How the Hashtag Became a Campaign Battleground

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Twitter's content-sorting mechanism is the latest messaging weapon in the 2012 presidential contest

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One of the most contested battles in the online political arena in recent weeks was a fight over Obama's new push to make policy by executive order -- and which ideological camp could best define the hashtag that described it.

"We can't wait," proclaimed the president on Monday, Oct. 24, announcing that in the absence of congressional action on his jobs plan, he'd be advancing orders on mortgages, school loans, opportunities for veterans, and more.

Republicans had a field day. "#WeCantWait to make @BarackObama a one-term president," tweeted Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus that day. A flurry of tweets followed. By Tuesday afternoon, the White House, which, notably, initially hadn't bothered making use of the tweet-friendly mantra as a hashtag, made an attempt to reclaim it. Tweeted the White House: "#WeCantWait for today's Office Hours" -- a reference to an online chat with economic advisor Brian Deese on Obama's new initiative. Minority Leader Pelosi tried her own spin. "#WeCantWait for GOP to stop blocking #AmericanJobsAct & #ChinaCurrency jobs bill," she tweeted, adding a kick at the end: "PS to GOP: #HashtagsArentAJobsBill." Oh, snap.

Through late Wednesday, the hashtag had been used some 13,800 times, peaking at 45 tweets per minute, says Gilad Lotan of the social media analysis company SocialFlow. "That's not bad."

Once the Dewey Decimal system of Twitter, hashtags are being embraced by the political class as an ideal way to snark.

Once the Dewey Decimal system of Twitter, hashtags are being embraced by the political class as an ideal way to snark.

It wasn't always so. In 2007, digital advocate Chris Messina floated the idea of using the pound symbol, or hash, as a way of tying together ideas and conversations on the network. Twitter eventually baked the tag into the product.

But it wasn't new. The hashtag was a carryover from the old days of Internet Relay Chat, when the hash sign -- # -- was the way you joined channels, giving entry to anyone into a world where text and ideas reigned. (The "@" sign used to name people on Twitter, points out Lotan, is another IRC convention.) As technology goes, the hashtag is dead simple: type a hashtag, and, lo and behold, it exists. Observers cite the 2009 Iranian elections (#IranElection) as the moment the tool really took hold in the political realm. Closer to home, the taxonomic application found high-profile usage when the White House encouraged people to use #immigration to discuss a major Obama immigration speech and #AskObama to group together questions for the president for an online forum hosted by Twitter's Jack Dorsey.

But having pointed fun with the hashtag is newer. "Until a couple years ago, anytime you used a hashtag, it was to group a conversation," says Democratic consultant Matt Ortega, who is known in political circles as a leading purveyor of the comedic arts. "But within the last year and a half or so, it's become a way to kind of use a subliminal message in a larger tweet." The New Yorker's Susan Orlean describes the result as sounding "like it's being muttered into a handkerchief." Says Ortega, "The way I and a lot of others approach it is the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert school of pushing a political angle or thoughtful comment using humor, like #HermanCainPizzaJams or #HipHopBBQActs" -- the points there being that, with the former, Cain is an unserious political candidate for signing a pizza song to the tune of "Imagine" and, with the latter, that FoxNation is dense on racial matters for using that phrase to describe a birthday gathering for Obama that featured black celebrities. Another example: "#ImRunningForOfficeForPetesSake" -- Mitt Romney's explanation for why his landscaping company couldn't hire illegal immigrants -- "feeds into the meme that he's inauthentic," says Ortega. "The best ones take a poignant political point and match it with humor."

Hashtags have become a way for politicians to, as Rick Perry might say, "bump" ideas. (That cringe-worthy debate exchange prompted its own warning hashtag: #cootiesarereal.) "Democrats follow Republicans, and Republicans follow Democrats," observes one Democratic congressional aide. "We're using the medium to push back, because members don't like to see things like [the jobs bill fight] go unchallenged." Recently, Hill Republicans and Democrats engaged in a low-grade fight over #Forgotten15 and #Faux15, two takes on fifteen bills that Republicans say are jobs plans in stalled the Senate and Democrats dismiss as job killers. There was even a meta aspect: "When it comes to #HashtagsArentAJobsBill," says the aide, "the frustration is that, as great as Twitter is, hashtags aren't going to help the unemployed."

For political types, the opportunity, of course, is to give the conventional wisdom a little nudge in the rear. And to do it for free. The left picked up on #PerryHistory to emphasize that the governor of Texas didn't know all that much about history -- after he placed the American Revolution in the 16th century. Sample tweet, from SparkyGirl13: "The US could only finance the Louisiana Purchase thanks to Brett Maverick winning a hand of poker. #PerryHistory" Often, hashtags open up a fascinating contest. The hashtag #rubiofamilyhistory picked up on the mini-controversy over the Florida Senator's roots. (Point: "Actually, my parents put me on a rocketship two years before the destruction of Krypton. #rubiofamilyhistory" Counterpoint: "I became a Senator, and then some Washington Post reporter wrote a BS article instantly refuted by the Miami Herald. #rubiofamilyhistory") The National Republican Congressional Committee has pushed #ScaryDemMovieTitles to prod along ideas about what Democrats are up to. Tweeted submissions from the public at large included "No Country for Small Businessmen," "Barack Obama and the Deathly Taxes," and, a jab at the Attorney General as "Holdergeist." Researchers call tags like these "micro-memes": tiny ideas that aren't a huge deal and also aren't entirely trivial, that can bounce along for days on end before flaring out.

Hashtags that don't turn into trends simply disappear into the tweet stream, no harm no foul.

It all turns out to be catnip to the political class. "Getting traction," explains Ortega, "usually involves getting it picked up by people with established followers, like the Dave Weigels [of Slate] and other new-media savvy reporter types tweeting it and giving it validation. Then it really takes off." The tweets become easy pickings for aggregator-type sites looking to pull together quick coverage, particularly the Huffington Post.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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