The Political Power of the Hashtag

America has been permanently altered by the effects of hashtag activism. The culture born of Twitter, Reddit and countless other social media platforms has created an ecosystem in which social movements can grab national attention faster than ever before. Today, citizens can support and critique social and political movements without having to do so much as leave their couch.

In the last few years, hashtag activism has come to the forefront of mainstream attention with multiple hashtag-driven movements unfurling each year. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of Americans believe that social media platforms are crucial when it comes to accomplishing political goals, and 67 percent deemed them necessary for creating and sustaining movements for social change. Major hashtag-driven movements include #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #WhyIMarch. 

Over 60 percent of Americans feel that “social media help give a voice to underrepresented groups,” according to the Pew Research Center. An advantage of hashtag activism, specifically on Twitter, is that once a hashtag gains enough traction on a platform, it is displayed as a trending hashtag, and thus, more and more people are forced to acknowledge an issue that may not have been as widely recognized without the help of social media. 

The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, the movement that arguably sparked the hashtag activism craze, turned five years old this year. #BlackLivesMatter shifted the dialogue surrounding police brutality, primarily against black men, throughout the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, black and Hispanic social media users perceive social media platforms as a particularly necessary tool for political engagement. 

An issue that is affecting men and women across the United States is the #MeToo movement, which gained traction when several women made allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The phrase “Me Too” was coined by Tarana Burke in 2006 and made a resurgence in 2017 when actress Ashley Judd accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct. After Judd’s story in The New York Times surfaced, droves of women voiced their support and shared their own stories, tagged #MeToo, of a time when they were sexually harassed or assaulted.

The day after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, millions of women and men took to the streets in protest for the Women’s March and shared hashtags such as #WhyIMarch and #TheFutureIsFemale. With roots in hashtag activism, the Women’s March evolved into a massive organized tradition supported across a variety of social media platforms.

Twenty-year-old student and activist Barek Reep attended the Women’s March in Asheville, North Carolina, and he said that he was astonished by the energy he observed there.

 “Social media has had a serious impact on the modern feminist movement,” Reep said. “I’ve already seen great strides in my short lifetime in this area, and I think that’ll only continue for the next several years.”

 “On Twitter,” Reep continued, “to a certain extent, we’re all equals. Some people have millions of followers and I have around 20, but in theory, our words carry the same value.”

Kirston Greene, an App State student and feminist, said, “with hashtag activism you see huge groups of women coming forward to talk about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment because they feel the support of so many other women.”

Hashtag activism is highly prominent within college communities, as the use of Twitter and Facebook has been a motivating source for otherwise uninvolved students to come together to rally for causes they believe in.

Charles Clarke, a local student activist, was brought into the realm of hashtag activism by way of Facebook. He said that after the 2016 election, his Facebook feed was brimming with news about the Women’s March.

“It helped me find all the necessary information for my friends and I to attend the march in Boone,” Clarke said of Facebook. He said hashtag activism is “kind of like this new way that the masses have of really giving the people an equal voice. When things blow up on social media the mainstream media and the rest of the world notices.” 

New examples of hashtag activism are made visible on social media every day. With the continuous growth of technology, it’s unlikely that hashtag activism, and online activism in general, will ever come to a halt.