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Nov. 26, 2019, 1 p.m.

Political hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter make some people doubt the stories they’re attached to

“This is a load of crap on a number of levels.” “This article reads ‘FAKE NEWS.'” “I don’t believe this post is backed with any real knowledge or fact.” A simple hashtag intended to boost a post’s audience on social can also prime audiences to read it through an emotional, partisan lens.

Whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, you’ve most likely come across a political hashtag in an article, a tweet, or a personal story shared on Facebook. Hashtags are functional tags widely used in search engines and social networking services that allow people to search for content grouped under a word or phrase, denoted by the # sign.

First popularized by Twitter in 2009, the use of hashtags has become widespread across platforms. Nearly anything political intended to attract a wide audience is now branded with a catchy hashtag: election campaigns (#MAGA), social movements (#FreeHongKong), or calls to support or oppose laws (#LoveWins).

News companies also use political hashtags to increase readership and to contextualize reporting in short, digestible social media posts. According to Columbia Journalism Review, such practice is a “good way to introduce a story or perspective into the mainstream news cycle” and “a way to figure out what the public wants to discuss and learn more about.” Is that really true? Or does the presence of a hashtag influence how a story’s audience receives it in some way?

To find out, we (Melissa Mazmanian and I) conducted a controlled online experiment with 1,979 people. We tested whether people responded differently to the presence or absence of political hashtags — particularly the widely used #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter — in news articles published on Facebook by major news outlets, such as The New York Times and NPR.

We randomly showed each person a news post that either contained or excluded the political hashtag. We then asked them to comment on the article and answer a few questions about it.

Two examples of news posts presented with or without a #MeToo hashtag in the post text and headline.

We found that using political hashtags is a risky way for news outlets to try to engage readers. When stories included a hashtag, people perceived the news topic to be less important, and they were less motivated to know more about related issues.

Some readers were also inclined to view news stories with hashtags as more politically biased. This was especially true for more conservative readers, who were more likely to say a news post was partisan when it included a hashtag. Hashtags also negatively affected liberal readers — but readers who identified themselves as “extremely liberal” did not perceive social media news content about gender and racial issues as partisan, regardless of hashtag presence.

Political moderates

What really interested me was the reaction from people in the middle. People who identified as politically moderate perceived news posts to be significantly more partisan when the posts included hashtags. In fact, in their comments, politically moderate respondents who saw news posts with hashtags were more suspicious of the story’s credibility and focused more on the politics of the hashtag. Here are some examples:

In the hashtag group, politically moderate people repeatedly mention the hashtag without substantially engaging with the underlying social issues it is meant to represent:

The #MeToo topic is turning into something like the Kardashians. You can’t look at the news without both of them headlining things. It is an important issue, but I am getting tired of seeing it over and over.

By contrast, when hashtags were absent, readers were more likely to discuss those core ideas and values the hashtag was meant to stand for.

Giving a platform and voice to victims via social media is a great way to share one’s experience when one is to [sic] uncomfortable to do so publicly. Some people are too afraid to report any harassment or assaults due to being labeled a liar so I’m glad there’s a way to keep track of these instances without them going unheard.

The language used in comments from the hashtag group was also more emotionally extreme. Even those who seemed to be in favor of the hashtag movement used aggressive language to convey support of the movement; one referred to those against it as “You idiots,” claiming, “there’s a reason why [#MeToo] f****-ing exists, dimwits!!”

Fostering better online discourse

These findings show that politicians, activists, news organizations and tech companies cannot take the effects of common social media practices for granted. Even a simple hashtag intended to increase a post’s prominence and distribution can encourage some readers to view mainstream news content as hyperpartisan or untrue.

If we want to build and sustain healthy discussions online, then we need to start questioning how such practices influence the democratic health of the internet. Using a hashtag can rapidly draw audience attention to pressing social issues. But as our study shows, that viral momentum may be detrimental to online discussion around pressing social topics in the long run.

Eugenia Ha Rim Rho is a Ph.D. candidate in information and computer sciences at the University of California Irvine. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.The Conversation

Illustration by – Sawdust – used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 26, 2019, 1 p.m.
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