Project Description

Less-influential and lesser-known minorities on the edges of the formal political arena are increasingly turning to social media to be politically active and advance their cause both transnationally and in specific national contexts. There is little research around this new phenomenon and it is not yet well understood. The overarching goal of the proposed research project is to determine how social media works as a form of mobilization to achieve political goals for minorities. More broadly, social media will play an increasingly important role over the next decade in the political process in and out of electoral campaigns, policy debates, and party politics.

The project focuses on the presence of the Idle No More movement in the Twitterverse. This movement, led by many Indigenous Peoples in Canada, emerged in December 2012 in reaction to policy proposals contained in omnibus Bill C-45. It seeks to mobilize Indigenous Peoples in Canada and internationally as well as their supporters to advocate change in policies pertaining to natural resources, governance, and socio-economic issues, by bringing attention to their identities, histories, and struggles.

We consider how social media are used by minorities for political mobilization, potentially affecting policy development, and identity building. While many researchers have studied protest phenomena driven predominantly by economic or political considerations in recent years, few have examined identity-based grassroots political engagement in the social mediascape. Our project fills this gap in the academic literature and contributes to theory development and testing.

We conduct a quantitative and qualitative content analysis of a sample of 17,482 #idlenomore tweets that appeared on Twitter’s public timeline in July and August 2013. We determine how and to what extent tweeters circulated digital material and interacted with each other regarding policy positions compatible with their personal interests and objectives. We also examine how they mobilized their followers around issue-specific and short-term political engagement initiatives. Finally, we seek to understand the extent to which tweeters were engaged in cultural activism as it relates to Indigenous identity in Canada.

Based on the agenda-setting theory, we explore potential relationships between Twitter-based mobilization efforts of Idle No More activists and policy changes. We gather information on public spending on Indigenous affairs and the number of new pieces of legislation combined with new regulations adopted. We calculate the statistical relationship between the volume of #idlenomore tweets and spending and legislation during the first two and a half years of the movement.

Since the method described above does not allow to account for broader changes in the political dynamic between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian State, we supplement our content analyses with interviews. We interview 15 key stakeholders to assess their views and experiences related to the Idle No More campaign and policy formulation. Interviewing Indigenous leaders will permit us to determine how mobilization through social media helped to strengthen Indigenous identity.

Our research project makes significant academic contributions in terms of building a theory on how minorities utilize social media to achieve political goals. In addition, we outline ways in which Indigenous Peoples in Canada and internationally can mobilize effectively to achieve political goals. Consistent with SSHRC’s future challenge area, we enhance public discourse on Indigenous affairs. Lastly, our project will lead to the launch of an international research group on social media, political engagement, and minorities that will conduct comparative research work.