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.

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