Taking Protest to the Twitterverse: Making Sense of New Forms of Political Action on Social Media


The last five years have been marked by the emergence of a new breed of social-media fuelled grassroots protest challenging the dominance of political elites locally, nationally, and internationally. Whether it is the #idlenomore movement in Canada, the student-led demonstrations in Chile, the global #Occupy movement or, more recently, the youth-led protest in Hong Kong, they have mobilized narrow segments of the public and succeeded in forcing elected officials, governmental agencies, and other political players to acknowledge their presence. In specific cases, they have been able to influence some facets of governmental decision-making. We believe these mobilization initiatives constitute the materialization of transformative political action that is likely to gain traction in the near future.

We argue that this trend is indicative of a broader disconnect between formal political players (e.g. elected officials, political parties, government agencies) and citizens. On one hand, most of the former still rely heavily on offline-inspired ?catch-all? political communication, mobilization, and organizing strategies. On the other hand, a growing portion of the latter are turning to informal forms of political engagement better suited to their personal preferences, interests, and goals. In other words, they are politically active in ways that are more compatible with their short to mid-term priorities and objectives and less by their adherence to a political ideology, their loyalty to a political party, or their concerns for the greater good of the society. We believe these concerns are inciting many citizens to take part in the political process in more atypical ways. More importantly, they do so outside channels controlled or, to a lesser extent, under the influence of traditional political elites.

In order to examine the manifestation of this phenomenon in Canada, we turned our attention to a protest movement that played a central role in the political landscape of the province of Quebec during the spring and early summer months of 2012: the student-led strike against tuition hikes, also known as ?Maple Spring?. This protest movement paralyzed CEGEPs (Coll?ges d’Enseignement G?n?ral et Professionnel) and universities across Quebec, was the source of frequent demonstrations, some of which turned violent, and commended a lot of attention from mainstream media in Canada and internationally.

Many scholars have taken interest in the Maple Spring over the last two years. They have looked at it through different lenses, such as the legal lens, the social media lens, the socio-political engagement lens, the journalistic lens, and the political ideology lens. However, few researchers have characterized with great precision the way in which, and to what extent, supporters and opponents of the student-led strike against university tuition hikes turned to social media, specifically Twitter, to share information, express themselves, and be active politically.Twitter can be defined as a micro-communication service with internal capabilities enabling its users to share posts of up to 140 characters that can comprise wide-ranging digital material, including text, photos, hyperlinks, and hashtags.

Interestingly, Twitter is not necessarily adapted for complex political action due in part to the short nature of tweets. It can restrict the way in which users can post information, express themselves, and interact with other tweeters. However, a growing number of individuals and organizations in Canada and other countries are exploiting the distinct capabilities of this social media platform to be engaged politically. Recent surveys have confirmed this trend. A 2013 Samara survey, for example, showed that 13 percent of respondents shared or re-circulated content of a political nature on Facebook or Twitter. Several Pew Research Center surveys released in the last five years have echoed these results and found heavy use of social media for political action among U.S. Internet users. The findings of academic studies examining other national contexts – democratic and non-democratic – around the world also mirror these findings.

In order to examine Twitter’s role in the 2012 Quebec student protest, we conducted a quantitative and qualitative content analysis of all tweets with at least one #ggi hashtag (?ggi? refers to the French expression ?gr?ve g?n?rale illimit?e,? or unlimited strike) that were posted on Twitter’s public timeline between April 22 and July 31, 2012 (66,282 tweets were shared during this time period). While other hashtags relating to specific issues or events were used by tweeters discussing matters related to the Maple Spring movement (e.g. #manifencours, #non1625, #polqc, #mar22), the #ggi hashtag emerged as the most-used hashtag by supporters and detractors of this student-led movement. This approach enabled us to identify and better understand in what way, to what extent, and for what reasons Quebec political players with different political views and objectives were involved in this protest movement.

The findings shed light on how Maple Spring activists were politically active in the Twitterverse during the time period considered in our study. The majority of them used Twitter for broadcasting information to a mass audience focusing on different aspects of the student-led protest movement or closely related issues. They also used this micro-communication site for self-expression, namely by sharing personal views and opinions on the Maple Spring. Many of these informational tweets comprised at least one hyperlink pointing to content available on digital resources operated by traditional media. This indicated that they played a pivotal role in fuelling and, more importantly, shaping #ggi information flows and social interactions.

It can be argued that #ggi tweeters sharing information actually sought to mobilize members of the public. For instance, tweets offering information on controversial issues, such as the passage of bill 78, had mobilizing effects on some segments of the public and had the potential to incite people to be active politically. For example, Bill 78 banned demonstrations within a certain distance from universities and forced organizers of demonstrations with 50 participants or more to provide their planned route to political forces for approval. While many #ggi tweeters engaged in more passive forms of political action in the Twitterverse ? namely sharing information – it is quite possible that they were more active in the offline political environment.

We expect to conduct additional research in order to better understand how supporters and detractors of the student-led movement exploited other social media outlets, such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, to mobilize the public. From a broader perspective, many academics believe that more research is required on uses of digital media by members of social movements for political and civic engagement as well as their impacts on political organizations.

Research on uses of social media is much needed in a context where the availability of a wide range of these platforms with specific structural and functional properties (e.g. social networking sites, video-sharing platforms) have provided Web users with a plethora of political and civic engagement options. In other words, we expect that the emergence with different capabilities will give a lot of flexibility to Internet users who have a large number of options to be active politically on their own terms. More importantly, the flexibility of these communication tools is likely to foster the emergence of new forms of political engagement.

How will Twitter evolve? The perspectives of future research are rich as the impact of this media channel on politics is still evolving. More than single case studies are required to understand the extent of what is going on in the Twitterspace, especially since we are increasingly aware that Twitter is one of many social media channels used for political and civic engagement. We aim to add new cases studies of political protest around the world. Protest events like those in Ferguson, or those linked to issues like the environment and human rights, are likely to provide us with more insights of uses of Twitter for political and civic action by ordinary citizens. Considering more cases in the context of our research project will offer us the possibility to compare and contrast social-fuelled, grassroots protest phenomena and gain a better understanding of social media-based political action.

Vincent Raynauld
Dr. Vincent Raynauld is assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Emerson College in Boston, MA. He is also serving as a research fellow in the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, as a research associate in the Recherche en Communication Politique based in Universit? Laval, and as an academic adviser for the non-profit research organization Samara in Toronto, Canada. His areas of research interest and publication include political communication, social media, research methods, e-politics, and journalism.A native of Montreal (Quebec, Canada), Dr. Raynauld has earned several awards throughout his graduate studies. In 2007, he was awarded a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS) as well as a David and Rachel Epstein Scholarship, one of Carleton University’s most competitive awards for graduate students. More recently, he won Carleton University’s Senate Medal for outstanding work at the doctoral level in June 2014.
Mireille Lalancette
Mireille Lalancette is associate professor at Universit? du Qu?bec ? Trois-Rivi?res. She is a researcher in the Groupe de recherche en communication politique (GRCP). Her research interests include political communication, media, and representations, with a particular emphasis on discourse analysis and framing. She is currently working on the transformation of political actor’s representations and action repertoires in the context of spectacularisation, personalisation, and on new social media phenomenon. She has also published about gender and media.


Sofia Tourigny-Kon?
Sofia Tourigny-Kon? holds a bachelor degree and a master degree in Social Communication at Universit? du Qu?bec ? Trois-Rivi?res. Her research interests include political communication and social representations. In her PhD research she explores the links between the uses of social movements and political participation. Sofia is also member of the Groupe de recherche en communication politique (GRCP) and a lecturer in social communication, media and methodology at Universit? du Qu?bec ? Trois-Rivi?res where she is also doing her PhD studies.