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Beyond the #Hashtag: Movement Building Lessons from #CancelColbert



If you’ve checked Facebook or Twitter since last Thursday, chances are you’ve seen something about the controversy that erupted over Stephen Colbert’s (neither successful nor funny) satire of Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder, and the rage that was unleashed upon him by online activist Suey Park and her Twitter followers.

For a good description of the #CancelColbert kerfuffle, go here. In short: The Colbert Report account tweeted a decidedly unfunny joke about Asians, smacking of out of context hipster racism. Suey Park leaped into action with the #CancelColbert hashtag. Michelle Malkin jumped on her bandwagon. Chaos ensued.

Almost all of the conversation about #CancelColbert, Suey Park, and hashtag activism during the past few days has focused on whether or not Park’s anger was justified, and to a lesser extent, on the media representation of Asian Americans and the limitations of Twitter and hashtag activism as a tool for social change.

Rather than wading into those waters, I want to take a step back and look at the broader picture. Specifically, I want to look at the movement building picture, and how this moment can actually teach us some useful lessons about what it takes to work for social change in the digital age.

During the past ten years, I have been both a grassroots organizer at CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities in New York City, where I was the director of CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union project, and more recently, I’ve been working as an online and social media organizer for a national campaign. I think a lot about online and offline organizing, and how the two intersect.

Here are two of the lessons that I’m taking away from #CancelColbert:

1. There’s no substitute for face-to-face organizing work. It’s difficult and messy, but it’s how we build the vehicles we need to push for long-term and transformative change.

I want to illustrate this point by going back 10 years and engaging in a bit of a thought experiment — in 2004, Details magazine published a piece titled “Gay or Asian?” that featured a photo of an East Asian man, and “tips” on how to tell the difference. Here’s some of the text that accompanied the photo: “One cruises for chicken; the other takes it General Tso-style. Whether you’re into shrimp balls or shaved balls, entering the dragon requires imperial tastes.”

Not surprisingly, the article generated a storm of protests over its casual racism and homophobia — and over how it completely erased the existence of gay Asian men. To protest, LGBT Asian American individuals and groups came together, had meetings late into the evening, and planned and held demonstrations. Through this organizing process, they built lasting relationships with one another, relationships that according to Ben de Guzman, eventually led the following year to the formation of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. Today, the network of more than 30 LGBT Asian American organizations is, among other work, fighting for immigration reform and lifting up the stories of queer Asian immigrants.

Here’s where the thought experiment comes in — what if the same article came out a year ago, or today? It’s easy to imagine and believe that a fierce backlash would erupt on twitter (#DetailsorRacist, anyone?). The hashtag would probably trend. Details magazine might even issue an apology.

But would that same level of offline organizing that happened in 2004 occur today? Would those same deep relationships based on time spent together planning, strategizing, and organizing still be built? I’m not sure, but I think the answer is that it’d be less likely. And if that’s the case, who knows whether NQAPIA, and the important work it’s doing, would exist.

This is just one example  — there are dozens of examples of organizations that emerged from a single protest and a single campaign. The history of CAAAV is another one: formed in 1986 to organize in the aftermath of the Vincent Chin murder trial as well as to hold a forum on rising instances of anti-Asian violence in New York City, no one expected it to become a long-standing organization.

In the almost 30 years since, CAAAV has gone on to do critical work organizing Asian immigrant domestic workers, taxi drivers, tenants, youth, and more — work that has helped support and led to some of the most exciting and groundbreaking organizing work that’s happening in the US today.

These days, it’s very easy to fall into the seductive trap that if we’re trending on Twitter and talking about it on social media, we’re changing the world. It’s important, yes, but let’s not lose sight of the importance of doing the hard work of organizing.

Which brings me to my second point…

2. Online and social media tactics are just that — tactics. But they’re important. Aka: if we organize a protest and no one tweets about it, did it actually happen?

It’s easy to swing to the other side of the pendulum and just dismiss online organizing as organizing lite — clicktivism, hashtag activism, petitions, they’re easy and look and taste good, the argument goes, but they’re not filling.

But I disagree with that assessment. In fact, I think more grassroots organizers, organizations, and campaigns need to be using these new organizing tools to boost and amplify our messages, our work, and our leaders. Instead of simply critiquing hashtag activism, which is clearly engaging thousands of people (or more!) who care about issues like racism, sexism, and inequality, why aren’t we thinking of how to get our work trending, and of how to bring those people into our organizing vehicles?

As one of my friends and colleagues often reminds me, we need to be open to “any and all tactics” and today, online and social media tactics are important tools that we can and should use.

They’re new tactics that allow us to meet an old goal — building the social and political will to create change, broadening our bases, and changing the narrative so that we’re, if not in control of the conversation, at least shifting it. One powerful example is how NDLON, the National Day Labor Organizing Network, has been using #ShutdownICE and #Not1More in support of a national campaign to end deportations. Another example is 18 Million Rising, an organization that debuted in 2012 which focuses on using online and social media tools to bridge the gap between online and offline activists.

Instead of having endless and quite frankly tiring debates about Suey Park, the outrage machine that is Twitter, and whether or not Stephen Colbert is racist, let’s tackle the more important questions that are raised by the rise of hashtag activism:

  • How can we use these new tools to amplify and lift up grassroots organizing work?

  • What are the strategies we can employ to bring people we engage online into our organizing vehicles?

  • How can we use social media to shift the terms of the debate?

Jeff Yang wrote here that the #CancelColbert debate and its aftermath “marks the beginning of the end of Asian America’s fascination with hashtag activism.” My hope is that we not discount online activism and organizing altogether, and move instead towards thinking of how we can use its potential to strengthen our movement.

4 replies on “Beyond the #Hashtag: Movement Building Lessons from #CancelColbert”

What an insightful essay! I’m actually getting a lot from various observations and perspectives regarding the #cancelcolbert campaign. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the mix.

The grassroots of the future is digital.. Twitter fails due to design to be a place.
What is missing in social media is the idea of place,, a protected place to organise before proceeding.
the good old days. The new reality is instant.

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