What do you think about when you hear the word “activism”? Usually, the term evokes many to recall mobs of people taking over the streets, signs in hand, calling out catchy slogans and explaining the abuses they were fighting against outside the offending party’s building. Though this form of activism has certainly not disappeared, changes in technology have begun to change what the future of activism may look like.
Activism, in short, is going viral.
In recent years, the rise of the internet has brought about a new trend in how information can be disseminated to a large number of a fragmented public; essentially, make the content go viral. Virality, the tendency of an image, video or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one internet user to another, has taken the internet by storm. With just a simple click of the button, videos like Devil Baby Attack and images like The Dress can boost internet activity and gain the attention of millions from around the world.
But for activists who want to push through the wall of constant–and usually irrelevant–content to spread the word about their causes, there is almost no better way for them to go viral than through using a medium whose whole algorithm is based on what is trending: Twitter and their hashtags. Through use of the Twitter hashtags, a new form of activism–aptly named hashtag activism— has been at the forefront of many of the new activist movements. But what exactly is the hashtag, and how has it risen to be such a prominent tool? What makes this new digital approach so effective, and in what ways may it fail? And finally, how can the use of hashtag activism be changing the practices and ethics of the news organizations and journalists who so often are called on to report on these viral movements?
~The Rise of Hashtag Activism~
To begin, let’s look at the rise of hashtags as a means of both organizing information and allowing content to go viral. To the surprise of many, these metadata tags have actually been around for a while. While its first use was in 1988 on a platform known as the Internet Relay Chat or IRC (AboutTech) to group content such as images and videos, it wasn’t until 2007 that the hashtag (the term first used by blogger Stowe Boyd) achieved major public notice. During that summer, a San Diego Resident named Nate Riddener appended all of his posts with the hashtag #sandiegofire to inform the public about the ongoing wildfires in the area and the amount of damage they caused. Essentially, the first use of the viral hashtag was an early form of what would later be called hashtag activism.
In July of 2009, Twitter officially integrated the use of hashtags and their viral properties into their site, putting a “Trending Topics” bar of the most popular hashtags on their homepage. Since then, the number of users–and therefore potential activists and audiences–have steadily been rising. According to a report by the Pew Research Center in 2014, Twitter accounts rose in numbers as it attracted 23% of all internet users in 2014 as compared to only 18% of all internet users in 2013. The range and age of their audience has also grown, as shown by this self-made infographic.
In the six years that the hashtag has gone from an obscure pound symbol to a powerful social media tool, it has played a part in some of the most prevalent political, cultural, and social events of the decade. In the spring of 2011, hashtag activism took to the global stage as it played a key role in the civil unrest of the Arab Spring. As political activists and protesters took the streets across the Middle East, the use of Twitter and its trending hashtags allowed for those in the midst of the chaos to organize and send their pictures, videos, and personal stories and cries for change across the world, with the hashtag #Bahrain becoming one of the most used hashtags of all time. The use of the hashtag to bring to light and encourage discussions of social and cultural change has also risen. Just within the last year, a plethora of social justice hashtags have gained the attention of the world, with topics ranging from racial violence (#ICantBreathe, #Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown), to sexism (#DudesGreetingDudes, #StopGamerGate, #YesAllWomen), to domestic abuse, violence, and rape ( #WhyIStayed, #CarryThatWeight), and even to international calls against terrorism (#BringBackOurGirls, #JeSuisCharlie).
As the hashtag has risen to public prominence, so to has its place in bringing attention to social and cultural activism causes. Should the trend in both the number of users and the number of hashtag activism movements continue, a large part of activism may truly rely on the continued use of the viral hashtag.
~When It Works~
What makes this new digital approach so effective?
At their most basic function, hashtags are a tool for focusing attention. According to a report by Aljazeera America, research by the University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynup Tufekci suggested that “politically motivated non-institutional actors who use affordances of social media to engage in presentation of their political and personal selves to garner public attention for their cause” is essential in carrying out effective, efficient activism on various social networks. If the goal is attention, singular, strategically savvy voices are essential in mobilizing communities to articulate a single message or grievance. Translation: hashtag movements work best when the general public comes together and forms a community dedicated to the cause and trends the hashtag, allowing for the cause to garner the attention it needs to be effective. The power of attention in itself is powerful: it can either directly influence action by the people or will indirectly spur the action of public officials as their constituents bring their attention to the cause and demand change. Usually, the hashtag works best when the slogan itself is simple and catchy, evoking the main message of the cause without being too long and complicated.
Another critical factor of what allows hashtag activism to work is that using the hashtag is free and open for anyone to use. This allows for more marginalized voices to be heard by the masses. Deray Mckesson, one of a number of leading organizers and activists against police brutality, gave an interview in The Atlantic about how hashtags and social media campaigns have given a boost to the movements he is involved in by allowing black voices and complaints to be heard. These marginalized voices can even come from across the world in places like Nigeria, where the use of the hashtag brought to light the plight of hundreds of girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. When the maginalized voice has a large enough following, it usually sparks intense conversations about political, cultural, or societal change which requires people to think more about the issue and become more involved.
A prime example of this coalition of gaining attention and marginalized voices was the #ALSIceBucketChallenge in the summer of 2014. The movement started when Pete Frates, a former baseball player at Boston College who was diagnosed with ALS, staged a massive bucket challenge in downtown Boston, urging people to either make a donation or dump a bucket of ice water on their head. The stunt quickly gained the attention of the public, with many participants deciding to both dump the water on their heads as well as donate. High ranking celebrities even joined in on the movement, encouraging others to join them in raising funds.
With a combination of both the hashtag and video, the viral movement in the U.S. soon spread across the world, as seen in the geotagged map below.
According to the ALS Association, between July 29th and August 12th, the association and its 38 chapters had received over $4 Million in donations compared to only $1.12 million during the same time the year before. “We have never seen anything like this in the history of the disease,” said Barbara Newhouse, President and CEO of The ALS Association. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with the level of compassion, generosity and sense of humor that people are exhibiting as they take part in this impactful viral initiative.” Among the reasons Forbes cited as contributing the success of the viral campaign were factors already mentioned in hashtag activism’s growth: the participants were of a younger audience (which is still growing), the message was simple (get wet and raise some funds for a disease) and it had a unifying theme (brought together a community of people), all of which brought attention of the issue to an otherwise uninformed public.
To summarize, “hashtag activism is a gateway between politics and popular culture, a platform to educate the ignorant and draw attention to the operation of power in the world” (Slate).
~Why It Fails~
But like many initiatives, there are times when hashtag activism fails, and if there is any hope of the viral movements continuing in the future it is important to understand why.
Although one of the main reasons hashtag activism campaigns go viral is due to their simplicity, that factor may hinder the campaign later on as the public fails to truly understand all the factors and implications of the cause. No better example of this exists than the (in)famous #StopKony2012 or Kony 2012 video campaign. In March of 2012, the non-profit organization Invisible Children horrified the world with the release of a video documenting the crimes of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and a convicted war criminal charged with mass murder and the kidnapping and training of child soldiers. The campaign went viral almost immediately with a simple message: Find Kony and stop him.
Although it was this simplicity that originally drew people in, it also helped bring about the downfall of the campaign. Despite the large following, many did not understand that the situation was a lot more complicated than the video made it appear. Critics immediate jumped on the campaign for failing to provide viewers with any “social, political, or economic context for Kony’s violence” (Slate), instead simplifying the situation to the point where it was a matter of good vs. evil ( the video’s director, Jason Russell, was essentially explaining the situation to his five year old son) rather than a complex net of social and political factors. Once more was learned about the situation (along with other accusations of fraud and offensiveness to Ugandan people), enthusiasm and support for the movement quickly died out.
But the loss of interest by audiences is another factor in why hashtag activism campaigns such as #Kony2012 fail to be successful. Critics of hashtag activism have coined a new word for the action: Slacktivism, contending that these actions are merely for participant gratification because they lack engagement and commitment and fail to produce any tangible effect, in terms of promoting a cause (Techopedia). Do hashtag campaigns draw in awareness? Yes. Do hashtags keep the public engaged? Not necessarily. The problem comes after the person has shared the hashtag. With just one click the person feels instant gratification. They’ve helped spread the word. They’re involved. Good job. And that’s as far as it goes. In some cases, slacktivism manifests because the person had no desired to get involved in the first place, but rather wanted to participate in the trend to bolster their online personas. In a paper by the University of British Columbia graduate student Kirk Kristofferson and and co-authors Katherine White and John Peloza, the researchers actually found that those whose initial support for the campaign was public were less likely to engage in deeper, more costly forms of engagement later on compared to those who showed their support privately.
Yes, the use of hashtags to make campaigns go viral can bring large amount of attention to a cause. But when that attention fails to move beyond the realm of social media, and participants stagnate in their devotion to help, little tangible effects will occur. The lesson then is simple: if people are not informed or motivated enough through participating in the hashtag trend, then a trend is all it will ever be.
~Effects on Traditional Journalism~
Whether successful or not, hashtag activism campaigns have and do unquestionably divert the public’s attention, if sometimes only for a moment, to important issues. But how do hashtag activist movements disrupt, if at all, the practices and ethics of the journalists journalists and news organizations who cover these viral stories?
In regards to the news organizations process of choosing stories, journalists have always covered what they saw was “trending”. But in the new digital era where trends are now algorithmically ranked and viral activist hashtags flood social media, journalists are forced to figure out when Twitter trends merit news coverage or if the hashtag itself is newsworthy. Though many times the news organizations are right in covering some of the movements, there are times when stories less important to the public discourse are chosen as newsworthy due only to their poularity, thereby excluding more important stories from making the news.
Should the #AlexfromTarget really have made it to the news?
As the sources for stories have become more digitized, so to have journalists and their methods of reporting. In a 2013 study titled “The New Normal For News“, Oriella PR Network surveyed more than 500 journalists spanning fourteen countries to see how they have been adapting to the new digital environment. The findings showed that digital media is more entrenched than ever before, with 39% of journalists reporting that their titles are now digital first. The use of Twitter and hashtags to research and crowdsource for news stories had also increased (Look at the sixth group down).
The number of news organizations utilizing hashtags has also been rising throughout the years, although their use varies by organization. A 2011 report from the Pew Research Center investigating how mainstream media outlets use hashtags on Twitter found that “There was significant variation in the use of hashtags across the news organizations examined, suggesting significant variation in the extent to which these organizations utilize the unique aspects of this tool.”
Although the utilization of hashtags has not yet spread to all news industries, it is likely that more and more organizations will start to use the symbol as a tools for both gathering information on more movements and to allow for their own material on the stories to go viral.
In fact, The Columbia Journalism Review article Hashtag Journalism also states that in some ways, journalists should be grateful for hashtag activism as the viral hashtag allows journalists to figure out what exactly it is that the public finds important and wants to discuss and learn more about. As journalists scramble to be the first to find and report a popular story, hashtags have “become a way to capitalize on the nowness, a way for readers to make their preferences known in an era where many news organizations lack an ombudsman and individual outlets’ ‘most read’ lists fail to capture the breadth of what most of us are reading online” (CJR). Journalists, in their coverage of these hashtag promoted stories and activism movements can then add more perspective to the conversation and, with their own use of the hashtag, boost their own work.
Despite the rising trend of news media integrating hashtags and hashtag activism stories into their work, concerns have been raised ethical complications that may arise due to this new media tool.
One complication concerns the perception of objectivity and independence within the news industry through their use of Twitter and subsequent hashtags. According to the SPJ Code of Ethics for journalists, journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two” with objectivity being the primary goal. As 59% of journalists in the Oriella survey reported that they have their own Twitter accounts, concern has grown about the separation–or lack thereof–that the medium provides journalists in their private and professional lives. As journalists’ are now themselves becoming a brand to draw in followers, when journalists use hashtags in their coverage it is now becoming harder to see whether the action is merely a part of the objective news story, or if the reporters themselves are standing by the movement. Journalists can also cross the line between reporting and their own personal activism, such as CNN’s Foreign Editor for the Middle East, Octavia Nasr, who was fired after a tweet went viral of her expressing admiration for a late Lebanese cleric considered an inspiration for the Hezbollah militant movement. The blurred lines between the use of Twitter and hashtags for personal or professional statements undermines the reporters credibility, one of the most essential aspects of working in the news industry. This concern has risen with the rise of journalists own personal use of social media.
But there are some, like Anthony Collings, who believe that although the medium has changed, the dangers and standards of ethical journalism have not. To investigate this, I sat down for an interview with Collings, a former AP correspondent, Newsweek Bureau Chief, CNN foreign and Washington correspondent, and current professor at the University of Michigan who teaches a class on journalism ethics. Although agreeing that the Hezbollah case was an issue of a journalist crossing a line, when asked about some of the more recent hashtag activism movements, Collings own views were that other, more important factors, played more of a role in how the news of certain stories were reported:
Summing up his argument, Collings made his position clear: The internet and hashtags do not have a characteristic that has made a fundamental change in journalism ethics. “Journalists have to behave like journalists”, he said. “It doesn’t matter the medium or the tool.”
Following in this train of thought, though hashtag activism events may now be covered more widely as journalists are pressured both by their organization and by the public to cover the trending stories and use the hashtags themselves to promote their stories, the standards and ethical dilemmas that journalists face will not differ from those of the traditional news media. All journalists have to do is learn to use the medium correctly.
By this time I’m sure many have become bogged down by all the information posed within this post, so allow me to sum up the main points of this future tool of activism:
- The rise of the hashtag as a means of organizing information has itself given rise to a new and highly used platform for activism
- By focusing audience attention, remaining simple, and being open for all walks of life to use and engage in, hashtags can sour the people to action and direct public pressure onto public officials
- When a message is too simple to garner full public understanding of the issue, and when the public fails to show their support past sharing the hashtag, the movement is likely to fail
- Hashtag activism has changed the way journalists find and report the stories they need to cover, but has not enacted a fundamental change in the ethics that journalists must uphold
Is hashtag activism going to be the only form of activism in the future? Personally, I think (and hope) not. But I think it will become one of the most important tools that an activism group can have. Regardless of how good the message and well-meaning the intent, it is all for not if the work and message of the group does not get noticed by the public. Hashtag activism is the tool to use to gain that oh-so-important attention. It is not the end of the movement, but rather the start of it. Hashtag activism should be used to spur the public into more active action, to go beyond the bounds of their computer or mobile screens and actually do something. Hashtags, in essence, allow for these movements to garner the power and pressure of the public to make a change.
Of course, there is no way to truly know what the future holds. Much like the hashtag trends, one day something is “in” and the next day it’s forgotten. But considering how hashtags have fully integrated themselves into our social media culture, it looks like they will continue to rise in their use by activists and reporters alike. For now, it is our future and we must learn how to utilize it to the best of our ability should we wish to truly help bring about the change we need.