In recent years, ‘hashtag activism’, a term first coined by The Guardian in September 2011 when discussing the role of social media in the Occupy Wall Street protests, has played an increasingly pivotal role in social justice movements. Activists have used hashtags to raise awareness of particular issues, such as #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls, and to organise protests and connect communities, such as the ‘Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride’ as a result of #BlackLivesMatter, following the shooting of Michael Brown. The #BlackLivesMatter movement also signalled a shift in the focus of hashtag activism, enabling it to develop as a catalyst to start conversations surrounding issues that weren’t spoken about in the mainstream media, and in turn fighting the stigmas and stereotypes that accompany them.
However, this form of hashtag activism has been heavily criticised and faced accusations of laziness and narcissism, suggesting that people cannot be bothered to take the time to attend protests and simply get involved on Twitter to feel better about themselves, rather than making the effort to ensure change is made. This raises concerns as to whether or not hashtag activism is making real change or whether it is simply blowing smoke around these important issues, with few substantiated changes in the real world, particularly with regards to government policy. It has been suggested that real protests and rallies are more effective at creating change: historically, The March on Washington of 1963 that lead to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for example; key turning points in the struggle for civil rights.
Although it is true that increased awareness does not necessarily equate to real change, we should not dismiss hashtag activism as an effective form of protest. It is particularly effective at enabling movements to reach a wider audience and gain large numbers of supporters without them having to be physically concentrated to a particular location. This can give a sense of worldwide solidarity behind a movement, and along with the fact that hashtag movements can be perpetually accessed and contributed to, they present the issues with a sense of urgency, making them harder to be ignored. Moreover, the accessibility of social media enables a wide variety of voices to contribute to the conversations surrounding the movements, and can even provide an access point to the government, with world leaders and government officials becoming increasingly active on Twitter.
Over the last two years, we have seen some of the most successful hashtag activism movements and many of them have initiated real change. In April 2017, the campaign #LahuKaLagaan was started by women’s rights organisation SheSays to make sanitary products easily accessible and tax free in India. The campaign gained support from people worldwide, including Bollywood stars, comedians and writers, all urging Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to abolish the tax on sanitary products. The campaign lead to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) being filed before the Bombay High Court, serving as an example of hashtag activism translating into change in the real world.
Another example of hashtag activism leading to real-world change came after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. A group of students went on to start the campaign #NeverAgain to advocate for stricter gun control, and in March 2018 the Florida Legislature passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. This bill raised the minimum age for buying firearms to 21, established background checks and longer waiting periods, banned potentially violent or mentally ill people from possessing guns and provides a program to arm some teachers and hire school police.
Successful hashtag activism doesn’t always exist solely on social media and often transcends from the digital world into reality; arguably the success of the #NeverAgain movement came from it’s March for Our Lives protest. This could imply that hashtag movements serve simply as an organisational tool, as seen by the #WomensMarch which was solely used to arrange, organise and promote protests. Therefore hashtag activism can be seen simply as a new platform for those who would have protested anyway, however, it arguably has also mobilised people who would have been apathetic to these issues otherwise.
The hashtag movement that has gained the most widespread engagement and mainstream media coverage has been #MeToo. The movement was first started in 2006 by the women’s rights activist Tarana Burke, but went viral in October 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted it in an effort to encourage women who have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted to speak up about their experiences. It became the biggest movement on Twitter in 2017, with 12 million posts in the first 24 hours, and has encouraged women around the world to share their own stories of rape, assault and harassment. #MeToo has clearly brought the issues of sexual assault and harassment into the public conscience, however, unlike #LahuKaLagaan and #NeverAgain, the #MeToo movement hasn’t directly made any legislative change despite it being more far-reaching.
Ultimately this shows how difficult it is to gauge how successful hashtag activism is, as much of it is aimed at changing social attitudes, rather than changing legislation. Many would argue that #MeToo has been the most transformative activist movement of recent years, and yet there are no tangible real-world changes that can be directly linked to it. Therefore, perhaps the success of hashtag activism will only be clearly visible when viewed in retrospection in years to come, after sufficient time has passed for the aggregation of these grains of protest to grow enough to form a mountain. What remains clear is that social media has provided a new banner upon which modern protest may be carried, and as with the #MeToo campaign, a well placed and infectious hashtag provides the golden thread through which a worldwide audience is now sought.
Image: Mobilus in Mobili via Flickr