Image courtesy of Pete Simon via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.
Since its advent on Twitter in 2009, the social media hashtag has evolved from a simple number sign or pound key to a social tool that connects and parses data by phrase.
Though it originated on Twitter, the tool has since spread to Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, G+, Youtube and more. It’s been used for business, for advertising, for fun, and — rather controversially — as a form of social activism.
Hashtag activism: What does it look like?
Back in 2011, Occupy Wall Street press coverage saw the first incidence of hashtag activism, with the tag #ows referenced by the Guardian as a “new form of technology-based social movement.”
But even from the onset and before, the premise of hashtag activism, which basically amounts to using social awareness as a form of action or prompt for action, has been criticized and deemed a “nonsense feel good gesture” by Urban Dictionary.
In the 90s, this was called slacktivism, which evolved into clicktivism in the ‘00s — all iterations of the same notion that trend-based awareness either is – or isn’t – a valid or meaningful type of protest.
There are various means that hashtag activism purports to accomplish, though the success as always is debateable.
One of the first recorded instances hashtag instance centered on a concrete cause was in 2012, when #standwithpp was adopted in response to the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s funding cuts to Planned Parenthood. The resulting hashtag convinced the foundation to resume their funding in less than a week.
Not long later in 2012, #Kony2012 trended with a vague call to stop Ugandan military leader and war criminal Joseph Kony, who had been kidnapping child soldiers since the early 90s. The high level of interest, if short-lived, prompted the African Union to send forces into Uganda for justice.
Hashtag activism as racial awareness
#JusticeForTrayvon serves as another example of social interest prompting action. When neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot African American teen Trayvon Martin, it was the noise of the Twitterverse that prompted a reopening of the investigation. And though he ultimately wasn’t charged, it lead to national coverage and a larger conversation about race and gun violence.
It is in this way that Twitter often acts as a platform for underrepresented voices be heard. Issues of racial stereotyping and suppression (especially as they overlap with gender) have also been highlighted by Suey Parks’ #NotYoutAsianSidekick and #CancelColbert, with #StillNoLatinos and #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen serving as other notable examples.
#NotYourAsianSidekick because I’d rather base build with fellow Asian Americans than rely on allies, who have a history of being absent.
— Suey Park (@suey_park) December 15, 2013
#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen when convos about gender pay gap ignore that white women earn higher wages than black, Latino and Native men.
— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) August 12, 2013
Hashtags against kidnapping, sexism, and violence
2014 alone has been full of new hashtag-fuelled movements. When Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped a group of school girls, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls was adopted first by Nigeria, then by the US and globally.
— The First Lady (@FLOTUS) May 7, 2014
A mass shooting in Santa Barbara also sparked several movements, including #YesAllWomen, a platform for women to express their experiences with sexism in light of the shooter’s misogynist motives, and #NotOneMore, a gun safety campaign begun by one victim’s father.
Because children are taught “if he’s mean to you, he likes you” without thinking about the implications. #YesAllWomen
— Ava Jae (@Ava_Jae) May 24, 2014
#BurritosNotBullets, another gun safety movement, ultimately changed Chipotle’s open carry policy, and #ChangeTheName contributed to U.S. Trademark and Patent Office’s canceling of the Washington Redskins’ trademark.
Though in certain circumstances, hashtag activists have promoted change, they have as movements drawn criticism for laziness, political bias, trivialization, shelf life, and lack of substance.
Notably, #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls have both been called public symbols of concern separate from the actual issue — reeking of “white savior” complex, some say, and oversimplifying serious issues by making them “trendy.”
Two years later, Kony has not been brought to justice, despite the Invisible Children organization’s progress, and the #BringBackOurGirls trend has dwindled, even though the missing girls have yet to be returned.
Lastly, it’s a concern to some that the loose and unwieldy nature of Internet outrage can blow topics out of proportion and distract from things that matter.
Though hashtag campaigns are wrought with controversy and often questionable in motive, it can’t be denied that tweeted awareness is both cheap and powerful — a democratic way to start and support dialogue, so long as users engage critically and continue to care when the trend diminishes.
Because while a tweet itself may hold little weight, a swarm of tweets have proven to motivate both the media and politicians. And though a swarm is not easily controlled, virality alone serves as proof of a collective sting.