As we continue to transition into the digital age, we are confronted with a question: can hashtags serve as an effective form of advocacy, or are they simply a form of ‘slacktivism’? In order to better understand the utility of hashtags, different hashtags’ contributions to social activism must be examined. Examination will reveal any prominent patterns regarding hashtag prevalence and social progress and will serve as a gauge of hashtags’ and hashtag activism’s effectiveness at promoting social change.
The global nature of the Internet and social media present an unprecedented platform for sharing ideas. On a societal level, social media create unprecedented opportunities for information flow, social influence (Bond et al. 2012), and even democratic revolution (Chaudhry 2014). As such, there exists an incredible relationship between the Internet and the civic and social engagement of individuals and groups. Within that relationship is the hashtag, an extremely versatile tool used across online platforms. This paper will examine the hashtag with regard to social activism, and will attempt to analyze hashtag activism’s effectiveness at promoting social change. Specifically, the recent trending hashtags of: #blacklivesmatter, #Icantbreathe, and #Kony2012 will be examined.
In recent years there have been multiple cases of social media playing a pivotal role in the promotion of social change. In 2011, mass public demonstrations in Egypt led to the eventual removal of President Mubarak; activists organized demonstrations through Twitter and other social media platforms. Chaudhry (2014) notes that the revolution “featured prominent use of social media, by activists organizing the demonstrations and by those disseminating or discussing news of the event locally and globally” (p.946 ). Similar events occurred in 2011 in Tunisia, leading to the removal of the Tunisian President as well.
Successful hashtag activism is not limited to the Arab Spring Uprising, though. In 2012 in the United States, the Susan G. Komen Foundation decided to withdraw their funding from the Planned Parenthood organization. Planned Parenthood is widely viewed as a women’s reproductive rights advocate, so the decision was met with much backlash. The hashtag #standwithpp began trending, and within days the decision to withdraw funding was reversed. In 2014, the #ALSicebucketchallenge went viral and successfully drew awareness to ALS. The ALS Association received $41.8 Million in donations between July 29 and August 21, more than doubling donations received in all of 2013.
One of the most critical aspects of social activism is gathering supporters and those who are otherwise willing to contribute to a cause. The hashtag contributes to this aspect of social activism as a tool for support garnering and information sharing. A hashtag’s multi-platform utility allows it to simultaneously collect and link data from various sources at once; what used to take hours of searching to compile individual sources now takes minutes thanks to hashtags. Hashtags therefore serve as a tool of mobilization and form a “common public-space” (Lindgren and Lundström 1009). Being an activist used to involve gathering handwritten signatures on a petition and gathering supporters for a protest; a hashtag does all of that with only a few keystrokes.
On April 27th, 2015, a funeral was held for Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man who died under suspicious cir- cumstances in police custody. His death shocked and outraged many members of the community, and within hoursmassive protests began. The protests were organized using the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, and on April 27th there were 70, 313 posts on social media that used the hashtag (Topsy.com/analytics). On April 26th there were 15,267 posts (Topsy.com/analytics), indicating the intensity with which a hashtag can spread. It should be noted that the hashtag #blacklivesmatter did not arise as a result of Freddie Gray but rather in 2012 after the Trayvon Martin incident. The two events are unrelated and yet the hashtag #blacklivesmatter has been used to discuss both incidents and organize protests and other activity despite the incidents occurring almost three years apart. Effective hashtags used correctly can demonstrate immense resilience and can have long, useful lives as tools.
Additionally, a hashtag’s impact is not limited to its direct users; there is an important component of the hashtag known as ‘reach’. A hashtag’s reach is the total number of people who are exposed to it in some way, whether directly or indirectly. In other words, a hashtag’s reach includes all of the people who posted using the hashtag as well as all of their followers who were exposed to the post. Reach is what accounts for the rapid spreading of hashtags, as a post’s reach increases exponentially with every view and retweet. Reach can continue for days and even weeks, which gives the hashtag persistent and enduring relevance and effectiveness. In the #blacklives-matter example, the 70,313 posts utilizing the hashtag had an estimated reach of 505, 457 (Topsy.com/analytics). As a result of reach, what was a local incident in Baltimore quickly became the focus of an intense national discus- sion.
On July 17th, 2014, a man named Eric Garner died while being placed in police custody in New York City. A video of his arrest recorded him repeatedly exclaiming, “I can’t breathe” in the moments leading up to his death. In the aftermath of the incident, the hashtag #Icantbreathe began trending. It served as an organizing tool for protesters across the United States, and became a slogan adopted by people ranging from normal high school students to myriad professional athletes including LeBron James. #Icantbreathe has since become a symbol used with regard to the ongoing discussion about police brutality and race relations in the United States, and continues to unite people as part of a large conversation. Since their inceptions, both #blacklivesmatter and #Icantbreathe have been credited with contributing to meaningful change: President Obama created a task force to foster trust between citizens and police, the Senate unanimously passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a police restraining program.
As far-reaching and effective as certain hashtags have been, though, certain researchers assert that hashtag activism is limited in its abilities and may even be damaging to social causes (Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich 2014; Kristofferson, Peloza, and White 2014). Kristofferson et al. (2014) maintain that hashtag activism has cultivated a society of ‘slacktivists’, people who will engage in token displays of support for a cause but are not likely to subsequently engage in more meaningful contributions to the cause (Morozov 2009b). The so-called millennial generation is particularly likely to engage in token supports of activism, a byproduct of the increasing role of technology in the modern world. The slacktivism phenomenon is so well known that it has even been ridiculed on the television show Saturday Night Live:
Look, if you make a Facebook page we will “like” it — it’s the least we can do. But it’s also the most we can do. (Seth Meyers, Weekend Update, Saturday Night Live, September 22, 2012)