Featured image by Ken Varnum on Flickr.
How much impact can one character have? That was the topic of discussion at the”#Movements: When a Hashtag Breaks the News” panel at SXSW Interactive 2016. The room was packed to hear what three up-and-coming heavy hitters had to say about the world’s second favorite punctuation mark, the hashtag.
The panel featured Jean Ellen Cowgill, president of Atlantic Media Strategies; Katerina Eva Matsa, research associate of Pew Research Center; and Shadi Rahimi, deputy producer of AL Jazeera’s AJ+. They took turns sharing in depth analysis and hard-earned perspective working out of locations such as Egypt during the Arab Spring or tackling topics such as America’s struggle against ISIS. Moderator Jade Floyd, director of communications for The Case Foundation, asked sharp and insightful questions to draw out their stories and their insights.
— Jade Floyd (@JadeFloydDC) March 12, 2016
Top takeaways revolved around the purpose of hashtags in conveying a message and as a gathering point for organizers to take real action, staying ethical as journalists in a fast paced digital world, and from platform evolution to choosing a headline. In the end, it all comes back to the user’s needs.
The role of social media in political engagement
The panelists observed that social media is increasing social engagement. Rahimi said she sees more people being “civic minded.”
“People from outside the system can look at it from the outside and see what’s happening,” Rahimi noted. She pointed to Al-Jazeera’s tactics of fact checking, satire and poking fun at the system as their way to contribute to accountability.
The panelists agreed that the idea of checks and balances remains key to our political system. New tools like StoryPoll, which allow fact checking in near-real time, were making it easier.
They viewed the development of StoryPoll and the evolution of Twitter’s search capabilities as examples of platforms evolving to catch up to user behavior.
The context of what you offer
Matsa neatly broke down top uses of social media with data gleaned from Pew research. “Fifty-nine percent of Twitter users are there for breaking news,” she said. “People on Facebook accidentally consume news while they’re there for other things.”
While Pew’s vast resources of research offer impressive amounts of information to interpret for insights, Cowgill drove home impressive points about the value of context.
“Breaking new is a commodity,” she said, crediting context with bringing the real value. She revealed that up to 50 percent of the traffic coming to The Atlantic’s website goes to articles not written in the current month. “It’s changed the way a media organization thinks about content. Before it was a bundle… now, we can regularly resurface content when it’s relevant.”
When curation and public interest diverge
“Public interest can still remain high, but the media just doesn’t keep coverage,” Matsa said. She pointed to the high personal interest of people in the aftermath of the BP oil spill because of the effect on the local economy, and how mainstream media coverage moved on.
In terms of choosing what makes headlines and what users see, Cowgill reminded the audience that Twitter has long struggled with content curation. Their recent changes try to make it easier for users to find relevant information and not miss out.
“Facebook will choose for you and you don’t know what you’re missing. But we still need curation,” she added, acknowledging the Catch-22.
The most powerful hashtag?
The panelists generally agreed that the power of hashtags go beyond simple sorting of information and can make a point by their very word choice.
“BlackLivesMatter was never just a hashtag,” Rahimi said, holding up #BlackLivesMatter as the best example with the most staying power. She says she can’t see the movement ending anytime soon.