The Existence and Persistence of Hashtag Activism

By Sam Stroozas

Credit: Church Mag

Credit: Church Mag

Activism exists in many forms, each of them having their strengths and weaknesses in  the realm of social justice. In the modern era of technology, hashtag activism has become more prominent and is used as a complex, yet simple way to show support for current social issues. Hashtag activism is defined in association with Twitter and the tweets people publish to show their support. It is a way to gain more traction for a social movement by using media outlets in order for it to be more successful, but when your activism ends when you hit publish, how much of an impact does it really have?

The Guardian coined the term ‘Hashtag Activism’ in 2011 to describe, “The Occupy Wall Street protests and the corresponding hashtag campaign, #OccupyWallStreet. Since then, hundreds of hashtags have been created to build communities of activists eager to share information and raise their voices.” These communities have been bonded together through the birth of hashtag activism, and despite limitations that may arise, it has served as an effective source to get people interested in social issues and display intersectional information.

It has been easy for many onlookers to claim that hashtag activism has been a supplement instead of its own brand of activism. In a Marie Claire  article by Hannah Chubb, they discuss the timeline of hashtag activism and the purposes it has served; “Hashtags get a lot of flak, often typecast as frivolous symbols used by lazy millennials, but a deep dive into the hashtag activism of the past few years proves that they can be more impactful than you’d expect—just ask the Parkland survivors, or the women of the #MeToo movement. From funding breakthroughs in research to bringing down serial predators, to encouraging potential gun reform, we can’t wait to see what these hashtags and their courageous users accomplish next.”

Through the years, this form of activism has applied to  many different social issues, and the impact and aftermath of each issue can contribute a great level of influence over their social media campaigns. Chubb explains about the #KONY2012 hashtag, which fueled the beginning of hashtag activism culture due to the enormous support of the issue, “The video garnered over 101 million views on video-sharing sites, and the hashtag #KONY2012 was born. Social media enabled the campaign to spread like wildfire. Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of all Twitter conversations from March 5 to March 12 were in some way related to KONY 2012. The attention it received was truly mind blowing...that is, until people just stopped caring and the film’s director, Jason Russell, was hospitalized in March 2012 for a temporary psychotic breakdown.”

#BlackLivesMatter entered the activism sphere officially in 2013 with activists Alicia Garza,  Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi beginning the movement in response to the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin. Chubb writes, “The Black Lives Matter movement raises awareness about systemic racism, and condemns police brutality and racial profiling. A month after Zimmerman was acquitted the hashtag had been shared 52,000 times on Twitter, and by June of the following year, that number had skyrocketed to 41 million.” This hashtag was not without critique, as the police force of the United States started their own campaign in response, #BlueLivesMatter. Although #BlueLivesMatter and a second response, #AllLivesMatter, attempted to create in-depth conversations of identity, they deeply misunderstood the point of #BlackLivesMatter and the institutional racism and police brutality the movement addresses.

Michelle Obama created #BringOurGirlsBack in 2014 in response to the kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria and “The hashtag campaign was intended to keep the story in the media, and raise awareness on an international scale. It was also directed at the Nigerian government, urging them to do more with their resources. Currently, 113 of the girls are still missing—the rest managed to escape or were released—and the hashtag has been retweeted over 2 million times,” says Chubb.

#YesAllWomen in 2014 sparked conversation about sexism when a 22-year-old man went on a killing spree by the University of California-Santa Barbara, killing 6 people and injuring 14. The killer used hateful sexist rhetoric on social media, “He uploaded a video to YouTube before the massacre explaining that he hated and wanted to punish females because they always rejected him and he could never find a girlfriend, and men because he was jealous of those who had sex with women. Many men took to Twitter to create the hashtag #NotAllMen to defend that not all men have internalized sexism that they act upon. In response to #NotAllMen, an anonymous women tweeted #YesAllWomen urging women to share stories about sexual assault and sexual harassment, “The hashtag campaign showed that misogyny is not only incredibly prevalent, but that it is often committed by friends and acquaintances. Within four days of the hashtag being created, it was used more than 1.2 million times on Twitter alone.”

In recent  years, many hashtags such as #WhyIStayed, #ShoutYourAbortion, #OscarsSoWhite, and many more set the bar for hashtag activism and themes of social justice. Nothing quite compared to the quickly white-washed #MeToo movement. #MeToo was created by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 and it gained popularity after allegations of sexual assault by Alyssa Milano against Harvey Weinstein. Although initially a wonderful movement, it was poor in execution because it became specialized  for a specific demographic. In a Cut interview, Burke said that she was not happy with how it came back into the centrality of the public eye, “We have to shift the narrative that it’s a gender war, that it’s anti-male, that it’s men against women, that it’s only for a certain type of person — that it’s for white, cisgender, heterosexual, famous women. That has to shift. And I think that it is shifting, I really do. But that’s a part of our work, too.”

Many of these are examples of more successful campaigns, but what happens after the tweet needs to be discussed . A 2013 study by Phillip Howard of the University of Washington focused on the impact of hashtag activism, and was recently discussed in a USA Today article by Nika Anschuetz; “Critics of digital activism refer to the trend as ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’ arguing that online support isn't backed by real-life actions.” Howard refutes this claim, saying small acts of support are just as important; “The clicks are like a gateway to other political acts,” says Howard. “Just because these small acts of liking something don’t always translate into massive protests doesn’t mean that they’re empty of political meaning.” Howard’s statement about clicks being gateways to other political acts is supported by the Cone Communications study, which states that, “64% of Americans who ‘like’ organizations or causes on social media are likely to engage in the organization by donating money, volunteering, etc.”

In a New York Times article by David Carr he argues the impact of hashtag activism; “ I saw this thing, it spoke to me for at least one second, and here is my mark to prove it. But it gets more complicated when the subjects are more complicated. Hitting the favorite button on the first episode of ‘Mad Men’ is a remarkably different gesture than expressing digital solidarity with kidnapped children in Africa, but it all sort of looks the same at the keyboard.” These two vastly different subjects are perceived in similar lights when you are looking at someone’s favorites on their Twitter account. The sense of solidarity then can be applicable to anything instead of a finite social issue.

Carr went onto add that the benefit may be small, but it is better than ignoring issues, “Sure, hashtags come and go, and the so-called weak ties of digital movements are no match for real world engagement. But they are not only better than nothing, they probably make the world, the one beyond the keyboard, a better place.”

Favoriting a tweet or sharing a post is an entrance into the world of social justice but it is just that; a beginning. True and successful activism must occur by creating systemic change and going against the status quo past the presence of social media. We must focus on what happens after social media, and how we can work together to create real change through cohesive societal goals and tend to a better world for all.