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Social Media, Culture, and Political Protest

September 12, 2016

Social Media, Culture, and Political Protest

A Look at the Case of the #IdleNoMore Movement in Canada

Abby Cecilia Medina Ph.D. Student, Education and Psychology, University of Michigan — Twitter: @soooabby

Vincent Raynauld, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Political Communication, Emerson College Faculty Associate, Engagement Lab, Emerson College Research Associate, Groupe de Recherche en Communication Politique, Université Laval Academic Adviser, Samara Canada Member, Réseau Démocratie Électronique — Twitter: @VincentR

Emmanuelle Richez, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Political Science, University of Windsor — Twitter: @emmarichez

Katie Boudreau Morris Ph.D. Student, Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University — Twitter: @KBoudreau_ —

The last decade has been marked by a series of social media-fueled, grassroots-intensive protest movements across the globe. Some of them have played a largely peripheral role in the formal political arena. Others have been successful — to varying degrees — in gaining widespread public support and, in some cases, generating change by influencing actions of policymakers and other political elites. A large volume of scholarly work across academic disciplines has investigated different facets of these protest initiatives (see examples here, here, here, here, and here). Particularly, the bulk of these studies has focused on dynamics of protest related to political, social, and economic matters. Little to no attention has been given to the role played by culture in shaping patterns of political and civic engagement in the digital media environment. Through a SSHRC-funded study, we are currently addressing this gap in the literature. It takes a specific look at how references to culture informed Twitter-based grassroots political engagement in the context of the Idle No More (INM) movement in Canada.

INM, which emerged in November 2012, can be defined as an Indigenous-led protest initiative that mobilized Indigenous Peoples and their allies throughout Canada — and later internationally — in the wake of several legislative measures introduced by the Stephen Harper’s conservative government. Chief among them was the federal omnibus budget bill C-45, which imposed significant changes to the Indian Act, environmental legislation, and other policy initiatives of importance to Indigenous communities (for more information, see works by Duplassie, Tupper, Woons, and Wotherspoon & Hansen). As the movement intensified over the following weeks, it received increased mass media coverage and became more diverse, as it mobilized individuals and organizations with narrow interests and objectives. More importantly for this study, social media became go-to tools for individuals and organizations to engage in political and civic action, whether it was in support of or in opposition to INM (see examples here, here, and here).

As supported by the work of several authors, Indigenous culture and identity have played a pivotal role in this process. For example, Welty points out that culture can be viewed as an important driver of INM-related mobilizing and organizing. Defining Indigenous culture is challenging, however, as it can vary greatly between and within communities. Instead of providing a fixed or single definition, we identify indicators of Indigenous culture. Building on a model developed by Holms, Pearson et al. and later work by Alfred and Corntassel (2005), we isolate core elements of Indigenous culture, namely “epistemologies,” “language,” “land,” “cultural production,” as well as local, regional, national, and transnational “group membership.” Following Coulthard’s work, we add to this list “resistance” against colonialism, which has also been at the heart of Indigenous Peoples’ ideology.

A systematic review of 1,650 tweets with at least one #IdleNoMore hashtag that appeared on Twitter’s public timeline between July 3, 2013 and August 2, 2013 revealed that references to core elements of Indigenous culture permeated all aspects of INM-related political and civic action in the Twitterverse. They were prevalent in a large majority of the #IdleNoMore tweets considered for our study, whether they served an information dispersion function, a public mobilization function, an opinion sharing function, or a political attack or criticism function. We posit references to Indigenous culture were used to foster and reinforce a shared consciousness that helped fuel protest behavior. In other words, cultural references in tweets both broadened audiences and strengthened Indigenous communities online. This form of culture-based political protest is particularly well suited for social media as it encourages hyper-personal self-expression in a highly networked digital environment.

More research is needed to unpack the role of culture as a tool for marginalized political, social, and religious groups to engage in political and civic action in the social mediascape. Of special importance would be the study of how this highly cultural form of political engagement is leading to identity formation or reinforcement. It could also have some effects on policy making as governments are likely to become increasingly responsive to social media-based protest movements over the next decade.


The authors of this blog post would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a research grant that supported the work for this blog post. They would also like to thank the Graduate Student Association (GSA), the Office of Graduate Studies, ORCS and Academic Affairs, as well as the Department of Communication Studies at Emerson College for providing additional funding. Several graduate students have made important contributions to this project. The authors would like to thank Derek Antoine, Ph.D. candidate at Carleton University, for his input as well as Emerson College-based research assistant Natalia Locatelli who played an important role in the analysis of the data. Finally, they would like to thank Patricia Ochman, lawyer at O’Reilly & Associés, who specializes in Aboriginal law, for her valuable insights.

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