Tuesday 18 September 2018

What do hashtags mean?

Anyone who uses social media is probably aware of the ubiquitous hashtag. What started as a simple way to tag topics on internet chat rooms was then adopted by Twitter, and then spread to many other platforms, including Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. The way that the hashtag is used has changed a lot in that time, evolving from a tag into a way of deliberately communicating stances and ideas.

Barbara De Cock and Andrea Pizarro Pedraza found this to be the case when investigating the use of the #jesuis hashtag (‘I am’). You may recall that this hashtag came out of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. People on Twitter used the hashtag #jesuischarlie to express their support and solidarity with the victims after the incident. De Cock and Pizarro Pedraza wanted to investigate the phenomenon further, to see how the #jesuis hashtag construction changed its meaning in different contexts. To do this, they manually observed and monitored the #jesuis hashtag over the course of a year, to better understand how it was being employed. They then developed a script which gathered a sample of tweets using the #jesuis construction between March and April 2016.

They found 407 different constructions, with four broad different uses: one set referring specifically to terrorist attacks; one set to other disasters involving loss of life; one set to other sad news stories; and one set which did not express solidarity in the face of tragedy, but instead were critical or mocking of the whole concept. These were most often used in conjunction with proper nouns, such as Charlie, Belge, ‘Belgium’, or Panama, but occasionally with other kinds of nouns, such as in #jesuischien, ‘I am dog’ , after the death of a police dog during a raid on a flat occupied in Belgium that was occupied by terrorists.

While the original hashtag expressed solidarity with the loss of human life, De Kock and Pizarro Pedraza noticed a broadening of its use through the four categories. For example, the #jesuisEcuador hashtag was for a natural disaster, as opposed to a terrorist attack, but was still employed to express solidarity with a loss of life. The use of the hashtag changed further still regarding other causes; a French spelling reform inspired a hashtag #jesuiscirconflexe, or ‘I am circumflex’, the diacritic used above certain French letters such as ê. While there is nothing tragic about a change of spelling, the hashtag was still being employed as a way of expressing solidarity with those who were unhappy about the proposed change. This also occurred with events which concerned free speech, something that Charlie Hebdo was seen to represent for a lot of sympathisers; the hashtag #jesuisBoehmermann was not used to express solidarity with someone that had died, but rather with a comedian who was being charged by the Turkish president for criticising him in a stand-up routine.

As with many things that are shown to align with a stance, the hashtag has been used to criticise or show disalignment as well, often by using it ironically. For example, Charlie Hebdo themselves employed the hashtag when the Panama papers news broke: when multiple politicians were found to be hiding money to avoid tax. The #jesuisPanama tag was ironic, feigning solidarity with a class of privileged people to highlight their unethical behaviour. The research showed, then, that the hashtag was being used in a variety of ways.

The authors briefly mention the English #I am tag too, pointing to the use of #I am Leicester to express proud support after the unexpected win by the Leicester football team in the 216 Premier League competition So next time you are on any social media platform, and you see the #jesuis tag or the #I am tag, you could have a think about what kind of solidarity the author is trying to show, if any.

De Cock, B., & Pizarro Pedraza, A. (2018). From expressing solidarity to mocking on Twitter: Pragmatic functions of hashtags starting with #jesuis across languages. Language in Society 47(2):1-21.

This summary was written by Marina Merryweather


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