“I Am Speaking.” 2020 VP Nominee Kamala Harris’ Impact of Black Feminism as Social Influencers on Twitter
By using social media as a cultural, political mobilizing tool, Black politicians of both genders, such as voting-rights advocate Stacey Abrams, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, have achieved elevated engagement and influence among voters. Online movements and social justice campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatters, #OscarsSoWhite, and #SayHerName have created resistive counternarratives that challenge the dominant, mainstream media.
With the Black community making up the largest population of social media users, Twitter, specifically “Black Twitter,” has turned into an online space of interconnection within the Black community to discuss trending topics or issues.
By examining how Vice President Kamala Harris (who was the vice-presidential nominee at the time of the study) used Twitter as a social media platform to achieve political prominence, researchers at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications created a lens through which future researchers and the public may better understand the redefinition of Black women in both social media and politics, as well as understand the broader issue of oppression among all marginalized, less mainstream communities.
While social media influencers – those who affect the decisions of others due to their authority, knowledge, position, or relationship to an audience – tend to be related more to brand evangelism or financial exchange, Kamala Harris’ use of Twitter throughout the 2020 presidential campaign led to her current position as a social, cultural, and political influencer.
For this study, Harris’ tweets along with users’ comments were collected and organized into narrative forms, and then analyzed for narrative themes. Criteria included semantics, syntax, and particular textual elements such as quotations and metaphors, as well as the relationship of these elements to each other. The goal of this study was to examine the ways in which popular commentary on Black women’s lives, using Kamala Harris as a representative example, can be analyzed to challenge the focus on single-identity reporting in mainstream media.
Three themes emerged:
Change: Frequent topics for Harris include gun violence, Donald Trump, COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout the tweets, Harris emphasizes how change is possible, consistently using “we” over “I” to emphasize that involvement in community is the base of change.
Access: Harris used Twitter to acknowledge the barriers to marginalized communities, such as access to exercise the right to vote. She also tweeted about how oppression and discrimination are institutionalized and systemic. Creating opportunities and resources is a frequent theme of her tweets, as is calling out systems of power that disenfranchise marginalized communities.
Community: Harris often references her heritage, including mentions of her alma mater – Howard University – an Historically Black College and University (HBCU); her family, specifically her mother and sister; her South Asian heritage; and her connection to Black womanhood as a member of the nation’s first and oldest Black sorority – Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. By emphasizing Black womanhood in these ways, Harris effectively creates a space for agency for the Black community, as well as a familial sense of activism. Instead of making herself the focal point, she draws the focus to the community-building of others through her own achievements.
Overall, this study shows how Black women influencers are mobilizing social media to engage in counternarratives, as well as creating online spaces for ongoing media discourse. The activism and advocacy demonstrated by Harris via Twitter highlight the complex and ongoing oppression and discrimination in social, political, and economic systems and institutions. By conducting this study, the researchers hope to provide a framework for future advocacy and social change.
The original research, “‘I Am Speaking.’ 2020 VP Nominee Kamala Harris’ Impact of Black Feminism as Social Influencers on Twitter,” will be presented at the International Communications Association in May 2021. The research received the highest score and a first place Top Faculty Paper award in the Ethnicity and Race in Communication Division.
This summary was written by Marie Morganelli, Ph.D.