activism at its most dangerous—and it’s a method that easily fits the technical design of social media. The application of targeting in social media is inseparable from its form and function at a technical and social level. You like an account’s post or retweet an account—never just a piece of content. You reply to an account. Social media networks center around celebrity and microcelebrity. Thus, out-grouping Chuck Todd easily becomes a fundraiser for Yang supporters or serves as a way to protest the Brown Shirt label of a far less famous conservative writer for Sanders supporters.
The question then becomes not whether we target, but how we target, when we target, and why we target. Civility isn’t what matters so much as accountability. Activism calls for incivility at times, but incivility with purpose, ideally higher purpose. Yet social media, personal media, requires targeting but asks little of us in understanding how or why we target.
Further, it rarely asks us to be held accountable as we can act anonymously, as part of a much larger network, and as we opt not to make the vital move to public, physical protest. In many ways, we remain as uncritical about our targeting as the first social media mob in 2008.
At the South by Southwest (SXSW) tech conference in 2008, journalist Sarah Lacy interviewed Mark Zuckerberg. The interview had all the characteristics one might expect from a SXSW keynote interview: casual, non-threatening, bordering on interesting but well short of insightful. What was insightful was a rare opportunity to see the infamously private Zuckerberg handled live questions in public. It also provided our first good look at what social media activism would become due to a fledgling app barely in its second year of availability: Twitter.
Personal from the Start
Back in 2007, Twitter made its name at SXSW. By 2008, it was already a backchannel darling of the conference. Attendees could discuss panels live without disrupting the presenters. It would be a user experience Twitter would build upon to make it a go-to app for conferences, live events on television, and key cultural moments. But even in year one of Twitter, something far less benign lurked within the backchannel. And, it proved from the start that what happens on Twitter manifests offline as well.
Something during the interview between Lacy and Zuckerberg went wrong for the crowd. Emboldened by a chorus of tweets about how Lacy was talking too much, flirting too much, and asking the wrong questions, the crowd grew restless—and noisy. People heckled and tried to interrupt the session. The heckling drew cheers and applause from a crowd that had formed a firmed consensus on Twitter that Lacy was the problem, much to the confusion and frustration of those on stage who had never experienced anything like this type of audience revolt before.
It went personal. A crowd had formed a strong anti-establishment view and targeted the female journalist as the source of their consternation. This personal targeting, and the targeting of the media and women in particular, would come to define Twitter. In that first major moment for the app—before hashtags, RTs, faves, and moments were even functions—Twitter had defined its purpose and key genre: not the conversational backchannel, but personal targeting as means of organized dissent and activism.
Again, this post isn’t about civility. Civility as a rhetorical device has a time and place, as does incivility. No, the point I wish to make is that the social application of networked activism goes hand in hand with technical constraints and functionality. Constraints and functionality that activism must more critically engage with and understand. We need more precision in how we enact civility and incivility online, and we need to question to what extent social media is enacting us. Are we simply that SXSW crowd experiencing something new while lashing out uncritically at the more vulnerable target in front of us? Or, do we look at the technology and social systems in front of us before we choose a target and a course of action?
To this day, Twitter runs on personal celebrity. When Zeynup Tufekci (2013) initially articulated the power of Twitter as a form of activism in The Arab Spring, she noted the role of microcelebrity. For Tufekci, social media activism required attention that was reliant upon interconnected pathways to share organizational and operational knowledge. However, those pathways needed semi-centralized shared hubs to maximize organizational knowledge flow. Tufekci called the larger intersections that would emerge microcelebrities. Like bullhorns in a crowded protest, these microcelebrities could help communicate the key points and keep the protest network focused, energized, and directed. Since Tufekci, others have noted how microcelebrity and targeting works across social media, including YouTube (Lewis, 2020) and GitHub (Trice, 2015). But back in 2013, microcelebrity would shape the application of martyrdom and accountability with the birth of Black Lives Matter.
The Black Lives Matter movement serves perhaps as the most notable American incarnation of the social media driven protest movements that began with Occupy Wall Street and included various versions of The Arab Spring. Formed after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin that would precede the controversial killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter became a global movement that is perhaps remembered more for its power to occupy the real, physical public squares of major cities where direct political action was needed rather than its ability to trend on Twitter. In fact, the formation of chapters across the United States and Canada as well as a clear articulation of values and mission makes BLM less resemble a modern social media collective and more a traditional 20th century model of an organization of local communities that utilizes social media as one of many communication channels. Its social media beginnings notwithstanding, BLM’s public demonstrations, municipal organization, and clearly stated values are a clear lesson for what responsible and accountable social media activism can be. It serves as a strong counterpoint to some of the movements that would follow in 2014 and beyond.
2014 and the Ascendance of Organized Targeting
While I often start discussions of organized online targeting with GamerGate in 2014, that year also offers an intriguing counterexample of targeting: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. As a quick reminder, in July 2014 the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge became a viral sensation that would raise more than $115,000,000 for Lou Gehrig’s disease research/awareness between July and August of that year. Started by Pete Frates, the challenge rose to popularity on the Today Show, but its impact would arise from 17 million people who participated online. Those participants would drive 2.5 million donations in the United States. The scale of impact and its mechanism matter. The Ice Bucket Challenge had clear rules: a person videos themselves being dunked over the head with a bucket of icy water. After the dunking, the person calls out additional people to perform the challenge next.
The challenge was social media gold for a variety of reasons. First, it employed a dual targeting mechanism. The person dunked on became central target, offering a bit of comedy and suffering in the video for viewers. Secondly, the callouts offered another round of targeting. Who would rise to the challenge or face (good-natured) public shame? The celebrity angle also played a huge role—and taught a vital lesson about online virality. While Tufecki had noted that activist networks created microcelebrities as a means to circulate information across larger networks, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge proved that traditional celebrity presence on social media could exponentially amplify messaging and activism beyond that of microcelebrities. The $115m in donations speaks for itself in many ways, and had the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge been the social media story of 2014, our view of targeting and activism would be quite different than it has become.
Yet, in August 2014 as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was winding down, GamerGate was ramping up, emerging quickly and using the same core mechanics of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in drastically different ways and to far more perverse ends. The story of GamerGate has been told many times. For quick reference, a group of 4chan users propagated salacious rumors about an independent game developer across Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter as a means to attack feminism, the media, and cultural criticism. They did so by targeting very specific women with tactics that promoted anonymous harassment from online networks formed into mobs. The importance of celebrity and targeting to the success of GamerGate cannot be understated. GamerGate was simply another minor online tussle until actor Adam Baldwin tweeted about a YouTube video he had watched, dubbing the “controversy” discussed as GamerGate. Breitbart and other fringe media would soon pick up the story, launching investigations into the targets of GamerGate. Extremists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich would make names for themselves via the investigations of GamerGate’s victims, generating sufficient infamy and following to become key online players during the 2016 election due to their effective use of targeting to build online networks. Yiannopoulos rose to fame in GamerGate by investigating and calling out victims of abuse. His early articles challenging whether police and FBI reports even existed for those who had been threatened. They did, of course. But, Yiannopoulos would quickly build a career of creating controversy by intimidating the vulnerable and attacking the marginalized, primarily by social media until he was banned.
2016 can be seen as an evolution of the GamerGate playbook. In fact, many of the microcelebrities of GamerGate, like Yianoppolis and Cernovich, were central to the troll and meme campaigns of the 2016 election. But, most importantly, 2016 saw the social media effectiveness of future president, Donald J. Trump. Then-candidate Trump’s online presence fit the era perfectly. Prone to personal attacks and with an array of celebrity alliances and feuds, the persona and temperament that Trump had cultivated since the 1980s fit perfectly into the mechanisms of online activism in 2016. What Trump added to this mix were his rallies, which incorporated the cruel online targeting of digital aggression but played out live to a community and often covered by cable news. These rallies offered a public, physical manifestation of the digitally aggressive targeting that previous forms of online activism had lacked. Even more importantly, it made online targeting TV-ready, generating a much, much larger audience.
My goal in reviewing the history of targeting on social media is three-fold. First, we must recognize that the social and technical systems behind targeting are not so new, and the case studies for evaluating these issues now date back decades with many commonalities. Second, it’s important to understand that targeting comes with real harm. Whitney Phillips (2015) offered a masterful deconstruction of for the lulz culture in “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” by connecting it directly to not only irony but to classical rhetorical practices that enact power while also serving to persuade. Understanding what power is enacted and what the unspoken goals of persuasion might be in online targeting is key. Finally, I want to demonstrate that while targeting is as old as social media, we are seeing an escalation in its application and its role in politics. Millions of dollars can be raised via online targeting whether those millions are raised for ALS research, political campaigns, or the career podcasters.
The number one question I always get after a talk is, “this is useful analysis and depressing, but what can we do?” I want to end on where we can start.
First, we need more self-targeting. As I said earlier, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge offered us a different path forward. We could have built activism around targeting ourselves, exposing our humanity and humility first and foremost. Certainly, some of this activism still exists, but we need more. Again, Black Lives Matter offers the ideal example of being accountable through stated values, physical protest, and geographic community-based chapters. They’ve built local chapters that organize the community directly and address specific local problems created by global challenges. All activism needs more of this structure that allows local-global justice to emerge. And this idea isn’t new nor mine. Haas and Eble (2018) presented us with this challenge in all areas of technical communication justice when they stated—buildings off of Rude’s reminder that the work of technical communication can also serve the oppressor—that “As public intellectuals, knowledge workers, and advocates for users, technical communicators have a responsibility to advocate for equity in local and global networks of scientific, technical, and professional communication”.
We need to apply the same concern for balancing local and global justice to making social media activism into local activism. In enacting just activism and politics, we must actively, vocally, and wholeheartedly resist becoming the oppressor.
Second, we need more of a focus on content. Perhaps it is time for fewer retweets of other accounts and more quoting of comments. Powerful ideas need to be shared and challenged. Conspiracy and hate need to be ostracized. But, fame and infamy too often become the primary consequence of online communication. Social media incentivizes the ridiculous because the ridiculous is novel, and few things make identity more valuable online than novelty, especially novel cruelty.
Third, we need responsible celebrities. Yeah, I’m being exceptionally pie-in-the-sky here. Yet, celebrity accounts need to understand the role they play in both spreading rumor and targeting individuals. They must understand that the bullhorns they use drive activism, harassment, and outcomes.
Finally, activism matters in its outcomes. Fundraising and occupying the public square remain the primary points of impact, especially for online activism. Without the accountability and power of occupying the public square, online activism is too easily dismissed (often rightly so) as harassment or slacktivism. Without a physical presence and visible identity, it’s too easy for online targeting to exist solely as trolling—or something worse.
Michael Trice is a lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication at MIT. His research has covered a variety of community media, including LocalWiki, Bristol’s Knowle West Media Centre, and various forms of online activism. His volunteer work has included working with survivors of domestic abuse, counseling of parolees, and Photo Voice projects for foster kids.
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