The Rise of Hashtag Activism

In this era of click bait and funny cat compilation videos, it’s virtually impossible to avoid social media. Kate Wakerley explores the technological revolution and a new kind of keyboard warrior.

We live in a world where information is at our fingertips. Thousands of articles, videos, and tweets circulate the web each day, making knowledge about the world around us more accessible than it has been before.

This increasing availability of information has largely been attributed to the emergence of new technologies and media forms that have allowed major national and international events to be shared instantly across the globe.

New technologies, in particular social media, have been widely celebrated over the last few years for their ability to connect us with others around the world. We can now speak face-to-face with friends and family overseas using programs like Skype; we can view a constant stream of status updates, photos, and videos; we can send a message in a matter of seconds; and, perhaps most notably, social media allows us to voice our opinions with ease, reaching diverse, international audiences.

Today, technology and social media make up a huge part of our everyday lives. The simple act of being behind a computer screen has become the most comfortable form of social interaction for most of our generation. Allowing us to make ourselves heard without too much effort and without the fear of rejection.

The use of social media to voice our opinions has been celebrated for its role in protest movements. Digital media platforms, Facebook and Twitter in particular, have been praised as the saviour of democracy for their ability to engage and mobilise a large number of people while keeping the costs of organising events to a minimum.

At the same time, social media platforms have been criticised for their role in destroying traditional forms of activism such as marches and rallies, public protests, public speakers, physical petitions and strikes. Social media now allows us to share a message, voice our opinion on something we feel is important, and step away from it in an instant as we continue to scroll through our friends’ updates.

We are exposed to a range of social justice messages and calls to action, but we no longer take the time to act beyond the simple click of a button. This type of engagement is often referred to as ‘hashtag activism’ or ‘slacktivism’ and most of us have taken part in it. I know I have.

The past year has certainly been a confronting one. We saw a missing airplane, sanctions in Russia, a flight that was shot down, the emergence of ISIS, the threat of Ebola, missing schoolgirls in Nigeria, unrest in Ferguson, the Sydney siege, and most recently the tragic events in Paris. In many ways, 2014 was the year that hashtag activism has flourished.

If you feel like there is a new trending hashtag every week, you are most likely right. Almost immediately after any tragic event, there will be a hashtag that has gone viral. For example, the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls began to circulate after more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by the Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group. As a result, many activists took to social media to demand change. The campaign rapidly spread internationally, catching the attention of celebrities and the political community including Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The hashtag represented a clear message to the Nigerian government to take action to find the missing schoolgirls. Through pressures from a united international community, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan allocated more resources to recover the girls. Although many of the schoolgirls remain missing, the tweets, petitions, and messages helped to create awareness and pressure those in power to take further action.

The ALS ice bucket challenge is another example of an online awareness campaign that hit our news feeds in 2014. We all went through a period where we could not log in to Facebook or Twitter without encountering yet another video of a friend or celebrity taking part in the challenge. Although the campaign has been labelled a widespread success, it failed to educate the community on the disease or the importance of donating to the cause. Many completed the challenge as a form of self-promotion or for shock value without either researching ALS or making a donation.

However, social media has become a vital form of communication particularly in times of crisis. There are many examples where social media has been an extremely important tool during political or cultural events. Back in 2011, the hashtag #jan25th was used to mobilise activists in Egypt to unite against government corruption under President Hosni Mubarak. Social media is infamous for playing a significant role in the Egyptian revolution. The online call to action helped to produce a substantial number of people to the streets of Cairo and allowed for widespread communication of the event as it unfolded.

Realistically, a status or a hashtag will not change the world. But, it is certainly a good place to start. When we see a trending hashtag it means that people are participating in the conversation, they are engaged and spreading the message to other social media users around the world.

Our generation lives in a world that is very different from what has been experienced before. When we tweet or share we have the power to communicate an idea that can reach and resonate with people around the world and potentially grow into a movement for change. As we have already seen, something as simple as a hashtag can make a difference.

Words by Kate Wakerley





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