The hashtag can be considered one of digital society’s many contributions to the further democratization of our world.
By Casper Frohn, November 25 2017
Last month the controversial hashtag #MeToo circulated social media. It carried with it a political message — that victims of sexual harassment shouldn’t just stand idly by while their harassers went on with their lives unaffected by their actions. The case especially revolved around the film and television community, where several public figures were among both the accused and the accusers. Namely the movie producer Harvey Weinstein was the first public figure to be accused starting a domino effect that ended up as a global campaign against sexual harassment that went on in more than 80 countries. The #MeToo campaign had several major consequences for many of the accused public figures, among whom famous actor Kevin Spacey took a downhill turn in his acting career as he was cut out of his latest film, All the Money in the World, while Netflix reported that they would stop further production of their popular series House of Cards staring Spacey as the series’ antihero, the notorious politician Frank Underwood.
What makes the case of the #MeToo campaign so amazingly interesting is its ability to turn around the public discourse in a manner that would be entirely unimaginable if not for social media — the soil that many aspects of our daily lives today are built upon. The campaign is a prime example of how technology helps shape our political world — how social media has added a new dimension to the democratic idea of the public sphere. In short, the public sphere can be described as a space in which ideas, information and debate of common concern circulate. Through affordances such as the hashtag, social media has prompted new ways for people to engage in this public discussion — you don’t necessarily have to spend time on writing an essay to have a say in the debate — you can simply state your opinion accompanied by a specific hashtag knowing that your statement now can be found along other views on a certain topic of discussion.
I got very interested with the power of the hashtag and I started to look for other cases like that of the #MeToo campaign. It didn’t take long before I stumbled upon the well-known cases of #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson — both relating to the seemingly unjust murders of young black men by white policemen. The whole phenomenon of using hashtags in this almost protesting fashion is in academia identified by the term ‘hashtag activism’. This digital form of activism has through the last couple of years had a huge impact altering the public discourse on several controversial topics of social injustice that are usually considered taboo. The power of hashtag activism as opposed to other forms of digital activism such as signing online petitions or distributed denial of service actions (the so-called DDoS attacks) rests in its narrative dimension. The hashtag provides the individual an opportunity to add to the larger narrative of the hashtag with their own personal story or opinion. As more and more people tell their separate and unique stories through the hashtag, the collective narrative grows bigger and carries with it way more influence than that of a single, isolated story. And since the cases mentioned above all lasted several weeks there is plenty of time for the narrative to expand tremendously and provide agency that can’t be ignored in the public debate.
In short, the hashtag, in the case of hashtag activism, gathers people from across the globe to stand up for a united cause — it works as an identifier for other activists and as a gateway for people to take part in or support the protest. It is a tool in the public sphere to force attention to unpleasant yet crucial discussions. It possesses political agency that influences our world in whole new ways that are only possible through the digital branch of society that social media has created. It is probably only a matter of time before another hashtag sheds light on yet another case of social injustice and we once again can witness how digital society impacts the public sphere.