Tweets, hashtags, and an election that made history

Attendees of the Native Power-Building Summit are wearing #SheRepresents tees designed by Bethany Yellowtail. (Photo courtesy of Bethany Yellowtail)

Native researchers parse #NativeVote and the tweets from Native candidates in the 2018 mid-year election

Three years ago Native researchers Marisa Duarte and Morgan Vigil-Hayes saw reports from the Federal Communications Commission that said Native people didn’t need access to the internet because there was no demand for it.

They knew this wasn’t the case. So they recruited another Native researcher, Nicholet Deschine, to prove there was a need.

The trio presented new research on Wednesday that looked at Twitter during the 2018 midterm election and how social media campaigns like #NativeVote influenced the representation of Native people.

The group presented their research at a computer science conference in Austin, Texas, where they also accepted an award for their work by the Association for Computing Machinery. Their 27-page paper is called “Complex, Contemporary, and Unconventional: Characterizing the Tweets of the #NativeVote Movement and Native American Candidates through the 2018 U.S. Midterm Elections.”

There were 104 Native candidates who ran for office in 2018. Of these candidates, 43 of them had a Twitter account.

“Social media plays an increasingly significant role in U.S. political discourse and engagement, particularly among historically marginalized social groups,” the paper states. “In the absence of adequate political representation, Native American communities use social media to organize across diasporas and represent their concerns to a global community.”

The National Congress of American Indians created the #NativeVote campaign to boost Native civic engagement. Throughout the 2018 election social media users, including many Native candidates, used the hashtag to post their thoughts.

This dialogue on Twitter prompted the researchers to study these tweets in-depth between October 6, 2018 to February 5, 2019. This time period was before, during, and after the 2018 election.

They wrote lines of code and “scraped” the website, pulling more than 700,000 tweets into a database. They studied the content of all of these tweets in their database.

Their findings surprised them.

The #MAGA, or Make America Great Again, and #SheRepresents were some of the most frequently observed hashtags.

They found that #MAGA, a President Donald J. Trump campaign slogan, was used more than 5,000 times by either Native candidates or general Twitter users who associated the hashtag with Native candidates.

They say it was used in various ways including to support Native Republican candidates, some during the Covington incident.

The authors said #MAGA was even used in an “ironic” way by finding a tweet that said, “Ruth Buffalo, an authentic American, was sworn into office in traditional American attire. #MAGA.” Buffalo was the first Native American woman, who ran and won on the Democratic ticket, in North Dakota’s legislature.

In direct contrast to this, another prominent hashtag included #SheRepresents. They found that there were a majority of positive associations with #SheRepresents and it was “influential.”

The hashtag was created by Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, who created it because he wanted to document the number of Native women running for office.

Did he think the hashtag would have gained as much traction as it did? Trahant laughed and said, “No, definitely not.”

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Ruth Buffalo, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, is a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives. (Photo courtesy of Bethany Yellowtail)

#SheRepresents was tweeted 2,724 times. It was also the source of inspiration for Native designer, Bethany Yellowtail, who created limited edition shirts for the occasion.

RELATED: Bethany Yellowtail #SheRepresents tees applaud Native Women Candidates

This database of tweets also showed that many Native candidates did not tweet about Indigenous issues very often, but Twitter users connected them to Native issues like environmental justice, missing and murdered Indigenous women and voter suppression.

Moving forward, Duarte says Native candidates could benefit from tweeting more about these issues.

Lastly, the team found that Native Democratic candidates tended to be connected to a number of issues while Native Republican candidates tended to avoid addressing those issues in their tweets. They say there is further research needed to analyze this point further.

Of the 700,000 tweets collected, the group says there is still a huge amount of data to analyze.

This study analyzed four candidates’ tweets in-depth. If they had looked at every Native candidate, they say their data set would have been “multiplied eighty or ninety fold.”

While the work is complex, they plan to continue looking at social media reactions and the election. They hope, in the future, it helps them prove the need for social media … and thus the need for internet in Indian Country.

Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com

Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.

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