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). Also, hashtag activism can include more than hashtags—the ALS ice bucket challenge 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, 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.
Some hashtags are used to show solidarity, like #ICantBreathe, #JeSuisCharlie, 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?
“‘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.
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, 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:
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 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. 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 of Wikipedia, Google, and thousands of other websites?
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.
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 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 Commons, Hashtag Internet notification concept via Shutterstock, Elvert Barnes via flickr, Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons, Hand sketching hashtag via Shutterstock.