#Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States


by Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa

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As thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to protest the fatal police shooting of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown in the summer of 2014, news and commentary on the shooting, the protests, and the militarized response that followed circulated widely through social media networks. Through a theorization of hashtag usage, we discuss how and why social media platforms have become powerful sites for documenting and challenging episodes of police brutality and the misrepresentation of racialized bodies in mainstream media. We show how engaging in “hashtag activism” can forge a shared political temporality, and, additionally, we examine how social media platforms can provide strategic outlets for contesting and reimagining the materiality of racialized bodies. Our analysis combines approaches from linguistic anthropology and social movements research to investigate the semiotics of digital protest and to interrogate both the possibilities and the pitfalls of engaging in “hashtag ethnography.”