How Hashtag Activism Advances the Future of Global Movements

Protests in the Digital Ether Democracy


With the emergence of social media platforms and the growth of their globally active user bases in the last decade, “hashtag activism” has become a common tactic used in global social change movements. The hashtag itself serves as a data tag in advocating for a cause, linking the participants of a campaign across platforms through a concisely packaged, unified message. The practice of hashtag activism has gained both widespread media attention for shining a spotlight on issues, including gun control policy and human rights abuses, while also drawing criticism for its limitations. In short, the practice of hashtag activism is influencing the way global movements evolve.


Here are three ways that hashtag activism is affecting the future of global movements:



New Technologies Track Online Activism

First, social media technology enables hashtag activism data to be more easily measured.


As social media platforms continue to produce a tremendous amount of user-generated content and data, tools to visualize and track social media analytics have also evolved, helping people make sense of this information. Micro-activism in the form of social media posts that contain hashtags can easily be monitored to understand trends and social media participants from around the world.


For example, time-lapsed global heat maps using CartoDB shows the rise and fall of geo-tagged #BringBackOurGirls and #YesAllWomen tweets throughout the spring of 2014.


Topsy and other tools can also quickly aggregate and analyze social media information to track how much a hashtag resonates across platforms through real-time geo-tagging and visualizing surges in usage. Through these types of tools, it is possible to monitor how these hashtags originate and how they evolve over time. We see this hashtag development in how #BringBackOurGirls began organically from Nigeria following the kidnapping of the Chibok girls and quickly spread worldwide, while #YesAllWomen was heavily concentrated in the U.S. after the University of California Santa Barbara mass shooting.


Another point to consider is the role of traditional media in hashtag activism metrics and how these numbers affect cultural dialogue. Increasingly, traditional media outlets cite these metrics, such as total number of tweets or “likes” on Facebook, in their news stories surrounding the breaking stories spread virally online. In doing so, the relationship between social media and news media reinforces messages that hashtags try to disseminate.



The Power of Celebrity

Second, hashtag activism is amplified by the endorsements of influential public figures.


As with many other global campaigns, a high-profile spokesperson adds visibility, credibility, and momentum to the movement when he or she publicly embraces a hashtag linked to a social cause. When political figures such as Michelle Obama and David Cameron, as well as celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Angelina Jolie, and Dwayne Johnson, participate in campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls, global atrocities get a media spotlight, even if only temporarily. Highly respected spokespeople such as Malala Yousafzai, who is clearly aligned in a global mission for girls’ education and empowerment, has become an asset to advancing this movement. Beyond embracing the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, the actions of her visit to Nigeria to meet government officials and families of the kidnapped victims are very powerful.



The Growing Reach of Hashtag Activism

Third, hashtag activism’s global reach is expanding and evolving alongside developments in social media.


The diversity of global social media platforms and the habits of its increasingly global users can have a profound effect on the way global movements are done in the future. For example, as languages like Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese, become more dominant on Twitter (accounting for 14.8, 13.43, and 5.1 percentages of Twitter use, respectively), hashtag activism will continue to influence outside the English-speaking world. 


Moving forward, hashtag activists will need to understand how messages resonate across an increasingly global audience that uses social media differently in various places. Social media is social, so as humans socialize on these tech platforms hashtag activism may begin to reflect these interactions.



We Cannot Depend on Hashtags Alone

Social media can be a powerful tool to bring visibility and awareness to a cause, but a hashtag alone is not enough to bring about social change. There are myriad resources that must be coordinated to rescue the kidnapped Nigerian children, for example, which will only become more difficult as more time passes. Understanding the political context of the crisis in Nigeria requires considerations of the complex dynamics between the Nigerian government administrators as well as the actual aims of Boko Haram (to say nothing of the roles of outside actors seeking to intervene in the situation). Prioritizing and shining a sustained light on an issue, no matter how long that attention lasts, remains the first step toward a solution. Given the nature of short media cycles and the sometimes shorter attention spans of today’s media consumers, it is easy to both give into the hype of a hashtag blitz and/or quickly dismiss the effect these hashtags have in global movements.


Overall, hashtag activism is just one component of global campaign, which may also include other forms of media and actions such as protests, petitions, boycotts, op-eds, public service announcements, and more. Hashtags can be powerful as part of an integrated approach to reaching the right audience with the right message at the right time, and in the right way on the right platform. Although hashtags may not be the sole tool in inspiring social change, it can be an important conversation starter to highlight an important issue that deserves advocacy. With the technological developments of social media platforms and related analytical tools, the adoption of hashtags by notable public figures, and the growing user base of various social media products across the world, hashtags will continue to be an integral part of the global activist’s toolkit in the foreseeable future.



Boko Haram, Activism, Nigeria