It has been about five years since the BlackLivesMatter hashtag movement was created in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer, George Zimmerman. In a matter of five years, #BlackLivesMatter has become an archetypal example of modern social and political protest on digital media. A recent Pew Research Center Analysis has found that hashtags are used nearly 30 million times on Twitter-which averages to 17,002 times per day as of May 2018. The rise of #BlackLivesMatter hashtag-along others such as #MeToo and #TimesUp-has sparked discussion surrounding the effectiveness and vitality of using social media as a medium for social and political engagement. Within this post, I will be discussing the origins of hashtag activism, examining the effectiveness and the potential drawbacks.
What is a Hashtag?
It is important to first understand what a hashtag is and its purpose in order to explore the dimensions of hashtag activism. A hashtag is literally a word or phrase that follows the pound sign (also known as a hash) in order to identify a certain post on social media. Hashtags allow users to navigate information more easily in larger online conversations. Hashtags are strictly user-generated and are not curated by social media sites. Meaning anyone within the online sphere has access to hashtags. Public opinion and engagement are responsible for what becomes a trending and popular hashtag. The popularity of certain hashtags helps cultivate conversations surrounding topics related to popular culture, politics, social justice, entertainment and etc.
What purpose do they serve
In today's world of social media, we can often receive an overload of information. However, the use of hashtags can make it easier to sift through digital clutter, so that we can focus on the information we wish to access. Hashtags are typically used on sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, Google +, and Pinterest. Alongside that, they can help you reach your target audience by opening the line of connection and communication. When users interact with a hashtag they are interested in, it compels action. They are more likely to spend time engaging with the information that is connected with that hashtag. In addition, they create visibility for important issues. It makes it easier to spread information across a larger audience. Because hashtags are evolving at a rapid pace across multiple platforms, it makes more efficient to spread important messages. Most importantly, they promote distinction. Utilizing the right hashtag can make your message stand out among a crowd of post and information.
Traditionally, social and political protest has garnered traction through "foot on the ground" methods such as canvassing, sit-ins, protest speeches and etc. However, because technology has changed the landscape in social work practice, there has been a rise in digital social & political engagement. Social media platforms dominate discussions of online advocacy because of their ease of use and abilities to tap into peer-to-peer networks to spread advocacy messages (Goldkind & McNutt, 2014; Guo & Saxton, 2014).
Research has shown that new media is changing the nature of advocacy work. Digital activism refers to online participation in cause-related movements. In these types of campaign and movement, digital activists are able to leverage sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook-for social and political change. As grassroots organizers are able to utilize their digital tool belt in order to revolutionize and spread their cause. Through digital platforms, socially aware citizens can easily connect and ignite global change in a free-ranging space. In addition, community organizing becomes much more efficient and simpler in terms of connecting with like-minded individuals.
Beyond getting the message out there, digital activism allows anyone with access to the digital world to become active civic participants.
"One of the most interesting developments in digital activism in recent years is the rise of hashtag activism, meaning discursive protest on social media united through a hashtagged word, phrase or sentence" (Yang, 2016). Hashtag activism refers to the use of the hashtag, mainly on Twitter, in order to support, like, engage with an online social and political movement. The purpose of hashtag activism is arguably to share and spread information with like-minded individuals on important civic issues. This leads to widespread discussions in order to create social and political change. In addition, hashtag activism has been attributed to educating users on important social and political issues, so that they are encouraged to become informed and engaged citizens. The opportunity for online revolutions can occur through the ability to increase supporters on a global scale. Hashtag activism is a way to expand the usage of communication and allows the user to democratically exercise their voices and public opinion.
Changing the Social & Political Landscape
Traditional forms of activism such as community organizing typically takes several weeks to months to organize. However, in the age of hashtag activism, a quick response can become possible within a few retweets. For protest organizers and activist, social media is a quick and easy way to create a platform. It is much easier to connect with like-minded individuals. With so many protest emerging, over-saturation can occur. Nevertheless, social media can serve as a beneficial community organizing tool. With the over saturation of social and political issues, mobility can become an issue. In any given moment, with the use of the hashtag, it can give citizens an opportunity to express their solidarity in order to further a cause.
In the past, community organizers communicated in less immediate ways. But in today's digital age, the proliferation of social media or viral-ness has made it possible to simplify or differentiating movements more easily. The recent #MeToo movement is an interesting example to examine in regards to viral-ness. The "me-too" movement was created in 2006 to particularly highlight the sexual violence experienced by Black women & girls in low-income communities. In less than six months, the #metoo hashtag became viral transcending into a global conversation. What initially started as a grassroots movement has expanded to reach a global community of survivors from diverse walks of life. The simple acknowledgment of #MeToo has created incredible widespread solidarity and support. The use of a social media platform can be attributed to the success of this movement.
Positive Impact of Hashtag Activism
We are essentially the hashtag generation. Hashtags are being used to inform and inspire us to take action, start a movement and have our voices heard. "The new tools of social media hs reinvented social activism." "With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns" (Gladwell, 2010). This form of activism makes it easier for issues to be widespread. However, the question at hand is its lasting impact.
Hashtag activism brings gradual change and has the ability to empower people to make a stand. It can help to mobilize individuals and create action within a movement. We are able to remain more up to date with issues more rapidly. To ensure that effective change is being made through hashtag activism, you must examine the conversation being started by this social media activism. For example, the most well known digital movement, #blacklivesmatter, has created a tremendous amount of buzz surrounding the issue of race relations and police brutality. Something that was intended to be an online movement has transcended into a modern day Civil Rights Movement. The conversations surrounding police brutality and overall race relations in America can be attributed to the cultivation of the hashtag.
Likewise, the police brutality case concerning Eric Garner managed to make its way to President Obama. This lead to taking action by creating a task force aimed at holding police officers accountable. In addition to this, the case created nationwide attention in regards to police brutality. This form of activism started a movement in order to improve police brutality conditions. Although the change is slow, the sustained social media presence uprooted this plus many other movements. A problem that continues to persist is the slow process of governmental law changes. However, hashtag activism brings transparency to important social issues. There are only small victories, but the constant information recycling through the use of the hashtag will allow important topics to remain in the constant rotation.
Respectfully, marginalized individuals and groups are given great recognition through online activism. Online activism serves as a great tool for visibility. Social media provides benefits seeking to advocate and unite individuals with common interests. “Social media is a powerful mechanism with which to disseminate information regarding structural inequities” (Steinberg, 2016). Traditionally, marginalized identities are often silenced offline. However, through the means of hashtag activism, silenced voices are given an outlet to express their opinions and exercise their voice. For example, in the social media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls exemplifies the powerful impact in which social media activism holds. The kidnapping of 200 girls from their school compound in Nigeria by a terrorist group Boko Horom resulted in a global social media campaign in order to rescue the girls from their captives. Both the campaign and hashtag went on to catch global attention while attracting influential figures such as Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Within two weeks of the campaign, the hashtag was retweeted and tweeted more than a million times The global visibility of this issue is greatly attributed to the use of a hashtag. Something simple as a hashtag has the ability to conjure up public discourse across different groups of individuals in order to advance social & political change.
The Drawback to Hashtag Activism
There has been great criticism against the rise of hashtag activism. To some, the effectiveness and vitality of this form of activism are questionable. In some instances, hashtag activism is also referred to as “slacktivism” and “clicktivism”. The United Nations defines slacktivism as when people “support a cause by performing simple measures” but “are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.” Slacktivism typically entails taking to social media and either retweeting empowering words regarding the latest police brutality case or liking a non-profit organization’s Facebook page. However, despite the good intentionality behind these acts; the effectiveness comes into question. Because of this digital activism has been categorized as being “passive”, “reductive” and in some cases counterproductive.
Critics of digital activism have pointed out that it requires people to do the bare minimum behind a computer or phone screen. In some instances, it allows users to garner virtual brownie points for their good deeds. Campaign messages are simply promoted and reduced to tweets, re-tweets, likes and page views. Like traditional media, a lot of times, certain causes only gain momentum once a prominent individual or organization picks up on it. An example of this can be seen in the 2014 ice bucket challenge which intended to bring the support of ALS also known as Luo Gherig’s disease. The campaign featured videos of people, which included global celebrities, pouring ice cold buckets over their heads. A part of the ALS ice bucket challenge was to donate money to the ALS Association. The trendy nature of this challenge managed to weave its way through social media globally. Although the challenge helped raise 22 million USD, there were a few drawbacks. In certain circumstances, there was no mention of the serious issue being ALS and the serious sentiments of the movement were covered up by jovial moments people partaking in an “Internet challenge.”
Co-Creator of OccupyWallStreet, Micah White, has gone on to argue that the passivity of online activism has undermined the traditional forms of activism. In a 2010 piece for the Guardian he wrote, “The truth is that as the novelty of online activism wears off, millions of formerly socially engaged individuals who trusted digital organizations are coming away believing in the impotence of all forms of activism” (White, 2010). He goes on to mention that the same advertising and marketing tactics to sell toilet paper can also be utilized for social movements. A digital activist has the ability to hide behind trending campaigns in order to glorify their social justice deeds. To some, this is not considered true activism.
Furthermore, digital activism can potentially create echo chambers. A combination of algorithmic codes and our personal interests allows us to be exposed to information to reaffirms our beliefs. “It's true that echo chambers can obstruct the flow of information, and that is a problem.” Although echo chambers connect us with like-minded individuals-which can be a positive in social & political organizing-can also be detrimental (Parker 2017). Echo chambers have contributed to the rise of ISIS, Trump, and Alt-Right supporters. All of these entities prove to detrimental to socio-political activism efforts. In addition, echo chambers contribute to the spread of fake news which can negatively impact effective activism. This, as a result, deepens the skepticism of role digital activism plays in social change.
Measuring Success: Final Takeaway
To conclude, there are well-defined advantages and drawbacks of digital and hashtag activism. It can be difficult to determine the success of online activism. In most cases, elements such as mobilization of people and awareness building are easily conceived through hashtag activism. However, the overall goal and vision of a campaign can take more time. And usually, these things must be accomplished with further action. Gaining online support can be effortless, due to social media presence. Organizing and the spreading of information are at a much faster pace making it less challenging for a campaign cause to become more visible. In addition, individuals are able to engage with like-minded individuals on social issues that inform our everyday reality. However, there are negatives to online activism such as passivity, longevity, the potential of fads and circulation of harmful messages.
It is important to understand the importance that hashtag and online activism plays in the mobility of social and political movements. We have a civic obligation to not only engage digitally but to ensure that we are taking the extra step to bring our beliefs into fruition. Actual change is not only back with words, but with action. Although online engagement is a productive first step, this must be paired with action offline.
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