The History and Power of the Hashtag

 How Twitter and #Politics Mix


Twenty years ago — or even 10 — taking an active role in the political process meant writing a letter or an email to your representative, picking up a pen to sign a petition or picking up the phone to make a call. Nowadays, it’s just as likely to involve the real-time chatter of Twitter, Facebook or other social media channels.

The hashtag — or # symbol that’s also commonly known as a pound sign — has evolved a special significance in this new world of instantaneous communication. Hashtags have become associated and even synonymous with trends, events and topics of discussion, and even political movements and revolutions worldwide. 

But where did it all start and how does the world of Texas politics fit in?

The Wild West of the Internet

The pound sign has acted as computer language shorthand to highlight the importance of the information that would follow it since at least the late 1970s, and as time went on tech savvy users found more and more novel ways to use it. 

In the late 1980s, communicating across the fledgling computer networks that would one day form the foundations of the modern Internet was often done through a platform known as Internet Relay Chat (IRC). These early chat rooms — precursors to modern social media — used hashtags to categorize images, messages and other content into easily searchable groups of related content. It’s a concept that still holds true today. 

Computer programmers and tech-savvy Internet subcultures re-appropriated the concept in new and novel ways as the Internet grew through the 1990s and early 2000s. Finally, the IRC-style organizing concept was introduced on Twitter on Aug. 23, 2007, by former Google employee Chris Messina, who proposed using it as a way to help organize the flurry of chatter within Twitter. It was a simple idea, but it would have profound effects.​

Messina called his idea a “rather messy proposal” for “improving contextualization, content filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter” by using the pound or hash (#) symbol to allow people to follow and participate in conversations on particular topics of interest. He dubbed them “channel tags.” 

Many in the tech community and even Twitter dismissed the idea.

Messina didn’t have to wait long for the tide to turn in his favor. Three days after the lukewarm reception to Messina’s initial proposal, information technologist and futurist Stowe Boyd wrote a blog coining the term “hashtag” and outlining his support of the idea. 

“My sense is that tags in Twitter, as elsewhere, define shared experience of some kind, involving all those using the tag. And the use can be either actively putting a hash tag (like ‘#hashtag’) into a tweet, or more passively opting to follow a stream of tweets related to a tagged theme,” he wrote.

Neither could imagine the degree to which it would change the nature of public debate worldwide.

The Jump To Politics

Hashtags were bandied about among tech and geek circles on Twitter for the next few months, eventually gaining traction when journalists and concerned citizens used #SanDiegoFire as a rallying point for information about a disastrous wildfire near San Diego in late October 2007. 

Less than a year later, and even before Twitter offered its official support of the hashtag concept, conservative activists and politicians recognized their potential and started using them to create ad-hoc community discussions online. The newly created online conservative community on Twitter would eventually reach critical mass in midsummer 2009, spilling out across the Internet and into mainstream media, even contributing to the birth of a new American political movement. 

But past is prologue, and it was Friday afternoon, Aug. 1, 2008. The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives had just voted to adjourn for a 5-week recess without voting on or even debating a Republican “All of the Above” energy plan. Gas prices still soared above $4 in late 2008. Fracking was still moving in from the fringes and few called it a boom yet. Many demanded offshore drilling, heralding the “drill, baby drill” call, and now none of it would be taken up before the recess. Congressmen and staffers started to file out, headed home for the summer doldrums. 

The press had been mostly ushered from the gallery. Lights and C-Span cameras were turned off. That normally would have been the end of session, but a few frustrated congressmen stayed put in protest. Their revolt was not televised. 

But it was tweeted.

Tech-savvy Texas Congressman John Culberson, one of the holdouts, logged on to Twitter. He started tweeting out pictures and video of himself and a fellow congressmen who’d stayed behind. Online, it started being referred to as the Boston Tweet Party. Don’t go, they said. Twitter users sent words of support and encouragement, and even promises of pizza, if they’d just stay and fight. 

The call to action became the hashtag #DontGo, appended to the tweets of politicians and regular Americans alike, and the Don’t Go Movement, as it became known, was born. Conservative activists and avid Twitter users Eric Odom and Allen Fuller added fuel to the Twitter fire, purchasing and other Web addresses. They threw together some graphics, a blog and a petition, and started tweeting out links to it. 

By 5 p.m. that afternoon, Capitol Hill security had shut the party down. The congressmen walked out to the tune of “God Bless America,” promising to stay in Washington, D.C., through the summer break. The action online was just getting started, and they were ready to capitalize on it. 

Within a few days, the duo of Odom and Fuller had created, a cleaned up, nicer looking site with tens of thousands of Internet visitors a day, write-ups on tech websites and political blogs, and even reporters from CNN and FOX News calling them up. Social media was driving the news cycle for the mainstream media.

What had started with a few frustrated Congressmen on Friday afternoon by Monday included thousands of online activists and the eyes and ears of the nation. The hashtag served as a rally point, and tweets with links to blogs, news stories, videos, sites and petitions bubbled up and continued, unabated, over the next several weeks. The House recess was not a quiet one. 

While the House was never called out of recess, the damage was done. The congressmen who’d held out — staying through the recess to protest — owned the news cycle for weeks. It was the first salvo in Twitter politics, and the GOP came out on top.

But a faltering banking system soon put on dampener on the victory party.

The Revolution Gets Televised

The 2008 election passed, and the Wall Street meltdown bled into 2009. New political hashtags seemed to be born out of thin air almost every day. #TCOT (Top Conservatives on Twitter), #TLOT (Top Libertarians on Twitter) and #P2 (Progressives 2.0) galvanized like-minded political alignments for policy discussions and grassroots planning. 

New hashtags percolated around events and news items, like #inaug09 (for the 2009 Inauguration) and the more self-evident #WorldSeries and #swineflu. Other hashtags developed around long-standing and ongoing conversations, like #txlege for the Texas Legislature and #economy.

With Republicans in the limelight, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia set up his own #dontgo related petition site and Rep. John Boehner leading almost daily press conferences, the conservative establishment seemed to hold the upper hand with hashtags through the early days of the financial crisis. But further to the right on the conservative continuum, the Tea Party began organizing Tax Day protests through Twitter using #TeaParty, #TCOT and #TLOT. 

CNBC’s Rick Santelli is credited with firing the shot that inspired the #TeaParty hashtag and ultimately launching the grassroots anti-tax movement that still plays a role in the nation’s politics to this day. Twitter users watching CNBC on the morning of Feb. 19, 2009, saw Santelli break into a Howard Beale style rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange during an interview on the financial show Squawk Box. 

“Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?” he asked. “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise your hands! … We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July,” Santelli hollered then, to the delight of the traders around him, suggesting that capitalists would dump some derivative securities into Lake Michigan

It was an instant viral hit as he railed against the Obama Administration’s proposal to help homeowners facing foreclosure. Recordings appeared on YouTube, blogs were written and it was all quickly shared across Twitter through the now strengthening networks of conservative hashtags. 

The Nationwide Tea Party Coalition was organized by the next day under the banner of the #TeaParty hashtag. Nashville technology consultant and originator of the #TCOT hashtag, Michael Patrick Leahy, tweeted out the number to a conference call to discuss the rant and Santelli’s call for a Tea Party. The activists who joined also included #dontgo’s Eric Odom, who had in his possession a large contact list of activists gathered the previous summer. 

The twenty-some activists who dialed in decided to sponsor the very first simultaneous nationwide Tea Party protests as soon as possible. Many on the call came from sizable and ranging causes — some with access to databases of conservative contacts they could mobilize — but the one thing they all had in common was Twitter. Santelli’s proposed July date was too long to wait, they concluded; they wanted to move fast.

Little more than a week later, on Feb. 27, Tea Party protests were held in 51 cities across the country, attracting an estimated 30,000 protesters. By April 15, Tax Day, the mainstream media outlets were involved in covering what had started on Twitter and the protests had expanded to more than a million people in 900 cities across the U.S.

It was a Twitter meet-up about a viral video that still reverberates in American politics to this day. 

The Rise of the #Txlege

The vast majority of hashtags will never jumpstart a political movement, topple a government or save the world, but a few will unite the right people — thought leaders with social clout and political capital in their communities — around an idea, a topic, a cause or a conversation that they can push both online and off to great effect. 

As high-profile, hashtag-fueled movements swirled across newspaper headlines around the world at the end of the last decade, Twitter’s use slowly percolated around the Capitol in Austin, too. A short, simple hashtag, #txlege, started as a method for journalists to categorize their tweets and grew to a perpetual policy conversation and occasional tirade of talking points. 

Twitter is now as much a part of the fabric of correspondence under the pink dome in Austin as email or ink and letterhead. 

Over the past few sessions, the #txlege hashtag has become a central clearinghouse for breaking news and instant opinions from inside the brass rails of the Texas House and Senate floors. Journalists, legislators and Capitol watchers routinely update their followers in real time on bill movements and political subtleties that alone may not warrant a full news article or blog post, but taken collectively reveal an important story. 

It began in fits and starts in late 2008 with The Austin American-Statesman creating the @VirtualCapitol Twitter account. As the old year came to a close and 2009 rang in, other reporters started using #txlege, too. For the early weeks of the 82nd Texas Legislature, #txlege was a stream of news links tweeted out by reporters.

At the time, only one state legislator used Twitter. Rep. Aaron Peña, who served in the House for five terms, blogged regularly and honestly about his experiences as a legislator. He’d joined Twitter in late-2007, prior to the advent of the #txlege hashtag and had seen the Capitol Twitter community’s growth and change from its inception. He describes his approach to Twitter as honest and human. 

“The reason I got involved in social media then is because, back home — and I lived 300 miles away — while I was up in Austin working a 10-month session, my opponent is saying ‘Hey, where’s your rep? He’s not working for you,’ so I started posting pictures of where I was and what I was doing, so I could prove I was working hard for them in that 10-month session we had,” said the former state representative.

By the end of session, interest groups, think tanks and the general public, including future legislator Stephanie Klick of Tarrant County, had started to chime in as well. Many rode the same Twitter wave that carried #dontgo, #tcot and #teaparty to prominence. By May 2009, the #txlege hashtag was often intermingled with #tcot and #txcot, a state-specific offshoot of the Top Conservatives on Twitter. 

Twitter played a role in the 81st session, and a growing number of the Capitol crowd, conservative activists, reporters and regular citizens were now watching the new #txlege hashtag, but that session was just the opening act. 

By the time 2011 and the 82nd Texas legislative session rolled around, legislators were not just testing Twitter’s waters, they were diving in head first. Estimates from The Austin American-Statesman put more than half of the House on Twitter in 2011. Perhaps no legislator was as prolific as Peña, who sent more than 1,000 tweets during the regular session, often firing off 10 or more each day. 

Peña often used Twitter to bring the larger context to news stories for his constituents and correct inaccuracies. And with the social media platform’s growth, he realized he could not only communicate directly with constituents, bypassing the filter of newspapers and giving a more three-dimensional perspective of who he was as a person, he also had a powerful bully pulpit. 

“I rapidly found out that the press, and all the thought leaders around the state and country, were on Twitter and paying attention. So, if I said something of significance, The New York Times might call, or my local TV crew would pay attention,” Peña said.

Rep. Wayne Christian was another legislator who employed social media to great effect during the 82nd legislative session. Christian not only tweeted links to his weekly legislative updates on YouTube, where he opined on the inner-workings of the Legislature and interviewed other legislators and various politicos, but he also set up social media campaigns for bills he authored. 

Christian created the Stop Obamacare in TX Twitter account, @HJR_51, to promote a House Joint Resolution he authored that proposed a constitutional amendment relating to health care reform and how Texans choose or decline to choose to purchase health insurance coverage. He regularly sent tweets about the effects of health care reform and often retweeted himself from that account and vice versa.

While Christian’s bill wallowed in committee, swept aside by other legislative obligations, his strategy of reaching out with social media gained traction at the Capitol. By mid-session conservative Texas blogger and Capitol insider Jon McClellan had created the Twitter account @1847WalkerColt and had started petitioning lawmakers to make the Walker Colt revolver the official state gun of Texas.

The Hashtag Filibuster

If the #txlege hashtag churned with activity in the 82nd Legislature, it was a torrent in the 83rd. Legislators alone collectively unleashed 17,529 tweets during the regular session, and the #txlege hashtag saw a total 172,394 tweets in that time, according to a white paper released by Influence Opinions, an Austin-based communications strategy firm.

The report also indicates that Twitter accounted for 87 percent of the online discussion of the Texas Legislature in 2013. More than 80 percent of the Texas Senate and 75 percent of the Texas House were using Twitter during the 83rd legislative session. 

With those numbers as backdrop and the increasing mainstream nature of Twitter, Perry called a 30-day special session that would in part be used to debate SB5, the contentious bill regulating standards at women’s health facilities that performed abortions, which had failed to pass during the regular session.

When then-Sen. Wendy Davis announced over Twitter that she intended to filibuster SB5, Texas and the #txlege hashtag were launched into the heart of a Twitter superstorm. The eyes of the world were upon Texas now. After the announcement, tweets about the Texas Legislature jumped 1,800 percent, according to Influence Opinions. ​

Within hours, #SB5, #txlege and a new hashtag that garnered more than 610,000 mentions globally, #StandWithWendy, were being used not only to communicate about news related to the bill and filibuster, but to organize protests and counter-protests, too. 

Hundreds filled the Senate gallery and thousands flooded the Capitol building, spilling out across the rotunda. Hundreds of thousands watched the Texas Tribune’s live stream of the filibuster. At the center, Davis stood. Through all of it, Twitter users chronicled the events in tweets and images appended with a variety of hashtags in support and opposition. The hashtag #StandWithWendy trended worldwide for hours. 

But the social media chatter was more than just a running commentary on the 13-hour long filibuster. Regular citizens used Twitter to play an active role in the process. Twitter funneled thousands of testimonials through Davis’s website that she read on the Senate floor as part of her filibuster. Meanwhile, other Twitter users started helping more directly by advising senators on the parliamentary rules being debated in the Texas Senate. 

During a filibuster, the senator with the floor cannot speak off-topic, eat, drink, leave to use the bathroom or lean on anything for support. Senators are allowed three warnings before the Senate can vote to end the filibuster. 

Davis got her first strike at 5:30 p.m., for the germaneness (relevancy to the topic being debated) of discussing the 2011 Legislature’s funding cuts to women’s health services. Her second strike, for using a back brace, came an hour later.

Around 10 p.m., the filibuster came to halt when a fellow senator raised concerns that mentioning the Texas’s mandatory ultrasound-before-abortion law that was passed during the previous session was not germane to the current topic. This was counted as the third strike. 

Then Twitter weighed in. 

Heather Parker, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who had been following the filibuster on Twitter and watching the live stream from the Senate floor, had looked up the Texas Senate’s rules on what constituted germaneness and found Davis’s second violation, her back brace, didn’t count as a strike against her. 

Tweets and retweets about the rules echoed across Twitter. Germaneness even became a hashtag. But word of the Senate’s parliamentary rules still hadn’t reached the Senate floor. That’s when a number of users started tweeting links to the rules for procedure during a filibuster directly to senators.

The information was relayed to senators by staffers monitoring Twitter that evening, and it was enough to drag the debate out to the closing minutes of the special session, when an attempt to pass the bill was finally made. Sen. Leticia Van De Putte then asked the Senate chair why her motion to adjourn was not recognized before the roll call vote on the bill began. 

“At what point must a female senator raise her hand and her voice to be recognized by her male colleagues?” she said. The crowd of hundreds of protesters in the gallery erupted in cheers and jeers.

Crowd noise was the deciding vote. With midnight fast-approaching, the opponents of SB5 had run out of parlimentary manuevers. News spread fast over Twitter to protesters in the Senate gallery and out in the rotunda. The crowd noise rose to deafening levels and down on the floor, too, there was chaos. 

At a minute past midnight, the Senate regained composure and attempted to vote as chanting protesters were led from the gallery. Confusion reigned and controversy was just beginning to brew. 

The vote was no good. Then, with the eyes of Twitter still scrutinizing the Senate’s every move, the time stamps changed on the Texas Legislature’s website to indicate the vote had been taken before the midnight deadline. The documents went viral on Twitter. 

A few hours later, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst declared SB5 dead. The next day, four of Twitter’s top 10 trending topics worldwide were about the Texas Legislature, and “Texas Senate” was a trending topic nationally, with more than 7,000 mentions in less than 24 hours. Nearly all of them were negative.

“I am calling the Legislature back into session because too much important work remains undone for the people of Texas. Through their duly elected representatives, the citizens of our state have made crystal clear their priorities for our great state. Texans value life and want to protect women and the unborn,” Gov. Perry announced that afternoon. 

“Wendy Davis won the battle, but Rick Perry won the war,” noted National Review columnist Betsy Woodruff a few weeks later. The bill easily passed both the House and the Senate in July 2013, during a second special session.

New Media, New Legislature

It was a monumental moment in Texas politics and the mainstream media barely played a role in it. More than 182,000 people around the world watched the drama unfold live in the Senate that night, a figure bigger than the total viewing numbers for some broadcast television shows airing at the time. Even more followed along on Twitter. Not one national news network provided live coverage.

The fact that the Texas Legislature became an international news story without coverage from any major news network outside of Texas underscores the power of Twitter and the massive group conversations that hashtags facilitate. 

Hashtags were used to organize communications about where to submit testimony, how parliamentary rules work in the Texas Senate and when the vote on SB5 actually occurred. There were only about 1,500 protesters at the Capitol that evening, but there were hundreds of thousands on Twitter. Those Twitter users were able to communicate directly with legislators and protesters in the gallery, and they unquestionably had an effect on the course of events that night 

It’s unlikely that the 84th legislative session will flare up in filibusters, but it will unquestionably still be under the same social media microscope. Legislators are aware of the sea change in the way business is done under the pink dome, too. 

“One of the most interesting things to do on the House floor is walk up and down the aisles and see what people are looking at on their computers. You get a lot of real time shifting of opinion on the House floor as a result of incoming tweets. You see members monitoring, in real-time, the chatter on Twitter and in the blogosphere as they’re getting ready to cast a vote. It’s really changed the dynamic,” said former state Rep. Mark Strama, who now heads the Austin office of Google Fiber, during a Texas Tribune forum on Demographic Change and the Digital Divide.

Peña sees a more complicated future for Twitter and the Texas Legislature, where the increasing mainstreaming of the social network helps give regular Texans a new voice at the legislature while the popularity of the network means some legislators farm out the responsibilities of Twitter to staff or third parties.

“I think it’s such an effective tool and needs to be paid attention to. I used to love to respond to people by name on Twitter, ‘Yeah, Fred, I’m looking at that, have you seen this?’” said Peña, “Now, I can be sitting next to a politician, and I will get one of his Tweets and I’ll say, 'Did you just tweet me?' and they’ll say, ‘no, that was the company they hired.’ It’s just some of them, not all, but that ought to be an embarrassing thing.”

He also takes issue with hashtags that segment the political spectrum. Peña believes that what started as a way to organize and filter conversations can now act as a bubble of confirmation bias where users surround themselves in a world of likeminded perspectives. 

The argument is that conservatives only hear from fellow conservatives, liberals from other liberals, and everyone who stays in their social media silo ends up with more hardened and extreme positions. It’s a phenomenon that wasn’t as easy to replicate when there were only three major television networks and one or two local papers.

“Just like our politics has become polarized and segmented, Twitter has become that way too. That’s another part of the evolution. We don’t have editors the way we used to anymore and we’re the filters now. Twitter can reflect our fears, our hopes or the best parts of us, and with the hashtags, we’re the new editors, the new filters, so if you want to only listen to the conservative side or only listen to the liberal side of the spectrum I think you’re doing a disservice to yourself. I think we can learn from each other. I may not agree all the time, but it’s good to know what they’re thinking and consideration ought to be given to what they’re saying.” he said.

Even with the changes, Peña doesn’t see social media’s star fading at the Capitol anytime soon. 

“Change is a constant and this is the new world we’re in,” said Peña. “Just like Blogger got surpassed by Twitter and Facebook, I have no doubt Twitter and Facebook will one day be surpassed by some other social medium, for now these are the media of choice, so I think politicians ought to learn at least how they work and try to get information out to the public using them, because it’s good for them and it’s good for the public.”

The Texas Association of Counties has been using Twitter since 2012. The Legislative Department will be using Twitter throughout the session to communicate with legislators, county officials, journalists and the general public about issues important to county government and local control in Texas, and encourages county officials to do the same. 

“It’s no longer a few geeks in the room doing it because they like it. I think the standard has been raised and elected officials are required, at least by expectation, to communicate via social media. Just like there’s an expectation that we all have a telephone of some sort, and we use email,” said Peña.

County officials who are ready to start using social media, or are looking to expand their knowledge and ramp up existing social media efforts, can visit TAC’s social media resource pages at Officials with questions about social media can also contact TAC communications staff at (800) 456-5974. *


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