The New York Times offers a glimpse into the small, loosely organized group of conservative Twitter users who warned young women about Anthony Weiner. In the weeks leading up to the congressman's mistweeted crotch shot, they rallied behind the #bornfreecrew hashtag, warned "schoolgirls" to steer clear of Weiner and publicly predicted an imminent scandal. The apparent ringleader of the crew, @PatriotUSA76, showed tenacious commitment to tracking Weiner's every tweet and eventually tipped off Andrew Breitbart to the tweet that exposed the scandal. The Times's Jennifer Preston reports:
As Democrats and Republicans embrace Twitter and other social media tools as a way to interact with their constituents and woo voters, many have discovered a downside to online communication: cyberstalkers, who track and criticize their every move.
But even by the standards of modern politics, Dan Wolfe and other members of the #bornfreecrew watched Mr. Weiner’s account with particular ferocity, and a sharp focus on his interactions with women."
By the standards of Twitter, however, conservatives gathering around a hashtag is nothing new. In fact, hashtag-based organizing was seminal to the formation of the Tea Party movement.
In the days following the last presidential election, a small group of conservatives turned to Twitter in retaliation to Obama's championing of Facebook. After all, the Obama campaign hired Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's founders, to run their social media strategy, and the approach seems to have worked quite well. (Fast Company put Hughes in March 2009 on their cover and called him "The Kid Who Got Obama Elected.") Twitter, however, still had a relatively small user base at that time and according to conservative grassroots organizer and author Michael Leahy, "It seemed like a fertile opportunity."
Leahy took action in November 2008 and never expected his initiative to become so popular so quickly. "I didn't know if there were any conservatives on Twitter," Leahy told The Atlantic Wire. "So I started a list and I called it Top Conservatives on Twitter. Very quickly, I discovered that a lot conservatives were on twitter and were very competitive."
Competitive is almost too gentle a word. With a flood requests for additions, Leahy's list grew from 25 users to 1,500 users in two weeks, and soon thereafter, the group was holding weekly conference calls to figure out a better way to organize. Beulah Garrett, a 78-year old grandmother from Texas, suggested they rally behind the hashtag #tcot, and the meme was born. Following Rick Santelli's rant, a conference call organized by Leahy and the #tcot group on February 20, 2009 led to the idea to hold simultaneous tea party events around the country the following week. Forming the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, the group held some of the first widespread tea party gatherings on February 27, 2009. The Seattle blogger Keli Carender is often credited with organizing the first protest of the Tea Party movement eleven days before, but #tcot arguably became the first vehicle to mobilize the activists. With about ten tweets per minute bearing the hashtag, #tcot remains one of the most popular, if not the most popular topical hashtag on Twitter.
The runaway success of #tcot did not go unnoticed. A group of lefty activists rallied behind the idea of "progressivism 2.0" in the wake of the June 2009 Iran presidential elections. That summer, Jim Gilliam, Jon Pincus and Gina Cooper co-founded a group called TweetProgress that claims ownership over the #p2 hashtag and maintains a list of about 5,000 top progressive tweeters. The #p2 group is only one of an endless number of spinoffs groups of varying formality--some have mission statements, best practice tutorials, aggregated reports and even coordinated lobbying efforts.
The #bornfreecrew's laser focus on Weiner certainly shows a new iteration of takedown Twitter activism. However, the "cyberstalker" angle seems to tell only half the story of political communities deeply rooted in Twitter's architecture and the unprecedented power the platform offers. If a hashtag can help to spawn a new American political movement, sparking one congressman's silly scandal almost seems like a wasted effort.