The Internet, specifically social media, has changed the ways in which people engage with news. In fact, the idea of “hashtag activism” has been termed to describe how people use social media “hashtags” as a method of political and social participation on the Internet. Hashtags are typically used to create trending topics and they have more recently become a method to promote campaigns and encourage citizen involvement through Internet activism. However, there is much debate over whether hashtag activism is indeed contributing to the actual issues at hand or if it is simply a form of “slacktivism”.
Throughout this post, I will be highlighting how various social and political issues gain awareness through the use of hashtags and social media. I will explain how hashtag activism is not simply a form of slacktivism and actually does promote participation through wide spread social consciousness on the Internet.
First, I have outlined a few of the major hashtag activism campaigns that have occurred and why these are successful methods in today’s technologically advanced world.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a major social media campaign that involved dumping ice water on top of your head and nominating other people to do the same in order to raise awareness for Lou Gehrig’s disease. Although one may argue that this silly act is simply a form of slacktivism and does not influence any social change, statistics prove that the challenge did in fact raise awareness and promote citizen engagement and support. In an article written in the blog Quartz, the author explains how the Ice Bucket Challenge raised about $220 million for ALS. Although the simple act of dousing oneself in freezing cold water may not seem to directly impact ALS, it raises wide spread awareness thus encouraging people to take action. The ALS Association (ALSA) expresses how the social media phenomenon had an immense effect on the disease and raising money for the cause. In fact, the ALSA released an infographic to display how the funds from the Ice Bucket Challenge will used (seen below).
Another very successful hashtag activism campaign is Black Lives Matter also known as “#blacklivesmatter”, which was started in an attempt to raise awareness for police brutality on racial minorities. Quartz explains:
While it might not have solved the issue, social media campaigns like #blacklivesmatter guided that discussion, and in some cases led to real change: one digital petition successfully removed the Confederate Flag from South Carolina’s capitol.
Again, while simply using the hashtag may not be considered participation in the traditional form, people are using it to raise awareness and start important conversations about social issues such as this one. The #blacklivesmatter campaign has expanded immensely and increased its social media presence by creating its own Twitter and Instagram accounts in addition to its website. This allows for people to have continuous access to information surrounding the campaign and encourages engagement on various platforms. The Internet has introduced an entirely new ball game for activism campaigns such as #blacklivesmatter, which can now become increasingly visible to a large amount of people instantaneously. This makes social media an extremely useful tool to share information and gain supporters through the use of hashtag activism.
Facebook Profile Filters
Lastly, I would like to talk about the Facebook profile filters that have encouraged people to show their support and actively engage with societal issues. On June 26th, 2015 the United States legalized gay marriage. Following the courts decision, Facebook created a feature that allowed all users to change the backdrop of their profile pictures to be rainbow. People were thus able to show their support to everyone on Facebook by simply changing the color of their main picture as shown above. Although one may argue that this Facebook component does not really initiate any sort of social change, it does allow for people to be socially involved and supportive. As CNN News reports:
Changing a profile picture is easily dismissed as low-effort activism. But for many people who are not typically political it was a way to quietly show support.
This quote explains how these profile picture changes are a useful form of hashtag activism by giving more people an opportunity to display their support. The “shyer” members of society are more encouraged to engage and participate in social campaigns because of the accessibility that social media components such as this provide their users.
Additionally, Facebook reinstated the feature following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, allowing people to change the filter of their picture to the colors of the France flag.
This was meant to again show support for the people in Paris and provide a sense of unity between Facebook users. Again, although one may argue that this simple profile picture filter would not directly affect the issues with ISIS, it allows people to express their solidarity for the people in Paris and provide one another with a sense of hope for peace in the future.
There have been a multitude of other hashtag activism campaigns in addition to what I have spoken about above. I have attached below an infographic from Info Graphic World, that depicts the strong effects of successful hashtag activism campaigns.
On the University of Michigan’s campus, students are starting to use hashtag activism campaigns to spread the word about social issues that they feel strongly about. Emily Hochhauser is a student at the University who is in the process of starting “#GoBlueGoVote” in an attempt to encourage all members of the Michigan community to vote in the upcoming presidential election. I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily to discuss her hashtag activism campaign and how she believes that it will encourage social change on campus.
Additionally, to get an inside newsroom perspective, I interviewed CBS News Associate Producer Jenna Sakwa to see her position on hashtag activism. Although she admits that she does not participate in hashtag activism campaigns, Sakwa expresses how she honestly believes that online participation does lead to social change. As well, she believes that hashtag activism has a promising future because of the known success of the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Jenna Sakwa, CBS News InterviewSydney Sakwa: Do you use hashtags at CBS to report on news stories?Jenna Sakwa: I do sometimes use hashtags. I think it can be a good way to organize stories, so you can follow along with reporting. I also think Hashtags are particularly useful when following/or live-tweeting a live event, such a s a speech, a news event, or a conference.Sydney Sakwa: Have you participated in “hashtag activism” campaigns such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or #blacklivesmatter? If yes, did you donate or participate in any other way besides social media?Jenna Sakwa: I have not participated in any “hashtag activism” campaigns. I think as a journalist, it’s our responsibility to report on some of these campaigns and trends, but not necessarily partake in them.Sydney Sakwa: Do you believe that “hashtag activism” campaigns are a form of “slacktivism” or do you think it raises awareness and can cause real social change?Jenna Sakwa: I think that tweeting or taking part in a good cause on social media, is better than doing nothing at all. Although I do understand the argument for hashtag activism as slacktivism, I know that it does really help certain causes and can allow people to show support.Sydney Sakwa: Where do you see the future of campaigns and social activism going?Jenna Sakwa: Look there’s no denying the success of the ALS ice bucket challenge, they raised money and got their message out. I would imagine other campaigns are trying to duplicate the viral success of the ice bucket challenge, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of that.
Hashtag activism is used for various campaigns regarding social and political issues. The Internet and social media allow people to band together with ease and speed. As discussed in an explanation from Info Graphic World, “Hashtag activism is a growing trend, and one that will only increase with time. Social media has become an outlet for average citizens around the world to band together in support of a cause that they believe in”. As I explained previously, although not all forms of hashtag activism may not seem to contribute to social change on the surface, social media allows people to unite over shared support of a cause. As well, this wide spread action leads to more informative citizens who can then participate and engage in campaigns in which they encounter. Social media and the Internet as a whole allow people to readily create and expand campaigns online ultimately increasingly social change and citizen participation through hashtag activism.