It’s 2017 and the Big Picture of activism certainly is not what it used to be a few years ago. With technology advancing every day, we have passed in a new era: that of social media activism, hashtag activism, or “hashtivism”. It is much easier today than it once was to deliver and spread a meaningful message concerning an important social issue. The vitality of leaflets and marches has not declined at all, but the use of hashtags and social media as a form to easily spread a certain notion and raise awareness about a movement, can actually function and helpful supplements to traditional activism.
Social media activism involves raising awareness and visibility for certain issues by using various tools sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr offer, such as posting, liking, sharing info, news and photos, reblogging, commenting and sparking discussions and debates. Social media platforms have made mobilizing, coming together, discussing, organizing and protesting much easier than it used to be, especially through the effectiveness and rapidity of online communications, and the accessibility for both disabled and able-bodied people of different ages, genders, financial states, religions, and sexualities from around the world.
Twitter has effectively made hashtags parts of our everyday lives, not just on the Internet but everywhere, from TV and popular culture, to education and advertising. Hashtags may be used for fun, trolling, or information, and all that for one reason: they are tiny, effective, stick on your mind and hell, do they get the message across!
Hashtags, posts and tweets may not always do the job when we need to lobby politicians, protest or boycott, but they have helped to inform and mobilize large numbers of people. In this way the world learns more about movements, their demands and needs, and has a bigger outlet of ways to more actively participate. Awareness is the first step for mobilization, and numbers do matter when it comes to raising it. Most social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, have algorithms that track, follow, and promote the most popular – “trending” – hashtags, bringing pressing social matters to the spotlight.
During the past few years we may count numerous hashtags such as #MarriageEquality and #OccupyWallStreet that made it to the top and helped raise awareness concerning social causes – often with a visible later social or political outcome. One such trademark has been connected with the #BringBackOurGirls 2014 Chibok kidnapping of more than 300 Nigerian female students by Boko Haram that received millions of retweets, urging governments to take a stance and intervene. Another such example was #IamJada, after sixteen-year old Jada Smart was gang-raped and photographed and attacked by online trolls. 2010 was marked by the protests and civil war in the Middle East, and social media helped raise awareness for the Arab Spring. #IStandWithAhmed also was a hashtag that boosted a movement of great importance, highlighting islamophobia in American culture after 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for taking a homemade clock to school.
Also, who can forget the historic #LoveWins, its millions of mentions, and the rainbow logos of most social media platforms after the Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed same-sex marriage in the US a couple of years ago? A hashtag that is still very much alive and kicking, what with Australia’s recent YES on same-sex marriage.
Here are some other examples of hashtags raising awareness concerning human rights globally during the past couple of years.
Social Media Activism: Black Lives Matter
The struggle faced by black American communities like that of #Ferguson (millions of tweets during 2015 and still on) after multiple incidents of police brutality and power abuse was often silenced or misrepresented by conventional media, and this was why social media played a tremendous role in spreading the word and informing the world about the events taking place at the protests. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag became viral during 2015, after the deaths of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Laquan McDonald. According to Mary Joyce, founder and director of the Meta-Activism Project, speaking about activism after the shooting of teenager Michael Brown: ”…just like any other kind of activism, digital activism is only necessary when conventional methods of addressing injustice fail. “[I]nternet campaigns calling for justice” are only necessary for those whom the existing system does not serve.”
One of the organizers of the historic protests that took place in Ferguson two years ago, DeRay Mckesson, argued in favor of social media tools and their positive influence in demonstrations and organizing in traditional activism. According to McKesson, the use of Twitter has been deciding in boosting a movement, bringing activists together in solidarity, facilitating communication, empowering, and bringing stories and issues neglected by mainstream media to light. Using social media to fight back against erasure has helped us learn the truth for movements around the globe that would be almost silenced otherwise. Social media help decentralize and democratize the spreading of information.
The contribution of social media in boosting the movement of aid, reception and support of refugees during the biggest refugee crisis since World War II that took place in the past couple of years has been tremendous. Social media and smartphones have been a vital communication tool for refugees, and have also helped inform and raise awareness to the rest of the world, as well as provide further tools necessary for refugee volunteering and activism. #RefugeesWelcome became one of the trending 2015 Twitter hashtags. You can read more about the numerous ways in which hashtag activism and social media have played a big role in the refugee crisis.
When it comes to the women’s rights, feminist activism has made great use of hashtags to raise awareness, and sensitize society, often in innovative, creative, and thought-provoking ways. According to Tara L. Conley, founder of Hashtag Feminism, feminist hashtags started taking over on Twitter already in 2013.
She said: “Twitter has been a contentious and transformative space for feminist discourse. There are still folks out there whose day job it is to demonize feminists/feminism — most of whom hide behind Twitter eggs. But I also know that if it weren’t for hashtags like #YouOkSis, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, #WhyIStayed, #RapeCultureIsWhen, #FreeMarissa, all of the #IStandWith tags, and tags that called attention to the deaths of black women like #RenishaMcBride and #SandraBland, and all those under the #SayHerName tag — we would likely be having very different public conversations, or worse, no conversations.”
Other really influential examples have been #GirlsLikeUs back in 2012, bringing the matter of intersectionality and trans inclusion in feminism in the spotlight, #NotYourAsianSidekick in 2013, speaking up against stereotypes faced by Asian American women, #BlackGirlMagic in 2013 to celebrate the beauty and power of black women, #MasculinitySoFragile in 2013 aiming to start a conversation about problematic gender norms that people have to conform to in order to qualify as “men”, and #EffYourBeautyStandards in 2015 which spoke up against the unrealistic beauty norms that women are expected to meet by society, more often than not with harmful and oppressive consequences.
There have also been several online campaigns and hashtags striving to raise awareness and speak up against gender based violence, sexual assault and abuse. Back in 2014, #WhyIstayed was a really thought-provoking series of tweets against the blaming of victims of domestic abuse.
One of the most recent hashtags that have gone viral is #MeToo: a hashtag initiated by actress Alyssa Milano urging women who have experienced sexual harassment to share let the world know so that they can come together in solidarity, and shed light to the issue and its shocking extent. Milano’s call took place after the accusations against Harvey Weinstein and the recent revelations about powerful men and sexual harassment. #MeToo has been a way for victims of sexual harrassment to express their experiences and join a movement in solidarity, and for those who were still wholly or partly ignorant of this serious social phenomenon to learn through the stories that most women (as well as men and non-binary people) around us flooded social media with.
There are numerous powerful hashtags which have been used to bring visibility to the issues trans people face in their personal, social and legal lives. One of the most well-known examples is #WeJustNeedtoPee, a sarcastic social media campaign against bathroom bills, conservative laws that prevent trans people in America to use the correct bathroom according to their true gender identity. Trans people from around America have used this hashtag as a cry against society’s transphobia.
According to Kassey Suffredini, chief program officer for the non-discrimination campaign Freedom for All Americans: “This isn’t just a policy debate or political debate. This is a conversation about real people. I worry about the impact those kinds of messages will have on transgender people themselves and the community around them.”
The power and efficiency of hashtags lies within their simplicity, both to understand and to use. Their use on social media has highlighted a new era in activism and raising awareness.