Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 40 (2015) 695–716
©2015 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Dissent and Resonance: #IdleNoMore as an Emergent Middle Ground

Candis Callison & Alfred Hermida
University of British Columbia

Candis Callison is Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, 6388 Crescent Road, Vancouver, BC  V6T 1Z2. Email: candis.callison@ubc.caAlfred Hermida is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, 6388 Crescent Road, Vancouver, BC  V6T 1Z2. Email: alfred.hermida@ubc.ca .


ABSTRACT  A growing body of research points to how social media, and specifically Twitter, is emerging as a hybrid space where citizens are involved in the flow, framing, and interpretation of news. Our study analyzes 743,365 tweets at the height of the Idle No More movement, from December 2012 to January 2013. Our analysis indicates a significant presence of non-elite and indigenous actors among the most influential voices on Twitter. We argue that #IdleNoMore produces a kind of “middle ground,” where the strengths of actors on all sides offset each other and demand articulations and accountability for explanations and descriptions. This middle ground offers a space where collective identity emerges in part through a process we are terming “resonance,” when actors articulate Idle No More-related messages and are subsequently retweeted.

KEYWORDS  Activism; IdleNoMore; Social media; Twitter

RÉSUMÉ  De plus en plus de recherches indiquent comment les médias sociaux, particulière-ment Twitter, sont en train de devenir des espaces hybrides où les citoyens s’impliquent dans la diffusion, l’encadrement et l’interprétation de l’actualité. Notre étude analyse 743 365 tweets au point fort du mouvement Idle No More, de décembre 2012 jusqu’à janvier 2013. Elle indique une présence significative de participants non élitaires et autochtones qui sont parmi les plus influents sur Twitter. Nous soutenons que #IdleNoMore offre un terrain d’entente où les aptitudes de participants de toutes parts se complètent, ceux-ci demandant une contextualisation et une responsabilisation à l’égard des explications et descriptions qui leurs sont données. Ce terrain d’entente offre un espace où une identité collective peut émerger, en partie au moyen d’un processus que nous appelons « résonance » lors duquel les participants formulent des messages relatifs à Idle No More que d’autres par la suite peuvent choisir de faire suivre.

MOTS CLÉS  Activisme; Idle No More; Résonance; Médias sociaux; Twitter


Introduction

On January 11, 2013, at the height of media and political attentions toward the Idle No More movement, a group of Aboriginal women stood at a side door to the Langevin Block in Ottawa, home to the Office of the Prime Minister. Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (Northern Québec) and a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), along with Shawn Atleo, then national chief of the AFN, and several other leaders, had been invited to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss the concerns of Idle No More (INM). A YouTube video posted quickly afterwards shows Coon Come making his way through a crowd of women to get to the door. The women plead with him not to enter. But he presses on, saying he represents 13,000 Cree who want him to go to the meeting.

Meeting the prime minister was controversial. The invitation had been rejected by many other leaders, including Theresa Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat, who at the time was camped in a tipi across from the Parliament buildings and a month into a hunger strike. Others questioned these leaders’ ability to represent the concerns of Idle No More, since the movement did not arise from their political leadership, but rather from what organizers called “the grassroots.”

When the door of Langevin Block closes behind Coon Come, Joan Jack, one of the gathered women, turns around to face the crowd. She is an Anishinaabe activist and lawyer from the Berens River First Nation in Manitoba who ran in a crowded field for the AFN national chief position in 2012. Jack yells to the crowd: “Everybody tweet: Matthew Coon Come went in. Everybody tweet: Matthew Coon Come went in. He should have never did that.” As her voice begins to crack, she contests his assertion that he represents all 13,000 Cree, imploring people to tweet it out as she types on her phone. Then in a moment of brevity, she adds: “I’m going to talk to his mom.” The crowd, mostly women, laughs.

This moment, perhaps more than any other, illustrates poignantly the ways in which Twitter was and remains deeply imbricated in the processes through which Idle No More mobilized and engaged supporters and critics across Canada and around the world. First, the video clip, linked from YouTube, came from the Twitter feed of Wab Kinew with the tweet: “Matthew Coon Come shouted at by women as he enters Langevin for PM meeting #idlenomore.” A former CBC journalist and member of Onigaming First Nation in Ontario, Kinew had, during the course of INM, emerged as a credible independent journalist and movement ally, reporting on and with the hashtag #IdleNoMore.

Second, Jack did not expressly seek out the attentions of mainstream journalists or news organizations as an activist might have a decade earlier. Rather, she sought to communicate directly and mobilize others to amplify her message through the well-established hashtag #IdleNoMore. The camera was a bystander. She was more engaged with the smartphone in her hand and the crowd around her than with what might be conveyed via a video clip or through a journalists’ observation of the scene and her role in it. Jack’s goal was to communicate with those who identified as members and/or allies of the movement, observers of the movement, and those whom political leaders purported to represent.

This study focuses on the INM hashtag on Twitter, #IdleNoMore, as the primary issue stream for the movement in order to investigate how hybrid media systems (Chadwick, 2013) and networked gatekeeping are shaping the dissemination and representation of news and information. Hybrid media systems, as advanced by Andrew Chadwick (2013), offer a framework that accounts for the “complexity, interdependence, and transition” between older and newer forms of media that “blend, overlap, intermesh, and coevolve” (p. 4). Studies into recent social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring show how committed individuals are appropriating social media as a tool to articulate a counter narrative and to contest selective or dismissive framing by mainstream media (Bellows, Bauml, Field, & Ledbetter, 2012; Gleason, 2013; Lotan, Graeff, Ananny, Gaffney, Pearce, & boyd, 2011; Meraz & Papacharissi, 2013). These movements do not have specific, concise demands that can be easily explained by mainstream media, but present open-ended, unspecified narratives where participants seek to create their own meaning (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013).

Our study analyzes 743,365 tweets at the height of the movement from December 2012 to January 2013, identifying key actors who shaped #IdleNoMore. Our findings indicate a significant presence of non-elite actors in both the top 500 most influential voices and the top 500 most retweeted sources on Twitter, with citizens reframing or reinterpreting a message through networked platforms that extend the dissemination of news through social interaction, introducing hybridity in news production and news values. As might be expected, the top 25 influential voices are primarily institutional elites, such as journalists from mainstream media organizations and celebrities. But, when considering which messages were retweeted the most, the ranking becomes much more complicated and diverse. Leading voices emerged on the one hand from INM activists and other well-known Aboriginal voices, and on the other hand, from and against those who openly challenged the movement.

While institutional actors such as journalists still wield considerable influence over information flows on social media, committed individuals engage with media by contesting narratives and highlighting media messages that are in line with their views, appropriating the sociotechnical affordances of Twitter. Drawing on both Richard White’s (1991) historical concept and James Clifford’s (2001) framework for analyzing articulation, we argue that #IdleNoMore produces a terrain for negotiation, a kind of “middle ground” where the strengths of actors on all sides offset each other and demand articulations and accountability for expressions, explanations, and descriptions of the movement. Mainstream media (whether pursuing objective-style reporting or explicitly antagonistic stances), political forces, and those aligned with INM are able to participate, enrol allies, and articulate messages that are circulated, popularized, and built upon within the space offered by the hashtag. This middle ground also offers a space for what Alberto Melucci (1996) terms “identization,” where the emergence of collective identity is facilitated on the middle ground, and in part through a process we are terming “resonance.”

The communicative affordances of Twitter

A growing body of research points to how social media, and specifically Twitter, is emerging as a hybrid space for the cultural production of news and information. The affordances of Twitter facilitate the real-time dissemination and reception of material from a wide range of sources, serving as an always-on, ambient media system (Hermida, 2010; Hermida, Lewis, & Zamith, 2014). News and information are woven into social awareness streams that represent a constantly updated public account of the experiences, interests, and opinions shared by the platform’s users. They are able to reframe or reinterpret messages through networked platforms that extend the dissemination of news through social interaction, infusing hybridity in news production, selection, and dissemination (Chadwick, 2011; Papacharissi & de Fatima Oliveira, 2012). As Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess (2011) note, “events and themes are filtered through the community’s own established interests and news frames, resulting in a distribution of attention that is different from that of the mainstream media or of general public debate” (p. 45).

The networked affordances of Twitter introduce uncertainty in determining influence. Users with significant follower counts are more likely to be influential on Twitter due to a higher profile and wider reach. Yet such influence on social media is relatively inconsistent and difficult to predict (Bakshy, Hofman, Mason, & Watts, 2011; Watts & Dobbs, 2007). The process of networked gatekeeping (Barzilai-Nahon, 2008) reveals the dynamics of influence and power in a hybrid media system where individual users can collectively assign influence to other users (Chadwick, 2013). Sharon Meraz and Zizi Papacharissi (2013) define this form of networked gatekeeping as “a process through which actors are crowdsourced to prominence through the use of conversational, social practices that symbiotically connect elite and crowd in the determination of information relevancy” (p. 22).

Practices of listening, redacting, and broadcasting serve to assign degrees of influence within the network, allowing non-elite actors to emerge as elite sources for engaged individuals—usually through the retweeting of messages organized around a hashtag (Gleason, 2013; Papacharissi & Meraz, 2012). The use of the hash symbol, #, followed by keywords has developed as a user-defined innovation on Twitter (Halavais, 2013). Hashtags are used as markers to label messages as relevant to an event, topic, and/or issue. The mechanism allows users to find and follow a particular stream of messages from a high volume of information. The inclusion of a hashtag indicates a desire to participate in a specific communicative exchange and make such content more visible on the network, beyond a user’s immediate circle of followers.

Axel Bruns and Hallvard Moe (2013) suggest that hashtags create a macro layer of communication on Twitter that facilitates the rapid forming of ad hoc issue publics, often in response to news events such as natural disasters, political unrest, or celebrity deaths. The constant, real-time flow of information on Twitter also means these publics may also dissolve just as quickly, as the specific hashtag issue declines in importance on the network. Such ad hoc publics can be seen as information neighbourhoods (Gruzd, Wellman, & Takhteyev, 2011) that coalesce around a specific event, topic, or issue associated with the hashtag. The communicative nature and persistence of such information neighbourhoods is still ambiguous. Tamara Small (2011) found few examples of dialogue in her analysis of the main Canadian political hashtag, #cdnpoli. Another study of the same hashtag noted four distinct information neighbourhoods had formed around the #cdnpoli hashtag (Samara, 2011).

Other studies have pointed to the formation of authentic communities with regular members around long-lasting hashtags (Lindgren & Lundström, 2011; Moe, 2012). Such cases are indicative of the potential of the hashtag to foster a form of network power through “switching.” For Manuel Castells (2009), switching is a form of network power that allows individuals to make connections across networks and leverage resources to contest hierarchical power. John Jones (2014) concluded that the use of hashtags around the 2009 healthcare debate served as expressions of network power as evidenced by switching behaviours within hashtagged exchanges. The hashtag, then, can serve as a mechanism on Twitter for loosely knit groups to debate, formulate, and articulate meaning.

The intersection between Idle No More and Twitter

The Idle No More movement was sparked by the actions of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Harper. In June of 2012, the Canadian government introduced the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, a “budget implementation” bill or an omnibus bill also called Bill C-38. Known for hiding spending in some countries, an omnibus bill is an uneven tool that can hide major and minor changes, affirming long-accepted decisions whilst also opening up new frontiers for debate and resistance. Bill C-38 amended about 70 federal laws in a single bill and is almost 500 pages long. When it was introduced, the opposition parties in Canada’s parliamentary system requested 1,330 amendments to the bill. The Conservative Party sought to limit debate and pushed the bill through with its majority vote despite best efforts put forward by Canada’s very small Green Party and much larger New Democrat and Liberal parties.

A large portion of Bill C-38 dealt with the environmental review process and sought to change consultation procedures affecting First Nations people. The bill was intended to streamline the review process so that proposed projects with measurable environmental impact would only have to go through a single review provincially or federally. However, given its omnibus nature, Bill C-38 also, among many other things, increased the retirement age, increased the governor general’s salary, increased cross-border cooperation with the US, provided a mini-tax break, enacted major changes to the fisheries, and most prominently, phased out the penny.

In October, a second omnibus bill was introduced: Bill C-45, the Jobs and Growth Act, 2012. With an impact on 64 federal regulations this time around, it weighed in at over 400 pages. Like its predecessor, Bill C-45 had everything from immigration to income tax. But it also continued with what Bill C-38 had started by a) making it easier for First Nations to clear the way for projects to be developed, b) removing most lakes and rivers from protection under the Navigable Waters Act (previously, new projects had to prove they would not harm navigable waterways; now they would only have to do that in cases selected by the Minister of Environment; and c) it further reduced the number of projects that would have to go through the “streamlined” environmental review process.

Unlike C-38, however, C-45 got a group of four indigenous and non-indigenous women talking in Saskatoon. Sheelah McLean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon decided to, as they later described it to a reporter, “raise consciousness” by starting a Facebook page, holding a teach-in to educate their students, and tweeting a little about their efforts. Their first tweet with the hashtag #IdleNoMore was posted on November 4, 2012, by Jessica Gordon (2012).1

What followed was a coordinated effort online and offline to establish a response to and movement against Bill C-45. After smaller non-violent protests, December 10, 2012, marked the first large-scale multicity protest dubbed a “National Day of Action.” That day also marks the first national media attention paid to this growing movement. INM founder Gordon was quoted as saying, “We’re asserting our sovereignty against the colonial legislation being pushed through by the government” (Spray, 2012). Other indigenous experts and leaders quoted for the article go on to state that these changes affect all Canadians, that ordinary people cannot hope to “get their heads around” the volume of information contained in an omnibus bill, and that it is the responsibility of indigenous people to defend the land, while also enjoining the general public to participate.

The next day, Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario began a hunger strike in a tipi set up on Victoria Island across from Canada’s Parliament buildings. Attawapiskat had been in the news during 2011 and 2012 because of an ongoing housing crisis. While Spence was not one of the INM founders, her strike was widely seen as an important act of solidarity that raised the stakes for the movement and political attentions to it. Spence was followed very closely by mainstream media and was critiqued by those commentators who were openly hostile to the movement and Spence personally. She was, at the same time, widely supported on Twitter via the hashtag #IdleNoMore, and many voiced growing concern for her as her hunger strike stretched into weeks. The physicality of Spence’s continual presence and the evolving, varied reactions to it reflect the hybridity of a mixed media system, where newer and older media logics conflict and contest multiple meanings and responses (Chadwick, 2013).2

Alongside Spence’s strike, peaceful protests grew in volume and creativity. For example, round dances and stick games, traditional expressions of celebration and play in varied First Nations cultures, were held in malls while non-violent protest marches converged on city halls and provincial legislatures. After a slow start in the early days of December, mainstream media coverage (broadcast television, radio, and newspapers, and their online versions) grew quickly.3 It reached a height during the much-debated and maligned meeting held between Harper and the few First Nations leaders who agreed to meet with him on January 11, 2013, described at the start of this article.

Like #Egypt and #Occupy, collaboratively generated news streams emerged through #IdleNoMore that recorded, analyzed, and explained the rapid twisting and turning of events. Our preliminary analysis for a related study in process found that a substantial number of articles circulating on #IdleNoMore came from mainstream media, but they were rivalled by reports from alternative media such as Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN, 2012), Democracy Now! (2012), and rabble.ca (Kraus, 2012). Leading bloggers, in particular, and the motley crew of spokespeople who emerged in this multi-vocal, networked social movement explicitly used terms like settler and colonialist as way to both explain and disrupt Canadian historical narratives and identity. Glen Coulthard (2012), a University of British Columbia (UBC) First Nations and Political Science professor who goes by the Twitter handle @denerevenge, penned an article for the online journal Decolonization that set INM in a continuum of varied efforts over the last several decades to disrupt and “impede constituted flows of racialized capital and state power from entering Indigenous territories” (n.p.).

The current moment of INM, Coulthard argued, stands in contrast to the angry, violent protests of the 1980s and early 1990s, such as the armed standoff between Québec police and Mohawk warriors known as the Oka Crisis, or the logging protests and blockades by First Nations people in British Columbia that preceded it. INM has been and continues to be characterized instead by non-violent and non-economic protests. Underlying Coulthard’s argument is the notion that the present is not postcolonial, but rather ongoing colonialism. Colonialism, as many scholars have argued, is constituted and perpetuated through multiple forms of violence, even while being extended unevenly and in more subtly destructive forms. In Canada, such multiple forms of violence are represented by the annexation of land, relocation, enclosure, the removal of livelihoods and legal recourse, residential schools, the prohibition of language and culture, flexibly applied inscriptions of state-recognized identity, and many other elements of the 1876 Indian Act. Sociologist Renisa Mawani (2005) has argued that colonial rule in Canada was not simply about “securing white privilege but also about restricting access to colonial alterities and the land and resource rights that accompanied legal recognition” (p. 317). Inscription of identity and otherness, legally, bureaucratically, and procedurally, is thus intimately intertwined with rights to land and resources in a Canadian context.

Media representation poses another complicated layer with regards to identity, otherness, and colonialism. Critical race and media scholars working across disciplines have consistently pointed out the ways in which mainstream media have failed in the representation and inclusion of First Nations issues and voices (Anderson & Robertson, 2011; Lambertus, 2004; Mahtani, 2001). Mainstream media are likely to represent minorities and, in particular, First Nations in either a negative or stereotypical light, or to exclude their perspectives altogether from their coverage (Fleras & Kunz, 2001; Hirji & Karim, 2009; Jiwani, 2006; Mahtani, 2008). Moreover, First Nations individuals and communities are not likely to see themselves represented accurately or at all in most national and regional media coverage (Henry & Tator, 2002; Lambertus, 2004). Historically, this has been shown to be a consistent practice. A 2011 study analyzed Canadian newspapers from the earliest days of confederation forward and showed how news narratives have continually represented indigenous people throughout Canada as “other,” and as morally, physically, and spiritually degenerate (Anderson & Robertson, 2011).

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), launched in 1999, as well as other indigenous-led media outlets that launched from the 1960s onward across Northern Canada, have provided important vehicles for self-representation and counter-narratives (Alia, 1999; David, 2012; Ginsberg, Abu-Lughod, & Larkin, 2002; Hafsteinsson & Bredin, 2010). APTN represents an alternative media source to mainstream media. It has experimented with online communities and content, but like the vast majority of news outlets, it uses Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as its key social media tools. During INM, APTN was the first to report substantively and regularly on developments within the movement. While much of the mainstream national and regional media looked to define the movement, generally characterizing it as a surprising and sometimes confusing turn of events, APTN, in contrast, reported on INM’s evolution and responses to it with much more clarity about what the movement was, who the leaders were, and the roots of the movement’s concerns. APTN’s effective use of Twitter elevated two of APTN’s reporters to the category of crowdsourced elite, which we will later discuss.

Since the period of our study, INM has evolved to ally with other movements and continued with periodic peaceful protests. The movement remains active on Facebook, Twitter, and through its website with more fully elaborated statements about what it wants to accomplish with regards to treaties, sovereignty, Canadian policies, environmental protections, and land rights. However, at time of writing, the #IdleNoMore hashtag has not reached the peaks and worldwide engagement it saw during the period of our study.

Methods

We used Topsy Pro Analytics to gather our data. It was a Web-based subscription social media service offered by Topsy Labs that provided real-time indexing, search, and analysis of the Twitter stream. Topsy Labs was one of a small number of companies with access to the Twitter “firehose”—the entire history of public tweets since 2006. We gained access to the service by paying a subscription fee. Apple bought the company in December 2013 for a reported U.S.$200 million (Wakabayashi & MacMillan, 2013).

Using Topsy Pro Analytics, we analyzed 743,365 tweets gathered in November 2013 that were identified as containing the hashtag #IdleNoMore. The data covers the period when the movement started and was most active: from December 2012 to January 2013. The data includes 249,777 tweets, 460,658 retweets, and 32,930 replies. Of these, 333,299 came from mobile devices and the remaining 410,066 from non-mobile devices. The period of analysis is comparable to similar time frames used in the other research on Twitter and social movements (Lewis, Zamith, & Hermida, 2013; Lotan et al., 2011).

Our data set is not a complete record of every single message related to the Idle No More movement, given the limitations of search results from Topsy Pro. Topsy removes tweets that have been deleted from the Twitter firehose. Tweets without at least six retweets or a retweet by an influential user are removed from the search index after 30 days. The reason is to optimize the search results for speed, ranking, and retrieval. We recognize that our database of tweets does not necessarily include every single message with the #IdleNoMore hashtag. Similarly, it does not include messages related to the movement that did not include the hashtag. For the purposes of this article, the sample provides the messages that achieved a degree of prominence during the period of our study by engaged individuals who congregated around #IdleNoMore.

“Tweet decay” is a part of what David Karpf (2012) identifies as a problem of researching in “Internet time,” where generalized research assumptions and methods do not hold and/or are untested, and findings are published long after events take place. Karpf recommends transparency and “kludginess”—in other words, openness about the incompleteness of data, as well as workarounds and “elegant solutions” to common problems such as proprietary algorithms or other black-boxed elements of available analytical tools. In our case, we chose to work with Topsy Pro because we deemed the data set “robust enough” to investigate the phenomena we watched happen in real time while observing the rise of Idle No More and the emergence of a new range of voices.

Based on the sample of 743,365 tweets, we identified the key actors using two approaches. Firstly we used Topsy Labs’ influence algorithm to single out the 500 most influential users (Topsy Pro, 2012), even though it meant working within the shortcomings of relying on proprietary algorithmic methods (Ampofo, Collister, O’Loughlin, & Chadwick, 2013; boyd & Crawford, 2012). Topsy ranks the influence level of an author on a scale of zero to ten, with ten being “highly influential” and nine being “influential.” The level is based on a logarithmic scale, so influence has a very skewed distribution. The 500 accounts we analyzed all had an influence score of ten. Topsy measures influence by the degree to which a user’s tweets are likely to get attention from other users. An account gains a higher measure of influence if it has received attention from other influential users. The Topsy influence algorithm seeks to identify the accounts that may not post much, but when they do post, people pay attention.

Secondly, we used the retweet count in Topsy to select the 500 most retweeted accounts. This provides an indication of which messages were selected by other users to resend onto their networks. While such a process is visible, it can be challenging to gain an aggregate perspective as events unfold due to the speed volume of the data. By using Topsy Pro, we were able to identity the most retweeted accounts. This measure does not include other metrics, such as number of followers or an individual account gaining influence when it is noticed by other influential accounts.

The results gave us two ways to quantify influence on Twitter, with two lists of 500 Twitter users: one list of the most influential accounts and one of the most retweeted. The lists included fields for name, Twitter handle, profile, and account URL. The key variable for this study was the actor type. The classifications were adapted from Gilad Lotan, Erhardt Graeff, Mike Annany, Devin Gaffney, Ian Pearce, and danah boyd (2011) and from Alfred Hermida, Seth Lewis, and Rodrigo Zamith (2014). The actor types included activists, bloggers, celebrities, independent/alternative media employees, independent/alternative media organizations, mainstream media employees, mainstream media organizations, members of the public, non-media activist organizations, non-media non-activist organizations, political actors, researchers/experts, and bots or any other type of account. For a description of each actor type, see Table 1.

Table 1: Source type definitions

Table 1: Source type definitions 

Note: Source type categories adapted from Hermida et al. (2014) and from Lotan et al. (2011). 

The actor type was coded by three independent coders and later reviewed by the researchers, comparable to the methods used by Lotan et al. (2011) and Hermida et al. (2014). The stored Twitter profile was used as the primary source for coding. Coders could also access a user’s current Twitter bio, as well as any related websites or blogs. As previous studies have found, several users were difficult to classify into one category. Our approach was to decide on the best fit, based primarily on their self-representation through their Twitter profile. When there was a lack of clarity of actor types, the account was reviewed by the researchers and recoded. A total of 30 (6%) in the influence list and 34 (6.8%) in the retweet list were recoded.

Additionally, the users in both sets of data were coded by indigeneity, as indigenous, non-indigenous, or unknown. In our coding, we found a significant number of indigenous users stated their indigeneity in their Twitter profile. The Government of Canada defines Aboriginal peoples as “the descendants of the original inhabitants of North America,” and recognizes three groups: Indians (commonly referred to as First Nations), Metis, and Inuit (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2013). For our study, a user was coded as indigenous if they self-identified as such. When there was a lack of clarity of actor types, the account was reviewed by the researchers and recoded. A total of 65 (13%) in the influence list and 35 (7%) in the retweet list were recoded.

Findings

Source type by influence

The first level of analysis was by influence, based on the Topsy influence algorithm. Our results indicate a significant presence of non-elite actors in the top 500 most influential voices using #IdleNoMore (see Table 2). Members of the public accounted for the largest single grouping at 26.6 percent (133 users). Actors classified as alternative voices (non-affiliated activists, bloggers, and those not associated with media organizations) came a close second at 23.8 percent. Institutional elites accounted for 18.8 percent, while mainstream media actors made up 16.4 percent of the sample. The smallest group was alternative media at 8.4 percent.

 

Table 2: Relative prominence of top 500 source types—by influence and by retweet—for #IdleNoMore, December 2012–January 2013

 Table 2: Relative prominence of top 500 source types—by influence and by retweet—for #IdleNoMore, December 2012–January 2013

Breaking down the category types provides further insights into the mix of voices ranked as influential. Bloggers and celebrities accounted for the second most prominent actor types, after members of the public. Bloggers made up 13.4 percent (67 users) of the sample, while celebrities made up 12.8 percent (64 users). The remaining actor types were all in single digits. Mainstream media was poorly represented, with media organizations making up 8.6 percent (43 users) and mainstream journalists at 7.8 percent (39 users). Institutions, at 1.2 percent (6 users), and political actors, at 1.4 percent (7 users), were the least featured sources.

Table 3: Top 25 influencers, #IdleNoMore

 Table 3: Top 25 influencers, #IdleNoMore

Note: The mainstream media category comprises mainstream media organizations, mainstream new media organizations, and mainstream media employees. The alternative voices category comprises bloggers, activist organizations (non-media), and activist individuals. The institutional elites category comprises non-media non-activist organizations, political actors, celebrities, and researchers. The other category comprises bots and all other source types.

However, a closer look at the top 25 of the 500 accounts paints a different picture (see Table 3). No members of the public appear here. Mainstream media outlets and journalists are far more well represented in the top 25 list than in the overall 500 accounts, making up 40 percent of users. Al Jazeera English tops the list, but the three main Canadian newspapers, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and the Toronto Star, are featured at positions 8, 18, and 25. Journalist Andrew Coyne, a political columnist with the National Post and a member of the CBC’s At Issue panel, is at 19. The most prominent people who were classified as mainstream media employees both achieved celebrity status through their work as CBC presenters: George Stroumboulopoulos at 9 and Jian Ghomeshi at 10.

Other journalists in the top 25 include the former National Public Radio (NPR) social media strategist Andy Carvin, who rose to note for his tweeting during the Arab Spring. While he is under the category of mainstream media employee, his reporting on Twitter veers from the standard norms of journalism (Hermida et al., 2014). He represents the difficulty of allocating a single actor type to individuals. Similarly, journalist Laurie Penny, at number 12, was classified as a mainstream media employee, as she contributes to New Statesman magazine and the Guardian. Yet she also described herself on her Twitter bio as a feminist, rabble-rouser, and reprobate. Users related to alternative or independent media made up just 12 percent of the top 25 (three accounts).

By far the single most dominant actor type in the top 25 is celebrities, most of them Canadian. The nine in the list include comedian and TV personality Daryn Jones, popstar Nelly Furtado, actress Tinsel Korey, and author William Gibson. Indeed, some of the other top users could be considered celebrities in their respective fields, such as the Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy and science blogger PZ Myers. Even one account classified as “other” in the top 25 is linked to celebrity, as it uses Geet Handa, the name of a fictional character in an award-winning Indian soap opera, as its user name. Users related to alternative or independent media made up just 12 percent of the top 25 (three accounts).

Source type by retweet

In order to gain insights into the dynamics of networked gatekeeping by the engaged individuals using #IdleNoMore, actor types were ranked by retweets. The ranking becomes much more complicated and diverse when considering which sources were the 500 most retweeted (see Table 2). Alternative voices make up the largest single group at 32.8 percent (164 users). Within this grouping, more than half of these actors—17.2 percent (86 users) of the 500—are individuals who self-identified as activists or tweeted about activist topics, but were not connected to a specific group. Bloggers and activist organizations both made up 7.8 percent with 39 users each.

Members of the public remain prominent at 23.2 percent, but close behind are institutional elites at 21.6 percent. Sizeable numbers within this grouping are celebrities at 6 percent (45 users), and researchers/experts are at 7.2 percent (36 users). The media is relatively poorly represented. Mainstream media employees account for 8 percent and mainstream media organizations for 4 percent. Surprisingly, alternative media employees only make up 5 percent of sources, with alternative media organizations at 4.2 percent.

Focusing on the top 25 most retweeted users reveals how leading voices emerged from Idle No More activists and other well-known Aboriginal voices on the one hand, and from and against those who openly challenged the movement on the other (see Table 4). The Twitter accounts of Anonymous and the Idle No More movement itself were the top two retweeted sources. The rest of the top 25 are predominantly comprised of sources sympathetic to the cause, such as independent media employee Wab Kinew, activist Jarrett Martineau, and blogger Âpihtawikosisân (Chelsea Vowel).

Table 4: Top 25 retweeted accounts, #IdleNoMore

 Table 4: Top 25 retweeted accounts, #IdleNoMore

Note: The mainstream media category comprises mainstream media organizations, mainstream new media organizations, and mainstream media employees. The alternative voices category comprises bloggers, activist organizations (non-media), and activist individuals. The institutional elites category comprises non-media non-activist organizations, political actors, celebrities, and researchers. The other category comprises bots and all other source types.

Such alternative perspectives dominate the list of the 25 most retweeted users. The alternative voices grouping makes up 28 percent of the sample, with seven users. Alternative media account for 20 percent with five users, including APTN and rabble.ca. In contrast, the mainstream media are poorly represented. There are only three representatives of the mainstream media in the top 25, the same number as members of the public. One of them is former CBC radio host and personality Jian Ghomeshi, who is fourth on the list. Even though the national broadcaster employed Ghomeshi at the time, he was perceived as being less dismissive of the movement than the national press. The other two of the three mainstream media accounts in the top 25 belong to some of the most vocal critics of the movement—the right-leaning Sun News Network at number seven and its provocative TV host Ezra Levant at number 18.

Seven celebrities or artists account for the largest single grouping on the list, as with the top 25 influencers. Two of them appear on both lists: Canadian singer Nelly Furtado and Canadian author Margaret Atwood. The other retweeted figures are indigenous celebrities and artists, including Deejay NDN of A Tribe Called Red, comedian Ryan McMahon, author Aaron Paquette, and artist Christi Belcourt. They highlight the challenges in attributing one overriding actor type to individuals. As celebrities, they fall within the institutional elite category. Yet they could also be seen as individuals who veered into activism on #IdleNoMore because much of their work as artist/celebrity/musician focuses on the same issues that concern INM as a movement.

Overall, the top 25 list of the most retweeted accounts diverges significantly from the top 25 influencers. Mainstream sources were eschewed in favour of actors who can be considered as broadly supportive of Idle No More, accounting for almost 90 percent of the top retweeted accounts. Moreover, a fifth were either individual activists or members of the public. One of the members of the public was Patricia Stein, a Lakota from North Dakota, who used the Twitter handle of @pygmysioux (now changed to @SiouxweetNSauer).

The primary school teacher came to the attention of Idle No More supporters in Canada for protesting outside the Canadian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, where she was living at the time. APTN and the independent news site the Media Co-op reported on her first protest on December 21, 2011, and showed photos of her holding up two signs, one with the name of the movement and the second saying “Harper will not silence me” (APTN, 2012; Boctor, 2013). Through the practices of listening, redacting, and broadcasting on Twitter, Stein was one of a select group of individuals who became a leading voice within the information neighbourhood of #IdleNoMore.

Source type by indigeneity

Given the indigenous origins of the Idle No More movement, the actor types in both the influence and retweeted lists were coded as indigenous or non-indigenous. The coding revealed stark differences between the two sets of sources. Of the top 500 most influential users, only ten users (2%) were identified as indigenous compared to 432 non-indigenous users (86.4%). The indigeneity of 58 users (11.6%) was unclear, so these were coded as unknown. By comparison, the list of the 500 most retweeted users was more balanced, with 209 identified as indigenous, making up 41.8 percent. Non-indigenous sources accounted for 247 sources (49.4%). And 44 users (8.8%) were coded as unknown.

The disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous sources were more pronounced when analyzing the top 25 voices in either list. Only one of the 25 most influential voices was indigenous, the actress Tinsel Korey. In contrast, there are 14 indigenous voices (56%) on the top 25 most retweeted list and 11 non-indigenous (44%). The indigenous voices are mostly made up of celebrities, alternative voices, and members of the public who gained their status through crowdsourcing practices by engaged individuals on #IdleNoMore.

Discussion

What social media tools offer, as has been pointed out by many scholars, is a chance to be seen, heard, and listened to outside the established channels for news and information. As a further basis, our analysis reflects on and with the framework offered by Alberto Melucci (1996) where social movements are “systems of action, complex networks among the different levels and meanings of social action” and collective identity “the outcome of exchanges, negotiations, decisions, and conflicts among actors” (p. 4). Taken together, what our analysis of the INM hashtag presents is that social media tools are more than a technology of and for collaboration. Beyond the verification and corroboration of news events, they are a tool for articulation through a process we are calling resonance.

Resonance describes the process we have observed “where a crowdsourced elite articulates in open and evolving terms the meaning, history, and substance of what it means to be a part of INM as ally and participant” (Callison & Hermida, 2015, n.p.). In this case, the crowdsourced elite we have identified is composed of a greater proportion of indigenous individuals who are usually absent from mainstream media representations. That their statements, affirmations, and critiques are subsequently retweeted acts to both affirm their articulation and strategically positions the retweeters as they seek to enrol in the movement either partially or wholly. Some of the most retweeted tweets from the crowdsourced elite dealt with larger frames of colonialism, alliance, and the need for change. For example, here is a sample of tweets by users from the list of the top 25 most retweeted accounts (see Table 4) during the period of our study of INM.

On January 4, 2013, from Jarrett Martineau (@culturite): “From Egypt’s #JAN25 in 2011 to #IdleNoMore’s #J11 in 2013 … http://t.co/QWZ6tOT2 #strongertogether https://twitter.com/culturite/status/287429209545134080 .”
On January 8, 2013, from Wab Kinew (@WabKinew): “Youth are engaged. Older generations are standing strong. Canadians of all backgrounds are offering support. Change is here #IdleNoMore .”
On January 9, 2013, from Nelly Furtado (@NellyFurtado): “The t-shirt says, ‘Canada–Our Home On Native Land.’ I couldn’t agree more. #IdleNoMore http://yfrog.com/oc32cutuj .”
On January 11, 2013, from Naomi Klein (@NaomiAKlein): “Was just offered Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal from GG. I respectfully decline in solidarity with hunger strikers + #IdleNoMore .”

Multivocality through diverse spokespeople, which is the very element held up for criticism of INM (and Occupy and Arab Spring before it) by mainstream media—that this movement does not know what it wants nor does it have specific demands—is therefore a substantive and defining quality. It is what allows for a process of broad enrolment, consensus, and alliance, as well as criticism and opposition.

Unlike the oft-used notion of an echo chamber, resonance acknowledges the process Melucci (1996) termed “identization” as a defining aspect of the movement. The conscious process of self-reflection dynamically constructed and reconstructed acts to cohere an evolving collective identity for the movement. Idle No More may have begun with a small group of women’s stark reaction to Bill C-45, but it became a broad range of voices, as evidenced by #IdleNoMore. Networked gatekeeping through use of the #IdleNoMore hashtag resulted in the emergence of a crowdsourced elite who drew on larger frames of colonialism, alliance, and the need for change. Elite in this case refers to digitally savvy trustworthy sources elevated because their tweets resonate with many members and allies of the movement, or alternatively, opponents of the movement. Elite may or may not exclude those from mainstream media, as the presence of George Stroumboulopoulos and Ezra Levant indicate.

The concept of resonance also draws on Stuart Hall’s (1986b) notions of articulation, where meaningful discourse is understood to be constructed, contested, and always in motion. Hall, like Melucci, draws on Antonio Gramsci (Hall, 1986a) to account for cultural transformation while acknowledging the dominant structures and systems where inequality and hegemony persist. Melucci (1996) further explains the work of new social movements as a struggle for definition and meaning. It is in this space where Hall’s notion of articulation offers a method for considering the disparate voices and concerns that emerge and coalesce within the INM stream in unpredictable, non-systematic ways.

Articulation is particularly powerful for understanding multivocality related to indigenous movements, for which it has oft been a hallmark. James Clifford (2001) has used Hall’s concept of articulation specifically to understand indigenous movements in the Pacific, to account for “the diversity of cultures and histories that currently make claims under this [indigenous] banner,” and in order to get at the “productive processes of consensus, exclusion, alliance, and antagonism that are inherent in the transformative life of all societies” (pp. 472–473). With such a framework, questions of authenticity—who or what is indigenous, or who can belong to and speak for the movement—fall to the side. For #IdleNoMore, the persistence of cultural and political forms, the remaking and unmaking of collectivity and alliance, as well as the collaborative nature of such a process, become central to understanding the movement as a social and political force. Networked gatekeeping facilitated this broader range of voices emerging through the INM hashtag, in contrast to more structural measures of influence.

In acknowledging the non-static ways in which cultural and political positions are “up for grabs” and in the process of being articulated, Clifford arrives at the idea of a “middle ground,” where cultural transformation might be viewed in an non-reductive way related more to collaborative discovery and less to a hardening of positions. Richard White (1991), in his historical study of the Great Lakes region, arrives at this conclusion more forcefully in his book by the same name, Middle Ground. Unlike many prior histories of colonialism in Canada, White’s study of the Great Lakes region during the period of 1650 to 1815 finds that a terrain for negotiation between settlers and indigenous peoples exists because the strength on each side offsets the other, demanding accountability for how shared space is delineated, used, and partitioned. As events White describes in detail—disease, war, alliances (broken and kept)—tilt the balance, the middle ground evaporates and dominance sets the stage for the colonial oppression that will follow.

In bringing together White’s historical perspective and Clifford’s explanation of more recent indigenous movements, we offer both a precedent for and some continuity with the collective identity formation Twitter affords, where articulations and alliance with (or criticism of) these articulations are made possible. The middle ground, where definitions and meanings are fluid, enables accountability, articulation, resonance, and the emergence of a crowdsourced elite through the mechanism of the retweet. The middle ground also offers affordances to those who oppose INM, its concerns, and emergence. The middle ground, then, is “a proving ground for articulations both for and against the movement, and is structured by the affordances and dynamics of Twitter as a platform” (Callison & Hermida, 2015, n.p.).

Twitter is one of a suite of media platforms, arguably the most important for INM during this period, where self-representation and direct address outside of the mainstream media are possible and widely available. Engagement with and collaboration through Twitter and other networked technologies by people outside news organizations thus neutralizes, challenges, and/or reinforces the power of media institutions to construct social reality and define the movement. The inherent valuing of collaboration and the presence of a middle ground are reflected in the multivocality of INM, as indicated by the stark contrast between the makeup of crowdsourced elites compared to more traditional elites. INM during the period of our study was not rooted in spokespeople giving sound bytes to reporters, as might be characteristic of movements past, but in social media-driven alternative and collaborative information flows evolving over time at varying paces (Chadwick, 2013; Meraz & Papacharissi, 2013; Papacharissi & Meraz, 2012).

INM has not only been marked by its multivocality and the import of social media, but also by the possibilities of strategic alliances with others, such as environment, human rights, and labor groups, who share concerns about Bill C-45 and major industrial projects. Yet they are challenged too to make sense of a colonial past and legacy, of the inequities that remain in requests for acknowledgement of treaties, rights, and sovereignty, of how it is that what seemed part of a long-ago past is suddenly a part of the present. Questions remain then of how and when differences in goals, practices, and epistemologies matter in such collaboration, and whether Twitter or other social media platforms might further facilitate a robust enough middle ground to afford navigation of and reflexivity about such differences.

Conclusion

In our analysis of actors who rose to prominence on the INM hashtag, we have observed processes of multivocal articulation where a crowdsourced elite composed of a greater proportion of indigenous and alternative voices rose to prominence. Their status as a crowdsourced elite stems from the influence they amassed through the network established via the hashtag—as the most retweeted during a time of intensive media, political, and public attentions. We are terming this resonance. It emerges as a form of influence generated by users active on the network that contests power structures outside the network. Resonance is the process by which articulations get taken up and retweeted and affirmed by movement participants using the network. It is constitutive to the process by which the movement’s collective identity on the hashtag was collaboratively and openly constructed during the period of study. Articulations by a crowdsourced elite, being both fluid and dynamic, act collaboratively via retweeting to define the movement’s concerns and the meaning and symbolic nature of events.

There is an inherent redistribution of power in the process of resonance and articulation where those who inherit structural power (those deemed top influencers) do not necessarily retain their influence on the hashtag. Rather, those who emerge as network influencers via the retweeting process have their influence assigned by others acting within the parameters and confines of Twitter, both for and against the movement. INM offers an example of networked forms of leadership and gatekeeping, where actors emerge through conversational practices of thousands of individuals making decisions on the relevance of a fragment of information.

In many ways, Twitter imitates and replicates existing power structures in society by elevating those with influence through mainstream media. Yet retweeting creates conditions for supplanting influencers when those in the network resonate with the articulations offered by alternative voices. Alternative structures emerge within the network and take advantage of its affordances, facilitating a crowdsourced elite capable of negotiating the processes of articulation and resonance. It is in this sense that Twitter affords a contested middle ground for relevance, meaning, and interpretation.

Notes

  1. See The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More movement, edited by the Kino-nda-niimi Collective and released in March, 2014, for multiple accounts of how Idle No More emerged as a movement.
  2. We thank an anonymous reviewer for helping us articulate the significance of Spence’s physical act in relation to Chadwick’s (2013) concept of a hybrid media system.
  3. For those following the movement on Twitter and/or Facebook, the differences were particularly stark throughout most of December.

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