Hactivists, Unmixes, and the Rhetoric of Digital Culture

How does “hacktivist rhetoric” and digital culture impact the way people make choices politically? How does the language and culture of new media transform the way social movements communicate and act?

Elizabeth Losh, director of the Culture, Art, and Technology Program at UC San Diego, addressed these questions in her January 20 presentation “The Metadata is the Message: The Rhetoric of Social Movements Online.” Organized by the Rhetoric@Davis Research Cluster, Losh came to Davis for a set of events geared around her innovative research on media theory and digital rhetoric.

“It’s an exciting time to be a digital rhetorician,” Losh exclaimed, particularly for scholars investigating the “interface of the digital environment with the built environment.”

Losh studies media history and literacy, electronic/online art and activism, and the rhetoric of regulatory attempts to limit everyday digital practices. She has published numerous articles about digital literacy, educational videogames, political blogging, and authored the book Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009).

In her presentation, Losh explained that digital environments shaped by software and hardware are creating new conditions and possibilities for political and social expression. Losh tracked this process through three case studies: a YouTube video about the Arab Spring, the visualization of Instagram hashtags from Ukraine, and feminist twitter campaigns in India.

“They Don’t Care About Us” YouTube Unmix

In her first example, Losh presented images from the “They Don’t Care About Us”  YouTube remix video on the Arab Spring that incorporated Michael Jackson’s 1996 song of the same name. In the video, Jackson’s song is set against short video clips of significant international human rights events, disturbing images of war and police brutality, and international leaders. As part of her teaching, Losh asks students to “unmix” this video: a process of taking apart the montage of images and exploring the provenance and meaning of each more deeply.

“Unmixing” reveals how video footage created for one context is picked up and reincorporated into a different one. Losh described the complex problems and questions that arise from decontextualized images and video footage, including whether or not the subjects of the film consent for their image to be used, as part of a human rights discourse or otherwise.

“Despite the rhetorical power [of videos like “They Don’t Care About Us”], some victims can feel revictimized when their experiences recirculate in other human rights formats,” Losh explained.

Visualization of Instagram Hashtags from Ukraine

Losh explored the function of Instagram hashtags in political expression in the case of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, also referred to as Euromaidan (Ukrainian for “Euro Square”). Losh analyzed a dataset of hashtag metadata from Ukrainian Instagram users and noted that content labels (hashtags such as #euromaidan, #ukraine, or #kiev) work to mark the importance of a particular geographic location, even when those hashtags appear in unlikely places.

Comparing the “exceptional and the everyday,” Losh noted a large collection of Instagram “selfies” with the political content labels attached. Losh explained that the selfie is a “subjective category” that combines “embodied performances with technologies.” When an Instagram user marks the selfie with #euromaidan, Losh argues, the user collapses the “exceptional” event of the Ukrainian revolution with the “everyday” performance of daily life.

Feminist Twitter Campaign In India from Breakthrough and Blank Noise

In her final example, Losh examined how two feminist groups in India, Breakthrough and Blank Noise, are using Twitter in their social justice work. Losh begins with the horrific gang rape and subsequent death of a woman in Delhi in 2012 and the international outrage that emerged from that event.

Using hashtags like #Delhigangrape and #justiceforjoti, Breakthrough and Blank Noise attempted to raise awareness and political movement about the rape, but to also protect the identity of the victim (#justiceforjoti is a pseudonym). Losh used the case of this “metadata confusion” to highlight the instability of hashtag activism and some of the difficulties that emerge when curating online messaging around social justice.

Losh cautioned that “hashtag activism may influence political discourse,” but it is “important not to overstate” its effectiveness. She points out that hashtag activism can be easily hijacked, it requires time-intensive work, and that hashtag brevity gives the false impression that the message is easily understood.

“Just because you can read Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube because it is in your language, don’t necessarily assume that you have all the interpretive cues to read the rhetoric going on there,” Losh said.

Rhetoric@Davis Programming

As part of the Rhetoric@Davis Research Cluster programming, Losh was invited to hold a roundtable discussion the day following her public lecture. The roundtable event drew graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, eager to ask Losh questions about her first book and her book-in-progress.

Rhetoric@Davis graduate student co-organizer Jenae Cohn said that “Professor Losh was incredibly open to questions and dialogue. She responded to questions gracefully, and also offered some fantastic advice about self-fashioning online and conducting interdisciplinary research.”

The Rhetoric@Davis research cluster will continue to host exciting speakers and a complementary roundtable discussion of their work in the spring quarter. Check out the UC Davis Humanities Institute calendar for spring quarter event details when they become available.


– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies