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People and organizations are using social media to spread their ideas and gain support for their causes at unprecedented levels — #BringBackOurGirls, #ICantBreathe, and #BlackLivesMatter have seen wide international coverage in the past year.

58% of Americans think that tweeting or posting information online is an effective form of advocacy. But does this sort of activism really have an effect on the world? Or are users just blowing smoke?

Digital Activism Takes Many Forms

Just to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that hashtags are the “main” form of digital activism or that other forms aren’t of great importance — just that this sort of activism has seen a lot of attention lately, and should be discussed (for a different kind of digital activism, see this article on five ways people have bypassed online censorship 5 Brilliant Ways Tech-Savvy People Worked Around Censorship 5 Brilliant Ways Tech-Savvy People Worked Around Censorship n ad-hoc mesh wifi network, spreading across Havana, connects people without Internet access, and other ways people work around government censorship. Read More ). Also, hashtag activism can include more than hashtags—the ALS ice bucket challenge Water Woes: 20 Of The Best Celebrity Ice Bucket Challenge Videos [Weird & Wonderful Web] Water Woes: 20 Of The Best Celebrity Ice Bucket Challenge Videos [Weird & Wonderful Web] With each person who gets doused nominating three more people, the Ice Bucket Challenge has spread quickly. And we have now seen enough videos to make a list of the best so far. Enjoy it. Read More had a lot to do with video and tagging specific people on Facebook, where hashtags are much less common, but the same principles still apply.

What Does Hashtag Activism Aim to Do?

In many cases, the stated goal of hashtag activism is to increase awareness. Bev Gooden (@bevtgooden), the woman who kicked off #WhyIStayed – a hashtag for women who suffered from domestic abuse – stated in an interview with NPR that “the beauty of hashtag activism is that it creates an opportunity for sustained engagement, which is important for any cause.”

Michael Flood (@floodwrites), in a particularly biting blog post titled “Is Raising Awareness Enough?“, compares hashtag activism to taking part in a protest march. It’s an activity organizations have been using for years to share with the world their commitment to their cause — and make sure that governmental organizations know it, too. He’s staunchly unconvinced of the real-world value of such activism.

hashtag-card

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Some hashtags are used to show solidarity, like #ICantBreathe, #JeSuisCharlie #JeSuisCharlie: Murder, Cartoons and Barbara Streisand #JeSuisCharlie: Murder, Cartoons and Barbara Streisand Today, in response to a horrible terror attack in France, the Internet was at it's best. Read More , and #illridewithyou. These seek to unite people around the world and, often, to show a united front against a perceived common enemy.

But others have set higher goals. Suey Park (@suey_park), creator of #NotYourAsianSidekick, told New York magazine that the hashtag is “really a movement” that has “been generations coming.” She’s working with campus groups and community organizations to further the movement, though she gave few details about her goals. She did say that the movement intends to “dismantle the state,” though that phrase is pretty nebulous.

In the same article, Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) goes a bit further and says that hashtags can be empowering:

“The hashtag gives [participants] permission to say something in the conversation,” Kendall reflects. “I’m not saying they need permission. But they find out the conversation is going on, and whatever they’ve been thinking, that they’ve either been afraid to say or didn’t think anybody wanted to hear, now they have license to say it.”

The hashtag then, becomes a symbol that allows people to gather behind it instead of simply throwing their opinions out there—a chance for their words to be interpreted as a part of a larger conversation instead of in a vacuum. In this way, the hashtag becomes a symbol of empowerment.

Others go still further. Gooden states that “the hope is that the hashtag will inspire action” and serve as a springboard that people can use to launch themselves from online conversation to real-world action.

Many of the users of #bringbackourgirls stated that the point of the hashtag was to inspire further governmental action on pursuing the children kidnapped by Boko Haram — and it has arguably reached some mild success. #CancelColbert, started by Suey Park, sought to get Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) fired for an out-of-context tweet posted by @ColbertReport – an account that’s not controlled by Colbert.

Why Is Digital Activism Controversial?

Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) perfectly encapsulates the controversy in a Foreign Policy article:

“‘Slacktivism’ is the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation: why bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space? Given the media’s fixation on all things digital — from blogging to social networking to Twitter — every click of your mouse is almost guaranteed to receive immediate media attention, as long as it’s geared towards the noble causes. That media attention doesn’t always translate into campaign effectiveness is only of secondary importance.”

Morozov gets to the heart of the issue by highlighting the distinction between media attention and campaign effectiveness. As I discussed above, campaign effectiveness is a complicated issue — what determines a successful campaign? Is it that people talk about an issue? Or that some tangible change is made in the world?

This is where a lot of the debate comes from. Kevin Lewis, assistant professor of sociology at UCSD, stated in a paper in Sociological Science that the social media side of the Save Darfur campaign — one that got a great deal of media attention — “conjured an illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.” Of the people who supported the cause on Facebook, only 0.24% donated money. Still, that amounted $100,000 over 2.5 years.

In contrast, however, direct-mail contributions brought in $1,000,000 in 2008 alone.

save-darfur

It’s been suggested by many commentators that clicking the “Like” button, or retweeting a hashtag, makes people feel like they’ve done their part to support the campaign. This leads them to not taking further action, like donating money. When I asked Lewis if he thought this was common among online activism campaigns, he said that it was probably more common than not.

Lewis also thinks that even campaigns that seek to increase awareness could potentially be misguided. He points out that while many of these have campaigns have an incredible impact, many of them don’t seem to have a long-term goal, which makes it unclear what their effect will be in the long run. If they’re not trying to raise money or get people to volunteer Volunteer Professional Skills To Charity In 5 Minutes With Sparked Volunteer Professional Skills To Charity In 5 Minutes With Sparked Read More , what change are they trying to effect in the world?

“At the time they emerge, these movements are often all we can think about and there is a natural tendency to overestimate their long-term impact.” -Kevin Lewis

He’s certainly not alone in his views. Take a look at this Facebook post from UNICEF:

unicef-poster

It makes it pretty clear how they value likes and retweets against donations.

But not everyone thinks that this sort of activism is a waste of time. In a 2014 digital activism survey, it was found that 64% of surveyed Americans say that they’re more likely to volunteer, donate, or share information on a cause after liking or following a non-profit or charity. And 60% will continue to read content from that organization, implying that they stay engaged in at least some manner.

Intentions and actions, however, can differ. 65% of Americans in the same study said that they would be willing to make an online contribution 6 Really Easy Ways To Make Charity A Happiness Gift For Your Christmas 6 Really Easy Ways To Make Charity A Happiness Gift For Your Christmas The Web has made it easy to contribute to the happiness of others. What’s holding us back? Here are six ways which don’t take you too much out of your way Read More to a cause they’re concerned about, but only 35% actually did. And 70% said they’re likely to learn about changes they can make in their daily lives, but only 25% reported doing so in the last year.

Interestingly, Lewis’s study found that users recruited online by their friends were less likely to donate or recruit more people than those who came to support the Facebook cause independently. This suggests that, while social media is being hailed as the best way to organically recruit a lot of people through social networks, it might not be very effective in actually recruiting people who are motivated to take action.

Have Hashtag Campaigns Been Successful?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. There are a few cases, like #icebucketchallenge, which raised tens of millions of dollars for ALS research, which are very clearly successes. But other examples that are often given of successful hashtag campaigns are more complicated.

In general, when a hashtag starts trending, it happens when a particular issue is being discussed by a lot of people. Take #stopSOPA and #stopPIPA for example – you could call these successful, because those pieces of legislation were defeated SOPA And PIPA Abandoned After Day Of Internet Activism [News] SOPA And PIPA Abandoned After Day Of Internet Activism [News] As the day of online activism opposing SOPA and PIPA continued, supporters quickly began to have second thoughts. Now, the final blows have been struck. Senator Harry Reid has decided to put the Protect IP... Read More . But attributing the defeat of those bills to the hashtags might not be accurate. Was it because of the hashtags? Or people’s calls to their representatives? Protest marches? Or the blackout How To Participate In An Internet Blackout (Like The SOPA Protest) How To Participate In An Internet Blackout (Like The SOPA Protest) You may have noticed on January 18th that plenty of big websites participated in an Internet blackout as a protest of the US government’s proposed SOPA legislation. Despite the SOPA plans being dropped for now,... Read More of Wikipedia, Google, and thousands of other websites?

wikipedia-blackout

Of course, hashtags could be a reflection of all of these things. Which is another reason why it’s difficult to say if they’re effective in supporting causes. Would SOPA and PIPA have become laws without the hashtags? No one can say.

Let’s look at another case that’s often touted as a successful case of hashtag activism. In 2012, the Susan G. Komen Foundation decided to withdraw their financial support from the family planning organization Planned Parenthood. Because Planned Parenthood is often perceived as a symbol of women’s reproductive rights, there was a big backlash against the Foundation. #standwithpp started trending. Four days later, the Foundation announced that they would not be withdrawing their funding.

While the hashtag is viewed as a great Twitter activism campaign, the fact that several executives left the organization and the participation in their Race for the Cure events took a serious hit may have also impacted the decision.

The Future of Hashtag Activism

All of this research, reporting, and opinion paints a remarkably complex picture of digital activism. However, it does seem clear that the view of social media as the new wave of activism and a great tool for future campaigns shouldn’t be accepted without some critical thought.

People are really excited by the idea that they could use Facebook and Twitter to make a change in the world, but there are a lot of factors that go into the success of a campaign; including, of course, the definition of success. “Dismantling the state” with hashtags might not be a reasonable goal.

I asked Lewis if he thought that some organizations could be reducing their potential reach, impact, and fundraising success by putting too much emphasis on social media.

“This seems to me a totally obvious observation that staggeringly few people are making. There is a taken-for-granted wisdom that, because social media are so widely used, they represent the future of social activism. The numbers would suggest otherwise . . . one can’t help but wonder if the large sums of money expended on these mobilization efforts would be better spent on more traditional activist venues.”

However, he also points out that there is every possibility that an organization could figure out a way to tap into the resource that is social media and get people to engage and mobilize in a way that supports the goals of their campaigns. Cone Communications, the group behind the digital activism survey, agrees, saying that the disparity between the number of people who say they’ll take action on behalf of a cause and the number of people who actually do is an opportunity for organizations. Instead of seeking likes and shares, the report says, they should be seeking active results, like donations.

So where do we go from here? What’s the next step? Getting a better idea of the return on investment of organizations when it comes to spending on social media as a campaign tool seems like an obvious place to start. Understanding the connection between online activism and real-world results — between intention and action — also needs to be investigated.

hashtag-marker

No matter what those studies might find, hashtag activism is here to stay. Whether it’s because it makes a difference or because it makes people feel better about themselves with little effort is still up for debate. It’s clear that we’ll continue to see hashtag campaigns with a purpose, like #standwithPP, and misguided ones, like #CancelColbert.

People use the Internet to change the world Changing The World Is Easier Than You Think With These 3 Websites Changing The World Is Easier Than You Think With These 3 Websites The definition of being an activist has changed over the years thanks to the Internet. It used to mean that you had to handwrite a petition and run around town getting signatures, or you had... Read More every day. But is hashtag activism a good way to do it? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Do you think hashtag activism makes a difference in the world? Or is it self-aggrandizing and ineffective? Do you take part in digital activism? Share your thoughts below!

Image credits: Jonathan Rashad via Wikimedia CommonsHashtag Internet notification concept via Shutterstock, Elvert Barnes via flickr, Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons, Hand sketching hashtag via Shutterstock.

  1. Maureen DeJay (Miss Simple)
    September 16, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Is the purpose of your opinion piece shows that hashtag can be useful but at the same time can be for style? What is the main point of your opinion piece or article (it's like an article). I am just a student, and my homework is to know your purpose. I understand your work but I need answers straightly from you. I'll be glad if you'll answer my simple question. Thank you.

    • Dann Albright
      September 19, 2015 at 3:36 pm

      Well, if you're a student and you need to determine what the main point of the article is, I'll leave that up to you. :-)

      However, I will say in response to your first question that I wasn't trying to say that hashtags are used for style, but that people use them because they think it's a valid form of activism, while they may have better spent their time with other forms of activism.

  2. sl0j0n
    February 20, 2015 at 12:03 am

    Hello, all.
    Here's a thought;
    "activism" is defined as:
    "A policy of taking direct and militant action to achieve a political or social goal."
    Did'ja notice, "direct ... action" in the definition?
    IMO, I think that means that the "activist" has to *actually* DO something,
    in the sense of a person performing an "action".
    So, here's a question;
    Exactly what 'action' does 'speech' [in a 'tweet,' etc.] physically accomplish?
    Are we so foolish, as to 'believe' that saying a thing makes it 'so'?
    Expressing an opinion is fine, but "acting" is what produces results.
    Consider, please, the scientific definition of "work";
    "using a force to move an object a distance".
    I think that' *if* we want to see some real 'change' in our world,
    we 'have to' exert a physical 'force'.
    Having a "conversation" is 'nice,' but it will seldom if ever make a "change".
    IOW, get up and DO something.

    Have a GREAT day, Neighbors!

    • Dann Albright
      February 20, 2015 at 7:15 am

      Where did you find that definition of activism? It seems like a very limited one to me—and even if many people do think that activism requires some sort of practical action taken on the part of the activist, I have to think that most people don't think of militantism as a pre-requisite for being called an activist. In fact, militant activism is usually probably called "insurrection."

      Anyway, I do understand your point, but I think that taking a wider view of what constitutes activism might be in order. Whether or not taking some sort of physical, quantifiable action is required for activism is the point of the article, so I'm glad that you stopped by to weigh in!

  3. dragonmouth
    February 12, 2015 at 1:30 am

    The use of hashtags, both for activism and for other purposes, has gotten way out of hand. Anyone with a cause (real or perceived), agenda or an an axe to grind is using hashtags. The message is getting lost in the noise. In fact, the too many messages are creating their own noise.

    • Dann Albright
      February 12, 2015 at 12:48 pm

      Not sure if you're on Instagram, but if you want to see out-of-control hashtags, that's the place to go! I know what you mean—people are trying really hard to get the hashtags that pertain to their own personal issues picked up by other users and the media, and things like #CancelColbert are getting in the way of things like #WhyIStayed. It doesn't seem likely to slow down, though . . . maybe there's another way for activists to be heard above the noise?

    • dragonmouth
      February 15, 2015 at 12:47 pm

      Dann,
      I have stayed off the social networks and have no intention of ever joining any of them.

      " maybe there’s another way for activists to be heard above the noise?"
      How did the activists make themselves heard in pre-digital age?

      Another problem caused by the instant connectivity of the digital age is the expectation of instant gratification. Activists put up a hashtag and expect their cause to be embraced by millions and the problem solved overnight.

    • Dann Albright
      February 16, 2015 at 7:42 am

      Activists were successful in making change before the internet, but because it's made such a difference in every other facet of our lives, it seems to me like there's probably a really good way to use it to meet activism goals. It just doesn't seem like they're going about it the right way yet.

      As for the expectation of instant gratification, I agree—I don't know much that can be attributed to the digital age (people have been dealing with it forever), but it could certainly be contributing to people setting up the wrong sorts of goals with their activism. It seems like if you get tens of millions of people using your hashtag, you should have some sort of success, but it's clear that it's more complicated than that.

  4. Stoja
    February 11, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    It's complete garbage. it's a way for lazy people to "feel involved" in something without having to put pants on and go outside. Guess what? They never returned the girls. Black folks still struggle with the police. Cancer is still a thing. If I start a #FVCKISIS campaign will ISIS disappear? Will they be scared off?

    Hashtags have as much impact as I do cheering on my team from the couch. The Patriots won the Super Bowl because I cheered really, really hard from my living room and said #SuperBowlChamps on twitter! It's BS activism from a generation who always has their face in a phone and would rather send an emoticon via text to someone sitting 20 feet away from them and than actually get up and go say hello.

    Hashtag actvisim...the fvck outta here with this garbage...

    • dragonmouth
      February 12, 2015 at 1:23 am

      I'm sorry you feel so jaded. However, neither militant activism of the Black Panthers nor the pacifist activism of Gandhi, achieved its goals overnight. In fact, it takes time for activism to accomplish anything.

      BTW - I do agree with the gist of your post while disagreeing with its form.

    • Dann Albright
      February 12, 2015 at 12:44 pm

      Well, you clearly belong to the "slacktivism" side of the argument, Stoja! Whether or not your wide-reaching generalizations about younger generations are true or not, your thoughts on digital activism are definitely shared by many other people.

      I have a question about #BlackLivesMatter for you (I assume that's the hashtag you were thinking of when you said "black folks still struggle with police.") Do you think that hashtags like that can start conversations and spread awareness? Do you think someone who might not have entered the conversation before could be motivated to by seeing something about it on social media?

      Thanks for reading!

    • Dann Albright
      February 12, 2015 at 12:46 pm

      Dragonmouth, I never thought I'd hear you say "sorry you feel so jaded." :-)

      You make a good point about time; digital activism hasn't been around all that long, and we have yet to see if it has the potential to do more than we see it doing now. It'll definitely be interesting to watch!

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