Marilyn Poon, research assistant in the Department of Organization Studies at the University of Innsbruck Austria, discusses leadership research and inspirations behind her paper, “Twitter as a leadership actor — A communication as constitutive of organizing perspective on a ‘leaderless’ social movement,” published in Leadership.
The interest in conducting this research was sparked by the political crisis in Hong Kong. I was a young girl living there in 1989, when the “June Fourth Incident” happened 2000 kilometers away in Tiananmen Square, an event which ended the largest student democracy movement in the history of communist China. I have memories of catching glimpses of a peaceful candle-lit march from the backseat of my dad’s car. Vigils were held in Hong Kong to commemorate the lives lost. At family gatherings following the event, there were murmurings of angst. I snuck a peek at the images in a book passed around which was not meant for the eyes of a child like me. As a researcher based in Europe 30 years later, I felt the same rising tension materialize in the pit of my stomach when I observed the unfolding of the 2019 protests via social media platforms, and decided to conduct research on what was happening from afar.
To question whether the ‘leaderless’ 2019 Hong Kong protests were indeed leaderless, we collected tweets at the time of a key event based on movement-related hashtags and a high retweet count. However, we soon realized that the framing to our research was problematic. Supposing individuals or groups as ‘leaders’ in the movement poses great risk to them in the changing political landscape. Although we kept to our original data set of Tweets, we reframed our research by adopting a communication as constitutive of organizing (CCO) perspective. Moreover, we drew from current discussion in critical leadership studies to consider Twitter as a non-human leadership actor.
By uncovering Twitter’s leadership role in our analysis, we provide evidence to counter the persistent fantasy of the leaderless movement narrative. As such, this research is aligned with a foundational aim in critical leadership scholarship more generally, which is to challenge the dominant human-centric and masculine view of leadership. Operationalizing CCO theories, we contribute to platform studies by illustrating how Twitter generates authority and polarity. Additionally, we assert that while people can voice their concerns in resistance of established authority through multivocality and dissensus using Twitter, its mechanisms dictate the authorship of text in performative ways which ultimately maintain inequalities.