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Pantsuit Nation and Secret Online Organizing

Sat, September 1, 8:00 to 9:30am, Marriott, Salon I


The internet has changed the structure and function of political organizations. More specifically, the recent feature of “secret” groups on social networking sites has afforded organizations the opportunity to obscure membership and discourse from the public eye. Although similar organizational “backchannels” have existed as long as individuals have organized together, secret online organizations are principally different from other forms of online organizing in that their membership is both hidden and closed. In this study, I explore the distinct qualities of secret political groups by looking at Pantsuit Nation as an example of secret organizing online. I draw from open-ended responses (n=148) from members of the Texas chapter of Pantsuit Nation and a content analysis of the group’s wall posts since the inauguration in January 2017. I find that the secret group performs similar functions for its members as other forms of political organizing, but for a different kind of member. That is, secret groups allow those reticent to disclose their political beliefs to others in their online and offline network to engage with like-minded others and work for a common cause discreetly. In the case of Pantsuit Nation, this includes women who feel outnumbered in their conservative Texas community. I also find a hierarchical mobilizing effect, in which membership in the group builds solidarity, disseminates information, and finally mobilizes offline action. This is also evident in the kinds of content posted on the group’s wall, which most prominently featured calls to action and members announcing their candidacy for political office. The secret nature of the group holds implications for how both journalists and campaigns gauge public opinion. For one, discourse cannot be scraped or immediately accessed from journalists looking to use social media as a form of vox pop, keeping their opinions largely isolated to the group in which they were expressed. Second, secret online groups offer their own kind of campaign platform that is both shielded from the scrutiny of journalists, other candidates, and adverse members of the public, and obscures the conversation around these campaigns from the broader public sphere. This study offers a first glance into the structure and function of secret online organizing, which is likely to expand as the public grows more volatile and hyper-polarized.