Feminist Killjoys, #TwitterPanic, And AAPI Feminist Digital Disruption

by Dorothy Kim on June 30th, 2014

How has the public discourse of Asian America filtered through Twitter — a multivocal medium?

#TwitterPanic is a way to describe how the phenomenon of moral panic intersects with medium panic, and particularly the panic surrounding Twitter. The gendered and racialized frameworks that feed into politicized understandings of radical WOC feminism helps explain the discomfort, rage, and moral panic being directed at protests erupting on AAPI Twitter, particularly in the aftermath of #CancelColbert. AAPI Twitter has become a space for minority political contestation, where liberal AAPI critics and the mainstream media have tried to “cleanse” AAPI Twitter from radical political feminism.

Suey Park (activist and writer) started the hashtag campaign #CancelColbert in protest of the Colbert Report‘s orientalist satire of “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals.” This line was used on the Colbert Show to lampoon Dan Snyder’s refusal to #changethename, and also was tweeted.

The response hashtag #CancelColbert, started on the evening of March 27, 2014, was quickly met with energetic participation. #CancelColbert trended because of its multiethnic coalitions: its participants ranged from young AAPI students to cultural studies professors, #blacktwitter, and Native feminists. While Park initiated the call, the tag tapped into the momentum around the fatigue of racist white fiction and satire.

Prints of multiple hashtag symbols on a concrete street.

CC-BY Michael Coghlan, filtered.

Just a few weeks before, Kiriko Brindley started #GawkingAtRapeCulture in response to Valleywag‘s violent lampooning of comfort women. A few months before that, #HowIMetYourRacism trended in response to How I Met Your Mother’s usage of yellowface. In addition, the critique of white fiction as colonial rites was evident in protests like #ChangeTheName and #NotYourMascot organized by Danielle Miller and other Native feminists.

To those who actively participate in critical Twitter conversations, #CancelColbert was no surprise; it was another response to more racist, white fiction. To others not particularly involved in WOC feminist Twitter, the hashtag became a symbol of a tainted AAPI image — an AAPI ungrateful for white liberal politics, white fiction — an irrational Asian America — without cause or strategy, filled with selfish rage, devoid of patriarchs.

Moral Panic

Mainstream AAPI journalists, NPOs, activists, and writers swooped in to rectify what they perceived as #CancelColbert’s damage. This mobilization is a classic example of what Stuart Hall, et al. (Policing the Crisis) and Kenneth Thompson (Moral Panics) have described in sociological and critical race theory terms as “moral panic.”

The framework follows these steps:

  1. Someone is defined as a threat to values/interests.
  2. The media defines the threat.
  3. Public concern quickly builds up.
  4. The authorities or pundits respond.
  5. The panic recedes or results in social changes.

As Thompson explains, moral panic involves a threat to the “social order itself or an idealized (ideological) conception of some part of it.” Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Robert’s book Policing the Crisis (Palgrave MacMillan, 1978) further nuances this term in relation to critical race theory. They articulate how reactions are “out of all proportion to the actual threat offered” and when the status quo gatekeepers “perceive the threat in all but identical terms,” then we can appropriately begin discussing moral panic.

Hall et al.’s Marxist critique of moral panic explains that moral panics “divert potential dissenters;” they are used as a diversion in order to “maintain the status quo” during a social/historical crisis (Charles Krinsky, The Ashgate Research Companion to Moral Panics). In the instance of #CancelColbert and its aftermath, what we also see is #TwitterPanic: an intertwined disproportionate panic about amplified WOC feminists intersecting a new media digital platform. This #TwitterPanic allows status quo pundits to paint not just the WOC feminists, but Twitter the digital medium as frivolous, insubstantial, ephemeral, un-nuanced, unsophisticated.

A large Twitter banner draped over the New York Stock Exchange building.

CC-BY Anthony Quintano, filtered.

#CancelColbert was a miniature media splurge: countless critical, distancing articles were written. “Experts of Asian America” were called upon. AAPI model minority narrators campaigned to salvage their public relations on Facebook, blogs, Twitter, on- and offline. The virulence against these WOC activist voices appears to intersect with virulence towards the digital medium itself.

This is not just a phenomenon seen in AAPI Twitter. Similar #TwitterPanic has been happening throughout the sphere of WOC feminists with radical politics. With #blacktwitter, the recent pronouncements by Shonda Rhimes about hashtag activism at the Dartmouth commencement is another example of #TwitterPanic.

AAPI Twitter and Contested Digital Space

Since #CancelColbert, three distinct groups have emerged in AAPI Twitter: 1. Radical feminist AAPI Twitter; 2. Liberal AAPI Twitter; and 3. the mainstream media/NPO/corporate complex. The second and third are aligned in order to dislodge the first group from this multivocal platform through two interlocking tactics: attempting to undermine the ethos of politically-radical feminist AAPI Twitter through character assassination, often through gendered language, and by attempting to co-opt the same strategies/tactics (i.e. hashtag activism) used by the original organizers. AAPI Twitter has become the most recent contested space where an Asian American representational war is happening amongst its stakeholders—with the outside white mainstream world profiting, dissecting, and viewing with great pleasure.

WOC Radical Feminism and the Politics of the “Feminist Killjoy”

In “Hashtags as Decolonial Projects with Radical Origins,” Park and Kim articulate that hashtags and particularly the genealogy of #NotYourAsianSidekick follows and links to other politically radical WOC feminist hashtags: #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen #EconomicViolence, etc.

The prominence of AAPI Twitter has been about the WOC feminists’ work, networks, and radical political and social justice projects. Thus, it is not about AAPI preservation, but rather about AAPI political goals related to decolonization, the end of white supremacy, and the rectification of anti-black racism in AAPI communities.

Hashtags are one component of a larger project. Park and Kim articulate that they see Twitter as one useful tool for potential ruptures. In their open manifesto, they write that they dream for more divergent discussions and surprising coalitions for organizations that protest the linear. They open and end their call on the necessity to work towards a decolonial world. In this open manifesto on digital strategies and their potential, they make the stakes of their politicized call clear.

They have also previously explained that their project is about what Sara Ahmed discusses as the “feminist killjoy” –i.e. feminists who refuse to accept normalized violence, feminists that are determined to remain “maladjusted to injustice”—and in this vein and as feminists killjoys we “Will not laugh at jokes designed to cause offense”.

The radical feminist killjoys eruption on AAPI Twitter must be contextualized. As Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness, “The feminist killjoy ‘spoils’ the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness.” Ahmed’s point is that yes, “feminists do kill joy in a certain sense: they disturb the very fantasy that happiness can be found in certain places.” By calling gender/racial injustice out, she writes “the anger of feminists of color is attributed…Your anger is a judgement that something is wrong, but in being heard as angry, your speech is read as motivated by anger. Your anger is read as unattributed, as if you are against x because you are angry rather than being angry because you are against x.”

This synopsis from Ahmed crystallizes the dynamics contested for AAPI Twitter and the vitriol thrown at Asian American radical feminists. This frames how mainstream journalists and Liberal AAPI Twitter tried to salvage Asian American representation as non-violent, filled with love, rather than angry, divergent, and filled with rage.

These arguments reveal how much is at stake for neoliberal capitalism and mainstream media. They desire to uphold the model minority vision of Asian America as a monolithic and “liberal” political group rather than addressing its multivocality, its potential radical political edges that align with other politicized WOC groups and feminists, its ability to create multigenerational and multiethnic politicized coalitions.

Twitter Analysis / Twitter Methodology

A visualization of locations of Flickr pictures and Tweets across the US, Mexico and the Caribbean. Many points of red and blue light up the map.

CC-BY Eric Fischer, filtered.

Since the eruption of #CancelColbert, mainstream media has written numerous articles portraying Twitter as a frivolous and unsophisticated medium. Conveniently, this lack of sophistication becomes the characterization of WOC writing, voices, and activism.

This targeting of WOC feminists is not new from mainstream media. Sydette Harry precisely explains mainstream media’s #TwitterPanic when she articulates Twitter the medium’s power: “I see the arrival of the stream as one of the first instances of a medium that allows me to reliably interact with material that matters to me… Unfettered access opened the possibility of community building and sharp analysis from previously silenced voices.”

This is the case surrounding AAPI Twitter feminists. Jeff Yang (WSJ) argues in an article about #CancelColbert that Twitter the medium is a problem. He characterizes Twitter’s “greatest assets” as “intransigent liabilities,” namely its 140-character brevity which makes it impossible to “source” and makes tweets “slogan-as-fact… its default manifestation.” He declares that the medium is without nuance and cannot “accommodate(d) compromise,” as a debate tool “it’s a terrible mess,” and compares it to dialogue via “bumper stickers and t-shirts.”

Yang’s analysis, then, is not just about #CancelColbert and Asian America’s image and voice, but also a #TwitterPanic that faults Twitter’s microblogging platform as the societal threat. The article exposes Yang’s deep discomfort with Twitter beyond its capacity for marketing via “slogans” and as “soundbites.” His default response, which consistently compares Twitter to capitalist marketing vehicles, speaks to the filters through which he sees this platform. He appears to yearn for more linear and one-directional mediums: blogs, articles, Facebook for discussion. All these platforms privilege individual, authoritative speakers who can serve as gatekeepers for discussion and opinion. In essence, the #TwitterPanic is about controlling who speaks, the message, and how it is distributed.

Later in his article, Yang imagines that a hashtag trend begins when anyone is able to give “a directive” then can say “‘trend this’—and ten thousand users will jump into the pool at once.” Thus, Twitter trends and hashtag activism translates for him as “the era of the weaponized hashtag—where loosely organized and barely controlled social mobs swarm institutions and individuals…” This underscores how he sees Twitter’s users—the racialized and classed hoi polloi using a chaotic platform to have incoherent, underdeveloped discussions.

His sentiments are echoed in Jay Kang’s New Yorker article. Kang also highlights Twitter’s brevity “140-character limit;” its ephemeral “fleeting shelflife.” Yang states all this while admitting the power of Twitter as an “amplifier” has “destroyed candidacies… toppled governments…played a historic role in reshaping the political landscape of the Middle East.” But his #TwitterPanic is palpable when addressing the “toxic” Asian American narratives on the platform and declaring hashtag activism’s demise.

Whether “hashtag activism” is actually effective is a political question. As Kenzo Shibata writes, “It’s been a common trend to cast aspersions on digital organizers when they question pundits with mainstream platforms”. This idea that hashtag activism has reach, voice, and political affect is confirmed through the social science research about Egypt during the Arab Spring. As Zeynep Tufekci and Christopher Wilson discuss — as opposed to “speculation about the limits of social media” — their Egyptian research has shown that social media mediated numerous ways “to spur participation in political protest.” They refute that online activism should be seen as digital “cheap talk”, (Farrell & Rabin) especially in “authoritarian contexts” where “digital activism is neither without cost nor without political potency.”

In other words, especially for oppressed, politicized minorities (whether in authoritarian contexts outside or within declared democratic nation states), digital activism is an important platform for expressing political dissent. While recent outcomes around WOC feminist Twitter differ from the force and consequences surrounding social media’s usage in the Arab Spring, Twitter’s politicized effectiveness is comparable.

Beyond the political, all Twitter research and analysis must address its medium specificities. To analyze Twitter as a digital medium, one must attend to its “suite of affordances…For Twitter, the key characteristics are short message length, rapid turnover, public visibility, and a directed network graph…” (“Big Questions”). Thus, Twitter has very specific social media valences and specific affordances. It has very different behaviors and stakes from “blogs, LiveJournal communities, or Facebook.”

As Tufekci’s and Shibata’s previous work have highlighted, Twitter analysis cannot be done from a bird’s-eye view, but rather must be addressed within the medium’s affordances and also as a participant in its conversations and politics. So the question remains, why has there been such a vitriolic reaction to AAPI radical feminist Twitter? What has caused the American cultural mainstream to focalize on this particular subset of Twitter’s ecosystem?

#BUILDDONTBURN— Fighting for Asian American Imagery

“We’re now seeing savvy co-optation of Asian American online rage by those individuals that have the least interest in advancing Asian American causes.” (Jeff Yang, WSJ)

On March 31, 2014, a group of Asian American media figures (comedians, actors, writers for mainstream news media, NPOs, and academics) turned their hand in trying to trend a hashtag #BuildDontBurn. Kristina Wong began by quoting Yuri Kochiyama, and popular blogger Angry Asian Man continued the conversation.

Along with about a dozen tweeters involved in this hashtag, there were also the tweets of an Asian American political non-profit (18MR); a Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience; and a corporate consulting firm focused on Multicultural Brand Consultancy. 18MR’s tweets especially highlight the tensions around the representation of Asian America. 18MR tweeted: “#BuildDontBurn because we can write our own narratives and teach ourselves to hold tension within our communities.” Such tweets articulate the profitable stakes in who gets to represent Asian America.

Tweet that reads: Real question though: who is #BuildDontBurn accusing of burning things and what are we trying to build?

Tweet from @wilfredchan

This hashtag and what came before and after it was the fulcrum of a digital rupture in creating an Asian America writ large.

Wilfred Chan potently asked: “Real question though: who is #BuildDontBurn accusing of burning things and what are you trying to build.” Various early tweeters made this abundantly clear with discussions of how “love, compassion, grace, community, empathy, healing” were necessary to fight “rage, anger.” The accusation was transparent, AAPI radical feminists killjoys “broke” Asian America—and #BuildDontBurn was working on tweeting it back together. The irony of course was that several of the early participants were figures, like Jeff Yang from the WSJ, who had decried the “death” of hashtag activism and had named it the “weaponized hashtag.”

When WOC feminist killjoys realized what was happening on #BuildDontBurn, the hashtag’s original intent was repurposed. It transformed instead to become a space to air out the very issues and history of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” and as an assimilating other opposed to blackness. #Blacktwitter and WOC feminist groups saw #BuildDontBurn as a hashtag that was trying to define Asian America in its proximity to white supremacy. Because several of the early rounds of #BuildDontBurn used the quotes of Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X, many read this as a blatant act of appropriation of radical black activist voices in order to promulgate a vision of Asian America that fit the tenets of a monolithic model minority.

#BuildDontBurn rearticulated familiar anxieties surrounding the composition of model minority narrators and Asian America. Positing Asian American as a monolithic group at the brink of catastrophe and failure, its conversants simultaneously framed the criteria and the limited ideals of this political grouping.

#BuildDontBurn did not trend. It was a curated, scripted conversation by stakeholders of NPOs, and institutionally-protected individuals about their need to protect the Asian American image as helpful, pleasant, peaceful, not aggressive, and filled with love. It was the group enacting #TwitterPanic on other platforms: mainstream media, Facebook, blogs. This group tried their hand on the social media platform identified as a threat. It tried to gentrify Twitter by introducing the pleasant “model other”; it failed spectacularly.

Not Your Model Minority on Twitter

There is a difference between being curated for cultural production vs. exposing the margins of our conversations—this is how Twitter configures. Twitter—as an archival site but not necessarily always a site of curation—has expedited the contestation of the model minority myth. What it has exposed is how a segment of Asian America (especially connected to mainstream media) is willing to maintain the model minority status quo.

In fact, as Sarah Kendzior has written, mainstream media itself is “the lunatic fringe” who “targets those who lack power. Their crime is daring to exist. …cancer patients and transgender individuals, racial minorities are a frequent focus”. There has been a history of meaningful, well-polished cultural production engaged with critiquing Asian American/model minority—but the conversations have always been careful and rarely loudly public. This is the potential, the dissonance of digital platforms, digital timelines. Twitter is quicker, faster, messier than respectable Asian Americans would like.

As scholars are theorizing the importance of revolutions in the Middle East, Asian American mainstream cultural critics have inadequately theorized the usage of social media for Asian Americans. Would it be so strange to theorize that AAPI Twitter—in connection with #blacktwitter—has a presence because they are feeling an imminent need—because they have things to say?

Would it be so strange to theorize that perhaps AAPI Twitter exists because there are political voices, positions being articulated—a position that’s without unity, leaderless but with decolonial origins? Would it be so strange that AAPI Twitter—whatever this group might constitute—sides not with the upwardly mobile, those vested interest in protecting their proximity to power—but would rather dismantle the mythology of the AAPI model minority? And they would instead, labor strategically, partnering via politics?

Over the last few months, we have witnessed a public rejection of the model minority myth; we have witnessed it on #NotYourAsianSideKick; we have been witnessing it on various critically-based blogs and feeds. The cloud of the model minority—the cloud above Asian America—is being contested daily on Twitter. Without the approval of gatekeepers and institutional authorities—there is a rearticulation for a divergent Asian America.

Recent articles surrounding #CancelColbert have privileged the necessity for a falsified unity, for a directive cause, for agreement. Perhaps more than unity, what we desperately need is difference and fissures within the category of AAPI. And it is WOC feminist killjoys on Twitter that are calling for AAPI narratives to be transformed.

After #TwitterPanic, what remains? This moment is pivotal. Thompson describes that the last step of moral panic is divergent: the tension either dissipates, or the world changes.