It is an ongoing question for scholars researching social media regarding the extent to which it can serve to facilitate social activism and ultimately lead to political change. For instance, Yang (2016) identifies that “one of the most interesting developments in digital activism in recent years is the rise of hashtag activism, meaning discursive protest on social media united through a hashtagged word, phrase or sentence” (13). This researcher goes on to use the example of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as an important demonstration of the power digital activism can have in raising visibility and awareness around issues that may be neglected by traditional or elite media.
Hashtag activism can be a powerful way to control a narrative regarding a common cause that has either been neglected or misrepresented by corporate media, and it offers the opportunity for communal participation across the globe. For instance, in the case of #BlackLivesMatter, this hashtag has become a unifying theme of multiple stories around racial injustice. As newer movements have emerged online, I started to think about their potential impact on the larger culture.
What constitutes a successful movement if it starts as a hashtag? Is it enough to raise visibility or bring awareness to a given issue for online activism to be labeled “successful,” or does it have to lead to systemic change in some way? What will ultimately come of the trending hashtags from #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and other emerging online movements for the groups they represent?
Social activism is defined as a deliberate action to bring about social change, so presumably social media has become just another tool with this larger goal for activists. This implies that while raising the visibility of an issue is critical and can be facilitated by social media through hashtag activism, this has to be just one step in a larger process of social justice. In other words, hashtag activism doesn’t necessarily make one a social activist per se unless there is other work on the ground being done to facilitate change.
To take the case of #MarchForOurLives and the Never Again movement, many mainstream commentators have been asking, what constitutes success? For instance, in a piece for The New Yorker, John Cassidy (2018) asks in the title, “Will the March for Our Lives Lead to Real Change?” The ultimate goal of this student-led movement appears to be legislation to strengthen gun control in the nation. The marches they organized in March, in the aftermath of yet another tragic mass shooting in our schools, were one of the biggest rallies for gun control in the nation’s capital and spawned over 400 other protests on the same day around the nation. Thus far, our system remains the same, however, and the NRA grip on Congress and our politicians doesn’t appear to be weakening.
Here is what this case of hashtag activism—which is ongoing—has accomplished so far. In addition to the historical day of marching, they have registered people to vote, organized and attended town halls, and forced the corporate media to contend with a different narrative regarding access to guns in our nation and the safety of all Americans. Those could be pointed to as indicators of success; however, it remains to be seen if the change in public discourse regarding safety and guns in our nation will actually lead to institutional changes and safer gun policies—which is ultimately the only surefire way to prevent mass shootings from being such a common occurrence in our nation.
The takeaway? Hashtag activism is a great way to get involved in social justice issues, but it should not be seen as the endpoint of social activism. Ideally, for those of us seeking to change our culture for the better, this will become a first step in introducing potential activists to like-minded peers, connecting and organizing events, learning more about issues, and beginning the often long and arduous process of social activism.
What is trending regarding activism on social media can come and go, but meaningful social activism generally requires patience, sustained attention, and work. As Cassidy quotes one of the Parkland survivors and Never Again leaders, “’We understand that this is a marathon and that we’ll be fighting for years. We’re just getting started. Now we have to use our rights as voters to make things change.’”
And to think, in the aftermath of that devastating Parkland shooting, this all started with a hashtag.
Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2018
Yang, G. (2016). Narrative Agency in Hashtag Activism: The Case of #BlackLivesMatter. Media and Communication, 4(4), 13-17.
Cassidy, J. (2018, March 27). Will the March for Our Lives Lead to Real Change? The New Yorker. Retrieved on April 26, 2018 from: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/will-the-march-for-our-li…Source: Azadeh Aalai