If you have been online any time in the last 10 years, you have probably encountered what is popularly known as hashtag activism. It seems that, every few weeks, a new cause inspires a flurry of social media posts, all marked by a common tag to draw awareness to the issue.
As with much activity online, opinions regarding the effectiveness of hashtag activism remain strongly divided. For some, it is a powerful tool for change; for others, it is as pointless as that pencil they dropped back in 3rd grade. The truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
When Hashtag Activism Works
Presumably to the disappointment of its detractors, there have been moments when hashtag activism has worked. Whether simply to raise awareness of injustice or to raise funds for charity, its effectiveness is undeniable.
A prime example of this was 2014’s #ASLIceBucketChallenge, which saw numerous videos of participants being doused with buckets of ice water posted on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. The campaign resulted in more than US$41.8 million in donations received in less than a month.
Another example of the effectiveness of the relatively new form of activism and protest was the #StopFundingHate campaign that targeted UK tabloid the Daily Mail’s advertisers. The newspaper is infamous for skewing facts and publishing blatant lies that contribute directly to existing social and other tensions. The campaign saw the paper lose major advertisers such as the Body Shop and Lego.
2017’s #MeToo campaign was a revival of one begun in 2007 by US-based activist Tarana Burke. The movement she began more than 10 years ago encourage those who had suffered sexual abuse and harassment to break their silence. While Hollywood-based filmmaker Harvey Weinstein was initially the reason for the hashtag’s appearance last year, the campaign gained further momentum after actress Alyssa Milano promoted it. The conversation was taken up in other countries as well, where additional hashtags were used to localise it, such as France’s #balancetonporc (Expose your pig) and India’s #abusefreeindia. Apart from offering insight into the extent of rape, abuse, and harassment, the campaign also resulted in not only Weinstein, but other notorious characters such as photographer Terry Richardson losing their jobs.
When Hashtag Activism is Laughable
Not all hashtag activism campaigns have been as successful as #ASLIceBucketChallenge or #StopFundingHate. There are times when it is nothing more than exercises in vanity and futility – or appear to be covers for something more sinister. There are also some campaigns that border on the ridiculous, and we almost expect someone to start a #mustwin movement for casinos that host Blackjack games, or a #givemethepot campaign for Poker players who want to win big at the tables!
The best example of its pointlessness however, and in a real campaign is #KONY2012, which focused on central Africa-based internationally wanted criminal leader Joseph Kony. The idea was apparently to make Kony’s crimes known around the world so that he would be arrested by the end of 2012. How an arrest would be linked to people knowing about him was never explained. According to a study by psychologists at Arizona, Kansas, and Duke universities, the campaign was a dismal failure because its oversimplification of the situation, which was good for inspiring people to moral outrage, but little more.
Another criticism of hashtag activism is its conflation of advertising, brand influencers, and personal gain with real activism that ought to improve the lives of others, rather than just that of the activists themselves. This goes hand-in-hand with the fad-like nature of hashtags. Kony is still at large, but when last did anyone see a #KONY? 2012? He, and the violence and terror he spread, is all but forgotten by everyone other than his victims.
Activism or Agenda-Pushing?
Writing for the Huffington Post in support of hashtag activism, Sabina Khan-Ibarra took pains to point out how the Israeli government has hired people to challenge anti-Semitic and anti-Israel tweets condemning Israel’s responses to terror attacks by Palestinians and its so-called apartheid laws.
In doing so, she labelled the government as trolls – the implication of which is that anti-Semitism is an acceptable form of hateful racism and bigotry, as long as a hashtag is involved. There is something disturbing about a self-proclaimed activist that seeks to shift hatred onto other groups of people, rather than trying to do away with the hatred altogether.
Whether ultimately effective or not, hashtag activism will be around for a while to come, although it is yet to create real, lasting change.