It Ain’t Over When the Hashtag Sings

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Well, the two-year long campaign is over, the votes have been counted, and the Scots have voted to remain in the United Kingdom. The vote was both decisive, and a bit of a surprise in light of the eve-of-election polls—which predicted a much closer outcome—so close that many who campaigned for independence appear to have been genuinely confident of victory. If one had been going by the trending analytics of the #YesScotland movement, which led the #BetterTogether movement by a good three-to-one margin, according to the BBC, the outcome of the referendum would have been even more surprising. And if social media analytics were the means by which democracies make their decisions, Scotland would probably be an independent nation today. Which takes me to the point of my analysis. From reading a lot of online commentary, even at supposedly staid sites like Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education, I often get the impression that a lot of participants in the "comments” sections believe that if they can get the most posts in on their side of any particularly controversial topic, then, somehow, they have won something.  Similarly, if your “side” can get in more tweets with the right hashtags than the other side, then, for many people, you’ve won.  I can’t help but think that this sort of thing has been encouraged by the cultures of Facebook and Twitter, whereby one accumulates “likes,” “friends” and “followers” that are taken as genuine signifiers of popularity and/or importance.  RTV shows like American Idol, with their mass media simulacra of actual election-based voting, have also had a probable influence on this phenomenon. But as the Scottish vote can remind us, when all is said and done and the actual (not virtual) votes are counted, social media are still just that: social media, not voting platforms.  For all the glamor, money, and attention that social media enjoy in the world today (indeed, it could be argued with little difficulty that social media are the most dominant expressions of popular culture in our time), we are not at the point where democratic decision making is going to be a matter of winning the hashtag wars.  While it is not impossible to imagine a time when social media platforms may actually become venues for real-world voting outcomes, we’re not there yet.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.