New Lesson Plan: Frame Alignment Operations in Political Testimony

I’m really excited today to roll out my second lesson plan for the political transparency website Open Maine Politics. OpenMEPolitics.com has been mashing together census, social media, newspaper and legislative data for some time now, and now it’s time for me to turn my attention to education. As a professor of social science, I have a vision of political data as a source for learning about issues of representation, gender, framing, and social network formation — but up to now it’s all been in my own head. Sharing lesson plans for undergraduate university students (and upper-level high school students) is a labor of love.

So, I’m glad to introduce Lesson Plan Two: Frame Alignment Operations in Political Testimony, complete with:

  • References to Erving Goffman’s and David Snow’s theoretical work on frames and frame alignment!
  • Examples drawing from obscenity laws and Lenny Bruce on trial!
  • Primary Source Documents for students to find frames: testimony on bills before the Maine State Legislature!
  • An Interactive Padlet where students can post their findings!

Oh, what fun. Give it a whirl, and if you like the gist of it, please feel free to use the lesson plan in your own work with students (a nice link for attribution is all I need.)

Before #MillionsMarchNYC, a Protest Movement Takes to Facebook and Twitter

December 12 2014 is the day before the Millions March in New York City, an organized reaction to the death of unarmed black men at the hands of the police and more broadly to structural forms of racial discrimination. Tomorrow, a variety of professional journalists will hopefully describe the messages and activities of the protest and reactions to this protest. Today, we can study the run-up to the Millions March by watching people talk about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook, the social media website that most people know best, lets users create personal accounts and pages that they control. Administrators of a page for a group or event can allow posts by others, but they can also purge them if they find the content disagreeable. For announcing activist events, Facebook is a top-down affair. If you want to know what movement organizers think of their protest event, look at their Facebook page. The following is a word cloud taken from administrative posts to the MillionsMarchNYC. Words are larger in this graphic if they occur more frequently:

A Wordle Word Cloud representing the frequency of various words used by organizers of the MillionsMarch in New York City on December 13 2014

We see a lot of practical information here, many references to locations and plans and logistical concerns.  This is what’s on the mind of movement leaders. What’s on the mind of the many thousands who are thinking about going?

Twitter is a social media website unlike Facebook, a website on which certain people own Pages and control those Pages’ content. On Twitter, subjects are organized by hashtags, which no one owns, no one can purge, and which therefore tends to be driven from the bottom up. A corporation with an image problem on Facebook can simply delete comments. Woe betide the corporation that offends on Twitter; it may entirely lose control of the public conversation about itself. If you want to know what people are thinking about a social movement inside and outside its leadership, look at Twitter.

To do just that, I’ve gathered up all Twitter posts (“Tweets”) using the hashtag #MillionsMarchNYC. Perhaps the simplest way of characterizing #MillionsMarchNYC tweets is over time; as of 12 Noon on December 12, here’s the trend in posting volume:

Graph: Volume of Twitter Posts using the hashtag #MillionsMarchNYC through December 12, 12 Noon Eastern Time

5,415 tweets using the newly-created hashtag were posted from November 26 to December 12, but the dates November 26-30 are not even included in this graph because the number of tweets during that initial period — just 6 — is miniscule in comparison to the conversation two weeks later. The trend clearly indicates a spike in use of the #MillionsMarchNYC hashtag, especially over the last few days before the march, but what ideas are associated with the spiking hashtag?

A useful feature of Twitter for answering that question is that a single post may contain more than one hashtag. The co-occurrence of #MillionsMarchNYC with other hashtags in the set of Nov. 30 – Dec. 12 tweets is indicated in the following frequency table:

hashtag frequency
#blacklivesmatter 2020
#icantbreathe 1360
#dec1314 1232
#nyc2palestine 832
#shutitdown 317
#ericgarner 316
#nyc 170
#stolenlives 168
#ferguson 136
#dayofanger 128
#thisstopstoday 116
#mikebrown 103
#justiceleaguenyc 91
#fromtherivertothesea 90
#washingtonsquarepark 72
#indictthesystem 71
#nyc2ferguson 66
#anonymous 62
#wecantbreathe 62
#expectus 61
#nojusticenopeace 55
#intersectionality 49
#palestine 47
#d1314 44
#12/13/14 35
#41986 35
#12/13/2014 35
#freepalestine 27
#millionsmarchsf 25
#akaigurley 22
#weekofoutrage 22
#justiceforericgarner 21
#directaction 19
#justiceformikebrown 19
#alllivesmatter 18
#jailsupport 18
#millionsmarch 17
#handsupdontshoot 16
#equalrights4all 15
#humanrightsday 15
#michaelbrown 15
#opbelgium 14
#santacon 14
#ftp 12
#icantbreath 12
#nycprotest 12
#dayofresistance 11
#dec1213 11
#love 10
#millionsmarchoakland 10
#nojusticenopeacenoracistpolice 10

In the interest of brevity, I’ve only included hashtags used at least ten times in this list.  Just three hashtags co-occur with #MillionsMarchNYC more than 1,000 times: #blacklivesmatter, #icantbreathe and #dec1314.  The tail of the distribution is long, however, with many hashtags occurring a handful of times or just once:

Frequency Distribution of Hashtag CoOccurrence with #MillionsMarchNYC from November 26 to December 12 2014

These many hashtags do not simply co-occur with #MillionsMarchNYC in these Twitter posts, however.  They also sometimes co-occur with one another, forming a co-occurrence network that tells us something about the symbolic landscape of the leadup to this protest.

Sometimes the truth is messy; the following is a graph showing the complete co-occurrence network of hashtags used with #MillionsMarchNYC (the #MillionsMarchNYC hashtag itself is removed from the network to highlight connections between other tags).  Every hashtag is a node in this network and every co-occurrence between two hashtags appears as a tie between the two nodes.  A tie is drawn more darkly if the co-occurrence happens more often, and a node is drawn in greater size if the hashtag it represents co-occurs with a greater number of other hashtags.  Nodes are given different colors to highlight sets of nodes that are more strongly connected with one another:

Complete Co-Occurrent Network of Hashtags in #MillionsMarchNYC Twitter Posts, Nov. 26 to Dec 12

That’s pretty hard to read, isn’t it?  A few tags are evident, but there are so many that they overlap with one another, blending into a blurry mess.  The culture of a social movement can actually be a lot like that, with a large number of voices saying so many things.  But if we start to filter out the least common hashtag utterances, clearer patterns begin to emerge.

Here’s the same Twitter hashtag network, but this time just showing the hashtags for which co-occurrences happen at least 5 times:

Network of Hashtags Co-Occurring at least 5 times in the #millionsmarchnyc network on Twitter, Nov. 26-Dec. 12 2014

Here’s the same Twitter hashtag network, but this time just showing the hashtags that co-occur with some other hashtag at least 20 times:

Network of Hashtags Co-Occurring at Least 20 Times in the #millionsmarchnyc hashtag on Twitter, Nov. 26 - Dec. 12 2014

And here’s the same Twitter hashtag network, but this time just showing the hashtags that co-occur with some other hashtag at least 100 times:

Cultural Network of Hashtag Co-occurrence in the Tweets mentioning #MillionsMarchNYC from November 26 to December 12 2014

If we filter for frequency, we lose detail, but at the same time the core of this movement’s culture becomes apparent.

Although I stand by my claim that this hashtag network indicates something about social movement culture, I should note a few important limitations.  First, the use of a hashtag involves a person deciding how they would like others to categorize their declarations.  These are professions of manifest culture; latent culture remains hidden.  Second, Twitter is not a form of social media that is used by everyone; according to the Pew Internet Project young adults, urbanites and African-Americans are disproportionately likely to post to Twitter.  However, it’s important to note that this is exactly the population that forms the strongest constituency for the Millions March in New York City. In addition, even with the limitations I’ve just noted, the conversation on Twitter is much more expansive and inclusive than the conversation within the movement’s core organizing cadre.  If we’re interested in distinctions between leaders and potential participants in a social movement, Twitter is a pretty good place to look.

Tool Postscript. For data gathering, I used the Twitter API.  For data processing, I used UCINET.  For data visualization, I used NodeXL.

A Hashtag Contested: Positive and Negative Social Media Reaction to the RSA-NSA Scandal

For some time now, public relations professionals have been worrying about “the bashtag problem.” Corporations may spend years cultivating positive conversations about their products over social media by developing and promoting a hashtag, only to see “their” hashtag fall into bashtag status when negative social media posts about that organization swamp the positive posts the organization seeks. Upset that public criticism may “ruin their brand,” some corporations have developed intimidation strategies to shut up and shut down isolated critics. But when large numbers of people join in the bashtagging, there’s no easy way to stop the dissent.

Through the fall of 2013, cybersecurity corporation RSA enjoyed positive references on its #RSAC hashtag on Twitter that it had developed to advertise its annual professional conference. In late December, however, it emerged that RSA’s data encryption products had a “back door” built into them that allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to break users’ encryption and (possibly without a warrant) snoop on private communications. On December 23, RSA issued a “non-denial” that seemed to implicitly acknowledge the arrangement. On that day, the positive flavor of the #RSAC hashtag changed.

After collecting the Twitter posts (or “tweets”) of the #RSAC hashtag using the Tweet Archivist Desktop, I’ve looked at the content of each one, determining whether its attitude toward RSA or the RSA Conference (RSAC) was positive, negative or neutral. The following graph tracks the volume of positivity, negativity and neutrality in the #RSAC hashtag from December 21 2013 through January 14 2014 (today):

Volume of Tweets Positive, Negative and Neutral Toward RSA in the #RSAC hashtag, 12/21/2013 to 1/14/2014

After an initial burst in which some prominent conference speakers canceled their participation in protest, it appeared that negative tweets regarding the RSA Conference might abate over the end-of-year holidays, and RSA began to use the channel to promote its conference again. Then, on January 7, RSA let out a teaser of a Tweet about the identity of its keynote speaker:

RSA Tweets on January 7 2014: Click here to find out who has been announced as #RSAC closing keynote speaker for 2014

That speaker is Stephen Colbert. With a celebrity drawn into the story, public attention returned, generating a new peak of critical #RSAC tweets that seems to be continuing. Some of those tweets are original, but the bulk of them constitute just a few messages, tweeted and retweeted over and over again over the #RSAC hashtag channel. Anti-surveillance social movement organization Fight For the Future has deployed a special web page

Fight for the Future asks its followers to send out automated tweets to overwhelm the #RSAC hashtag

… on which it asks its followers to share this message on Twitter: "Surveillance is no joke! Tell @StephenAtHome to cancel his keynote at this NSA tainted conference. http://cms.fightforthefuture.org/colbert/ #RSAC"

15.4% of all Tweets on the #RSAC hashtag from December 21 2013 to January 14 2014 are this one Tweet, posted over and over. Another Fight for the Future mass tweet, "Does Stephen Colbert secretly love the NSA? There's only one way to find out: http://t.co/SAVDMFup2I #RSAC," accounts for another 2.1% of #RSAC Tweets during the period.

Fight for the Future is part of a coalition of anti-surveillance groups who have announced a national day of protest on February 11. It’s called “The Day We Fight Back.” Where will the fight be? On the streets? Will there be a march? A picket? A rally in some square?

Apparently not. According to press materials, all activities will be taking place on the internet, where followers will be encouraged to share graphics on their blogs, to change their profile photos on Facebook, and to chant pre-written slogans over Twitter.

In American social movements, web banners are replacing cloth banners. Marches are giving way to orchestrated internet bashtagging. Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.