Question Chosen: "When tweets gained enough velocity to catalyze big changes? Change how people think, start movements, etc."

Readings I Will Consult:

Investigative Methods

Twitter Accounts to Investigate

In order to face this question in an unbiased manner, I will be investigating tweets from parties I agree with, and parties that I do not agree with.

Human Rights Campaign
Westboro Baptist Church
Prolife Blogs
Abortion Rights
Gay Writes
Assorted other tweets that seem relevant to the topic any of the above accounts tweet about

Notes from Readings and Tweet Examples

My Notes on Tweets
Presentation Examples


A single tweet related to activism and sociopolitical change is unlikely to reach a very high velocity. For example, I collected several tweets from celebrities showing their support of the #LoveConquersHate Campaign, which was started by the Human Rights Campaign. Despite their celebrity status, none of their tweets even reached 1,000 retweets. The highest I found was by @JonahHill, and it was retweeted 777 times. That can be contrasted with other celebrity tweets, such as one by @TheEllenShow that garnered 6,844 retweets, to put the low velocity into perspective. This begs the question, why is there such a gap? There is even an evident gap between the number of retweets of similar posts. Kristen Bell and Jay Manuel both tweeted #LoveConquersHate pictures, and they have a relatively similar number of followers (Kristen has 1.2 million and Jay has 950,000), so why does Kirsten’s tweet have 545 retweets when Jay’s only has 66 retweets?
The most likely answer is that the short kairotic timespan of Twitter must be taken into account. The right people have to see the right tweet at the right time for it to gain velocity. Tweets go by so fast and end up buried, sometimes only hours after they are posted. A follower may be sympathetic to the rhetorician’s cause, but if they don’t see the tweet amongst all the other tweets being fired off so frequently, then they won’t retweet it because they didn’t know it was there. This can happen incidentally, or maleficent people/organizations can use this aspect of Twitter to their advantage. A prime example of such an incident would be the use of Twitter by Middle East and North African (MENA) governments during the recent anti-government movements. Many activists on Twitter tried to use it to disseminate information, and the government didn’t have an effective means of stemming the flow of tweets. The population using Twitter in MENA countries is low, only 0.00014% of the population at the time, but those that were tweeting could reach an international audience, and so the government saw it as a threat (Murthy, p 94-95). Since they couldn’t do anything about the tweets that had already gone out, they did their best to hide them. Many revolutionary tweets contained the hashtag #syria, so the Syrian government flooded that hashtag with useless tweets about things like falafel and the weather in an attempt to push the important information out of its kairotic moment.

This flood tactic can also be used to recirculate tweets in a different way. In the ‘early days’ of the #LoveConquersHate campaign, a tweet reading “Outraged by the anti-#LGBT murder in NYC? Sign @HRC's open letter: #LoveConquersHate” flooded the #LoveConquersHate tag. However, it was never retweeted from anyone more than a few times. The open letter’s site featured options to share it on Facebook and Twitter. This posted a pre-composed tweet, which was done approximately 2,000 times (along with about 5.8 thousand people sharing it on Facebook). Having a pre-composed message also influences the recomposition and appropriation of the message, since the audience would have to take more initiative to create an original tweet.

Another aspect that influences the velocity a tweet can attain is the ethos of the rhetor. If the rhetor does not have a good rapport with their audience, the discourse they present isn’t likely to be recirculated. On forums such as Twitter, there are multiple dimensions to the audience; there are the users following the rhetor’s account, and the users who aren’t following them. The rhetor acts under the presupposition that the portion following them agrees with their point of view and values, but (as examined further below) must also expect negative responses or appropriations from non-followers who don’t value the rhetor’s or the discourse’s credibility. In one case, both @HRC and @NancyPelosi posted tweets regarding the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, urging their followers to show their support of the bill. The Human Rights Campaign (@HRC) has a history of excluding (and even discriminating against) the Transgender community, and so their credibility with many LGBT people is shot. Nancy Pelosi, on the other hand, made her tweet in honor of Transgender Remembrance Day, so she has a higher credibility in that community. This is evidenced by the fact that HRC’s tweet was only retweeted 184 times, and has replies like “It's trans-ignorant bullshit like this that prevents me from giving you money.” calling out the discredibility of the information presented, while Nancy Pelosi’s tweet was retweeted 213 times.
Finally, there seems to be a correlation between the velocity of a tweet, and whether or not the rhetor asks the audience to do something. Many Twitter users advocating sociopolitical change (such as @Abortion_Rights, @WBCSays, and@GayWrites) do so by posting articles to inform their audience. While they can reach a large audience this way, said audience is usually restricted to those actually following them. Tweets of this nature are often retweeted less than 10 times. On the other hand, the tweets I’ve observed that request audience participation (e.g. “RT to say you don’t think #birthcontrol should be up for debate!” or “For real: Tell Russia & the @Olympics that #LoveConquersHate. Join @HRC and share your pic. #Sochi14 ”) can easily get hundreds of retweets. If the rhetor doesn’t actively request action, they often don’t get it.


On Twitter, velocity must be considered in a broader sense. The recirculation of a single tweet depends on the ethos of the rhetor, the presupposition of shared values between the rhetor and the audience, and whether or not the tweet calls for action from the audience.

Ethos is ALWAYS important. If the audience has any reason to question the rhetor’s credibility, they will call it out, especially from behind the safety of their computer screen. The Human Rights Campaign is one example of an organization the appears be credible, but those in the LGBT+ community are all too aware of their negative history regarding Trans* individuals, and so their tweets lose potential velocity because those who are otherwise sympathetic to the human rights cause refuse to support the Human Rights Campaign.

A prime example of ethos and presupposition gone bad is the Westboro Baptist Church. They post a mix of opinionated statements and articles. Articles in general have a low retweet rate, which will be explained shortly, but posts stating opinions usually have a somewhat higher rate. The Westboro Baptist Church, however, rarely gets retweets or favorites on anything. This is because their reputation is completely negative. They assume other Christians will agree with their views and methods, but that is incorrect. The few replies they do get are usually mocking and ridiculing their organization.

Tweets are often recirculated more if there is some sort of action the rhetor asks the audience to take. While this can be as simple as “RT is you like McDonald’s”, in the sociopolitical context, this is usually in the form of “RT to show that you support (or won’t stand for) !” People like to feel that they have some sort of influence, but they also often fear risking their own reputation or position. Murthy asks if Twitter can “bring feet to the street” by mobilizing the audience. A low risk situation has a higher chance of audience participation. It’s more likely that someone will retweet something if they are specifically encouraged to spread it, and there is a low risk factor. One such case would be the Human Rights Campaign’s open letter to New York City. The pre-written tweet made it very easy to recirculate, since almost no work was involved. One simply had to click two buttons, and *bam* they’ve helped spread a movement.

So what does all of this mean in the context of creating sociopolitical change? Upon studying the observations and readings, two conclusions can be reached. The first is that the recirculation of individual tweets is often very low, especially compared to celebrity tweets on ‘trending’ topics, so there isn’t nearly enough velocity here to start any sort of movement. In this context, what’s important is the velocity of ideas. And how do ideas gain velocity? Through hashtags and tweet volume. Information, opinions, and articles promoting the same idea have the same hashtag. Kristen Bell’s tweet for #LoveConquersHate has 558 retweets, but the entire #LoveConquersHate tag contains hundreds of thousands of tweets. When John Doe wants to know what’s going on in current social activism, it’s most likely that he’ll simply search for whatever topic he’s interested in. This is the best way to reach a larger audience, and potentially increase velocity, because tweets containing hashtags (or other topic-specific, easily searched terms) not only reach more people than just those that follow the rhetor, they are more likely to reach people who think the information or call to action is important, and are therefore more likely to recirculate it. Most rhetor’s recognize this fact, and they tag their tweets accordingly. The best way for a rhetor to make sure the audience sees THEIR message specifically in the hashtag stream is to keep putting it out there. A rhetor doesn’t spend hours crafting one perfect tweet that they believe will gain the velocity they need, instead they put out dozens of tweets, such as the HRC’s pre-written open letter tweet. In a forum with such a brief kairotic moment, the information must be presented over and over again to continue reaching the audience. This is why the Syrian government posted hundreds of tweets with the hashtag #syria in an attempt to hide the tweets activists had already posted. In effect, they forced the kairotic moment of the activists’ tweets to pass, burying them under banal information
The second conclusion, based on the overall low velocity of sociopolitical and activism-related tweets, and the research done on the Arab Spring movements, is that (while incredibly convenient, Twitter is just another means of communication. MENA governments saw it as a threat, not because the majority of their own populations used it, but because the communications were reaching the international media. As Murthy states, “Twitter is not the sole variable in activism.” He goes on to quote Jay Rosen, who accurately states, “Internet schminternet. Revolutions happen when they happen. Whatever means are lying around will get used.”
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