Like. Favorite. Retweet. Share. Hashtag. These are familiar words to anyone who frequents the internet. Actions like these conveniently serve those who wish to share amusing or mostly harmless content but when serious issues arise, things start to become a little complicated.
Social media lays the groundwork for people to effortlessly share and connect in organized and unique ways. Hashtags can be found everywhere — from billboards to protest signs. But the movements they inspire and their overwhelming influence on social discourse raise serious questions about the effectiveness of online activism.
Most notably used on Twitter, hashtags allow users to condense and categorize keywords or phrases and coalesce around a particular topic.
Equipped with far-reaching, formidable power, these new forums also help mobilize communities against shared grievances. Important social and political movements were condensed into single phrases with #Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, #YesAllWomen and #NoDAPL within the last several years.
The #MeToo movement, which addressed sexual abuse and harassment, gained the attention of the general public, celebrities and other significant public figures.
Critics of hashtag activism often refer to this form of social protest as “slacktivism,” meaning little effort beyond what’s done on the internet has been put into the real world for concrete results or solutions to the issue at hand.
With an ever-increasing number of online petitions, what emerges within these virtual spaces is a false sense that the movement has gained enough momentum to produce real change when in reality it hasn’t.
Functioning as a concise term for broader subjects, it is inevitable that hashtags marginalize or ignore valid issues and experiences. Outspoken Hollywood celebrities, who are primarily white, bring widespread attention and popularity to these activist hashtags but are often unprepared for the task of educating their followers on the movement’s intricacies.
With over 25,000 retweets on Twitter, actress Alyssa Milano was credited with starting the #MeToo movement in October 2017. Amid the sudden outpouring of solidarity, some women of color pointed out that civil rights activist, Tarana Burke spearheaded the movement in 2006 to create an expression of support and awareness for the survivors of sexual assault and violence.
Rebecca Dolhinow, a CSUF women and gender studies associate professor, said in instances of hashtag activism, intersections of race, class and gender can obscure specific roles of those who participate in its elaborate campaign. It can illuminate the trauma and suffering that survivors experienced but conceal the pressing responsibility of perpetrators.
One example of the contentious social and political terrain that activist hashtags often reflect is the #AllLivesMatter response to the initial #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“#BLM became a phrase for ending racism for some people, and it’s so much more than that,” said Dolhinow. “You can say #BlackLivesMatter as a non-black person but you’re not getting it unless you understand where you fit in the equation.”
Despite the impediments that Twitter hashtags can present, exceptional activist work has also been accomplished. For grassroots campaigns, it’s been instrumental to their growing success and impact across the country.
The #IceBucketChallenge raised $220 million globally in 2014 to benefit Lou Gehrig’s disease. In 2015, #BlackLivesMatter was tweeted 9 million times and is now an expansive “member-led” organization with chapters established all over the country. In the first two weeks of the #MeToo movement, the hashtag was shared across 85 countries worldwide, according to Twitter data.
“[Hashtag activism] has done a lot of powerful work, but we have to remember it’s more complicated than that,” Dolhinow said. “In order to really make a change for everyone, we have to address the complicated nature of it, the depth of it.”
Hashtags ignite important conversations that disperse into real world spaces, spur constructive action and most importantly, create effective social change. But social activism cannot exclusively hinge on hashtags; it can leave the movement vulnerable to stagnation and omit well-defined, targeted objectives.
For productive activist work to be carried out, a healthy combination of digital and real-world campaigning must be leveraged in order to deeply engage, educate and empower communities.