People and organisations are using social media to spread ideas and gain support for their causes at exceptional levels. Memorable movements like #BringBackOurGirls, #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have seen wide international coverage in the past years.
Like many things, activism has evolved; there were, and still are, physical protests held by prominent figures — the likes of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr in the past — to online advocacy using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook under the use of a hashtag.
Hashtag activism is a term coined by media outlets which refers to the use of Twitter’s hashtags for online activism. The term can also be used to refer to the act of showing support for a cause through a like, share, and etcetera, on any social media platform, such as Facebook or Twitter.
The term is used to refer to the use of hashtags on multiple social media platforms to plan marches and protests, share stories, connect communities, and ultimately, drive social change.
The launch of the hashtag
The concept of tagging social media groups or topics with a hashtag is credited to one man, Chris Messina, who came up with the idea in 2007.
He got the idea of using a hashtag from online chat rooms. He decided to pitch the idea to Twitter, but the company told him it was “nerdy” and that it would never catch on.
He did not give up. Instead, he started asking friends to give the hashtag a try.
In October of 2007, one of his friends was tweeting about a San Diego wildfire. Messina asked him to add #sandiegofire to his tweets. It didn’t take long for others to start using the same hashtag.
The idea caught on, and in 2009 Twitter added an option for users to search for hashtags.
Instagram launched it in 2010 and Facebook in 2013.
While some users simply want to brag on social media, others are using the versatile tool for change. #NeverAgain, #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have gained incredible momentum thanks to their hashtags.
Many believe 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?
What is the impact?
Ashley Rudo Chisamba, a gender activist, admits to being a big supporter of hashtag activism and thinks it’s effective for many reasons.
One, it is pocket friendly; different from other activism campaigns that entail t-shirts, banners which can be expensive. You can make an impact or influence an action with little, she says.
Chisamba also says that an individual can start a movement without necessarily needing a crowd to kick-start the campaign.
“It is different from real live activism which is normally dependent on numbers. Hashtag activism enables one to start a movement, and it can grow beyond your social circle; a big population of the world is on social media,” she says.
Chisamba notes that this form of activism enables wide outreach because it raises awareness on issues that ordinary activism may restrict to a situation, citing the #JusticeforBankMom; a hashtag started by one activist after seeing a woman being abused in a bank in Ghana. It spread like wildfire to the point of attracting the attention of authorities, including the President of Ghana, who arrested perpetrators and ensured that justice was exercised in the matter.
The world is also evolving and most government authorities, police, ministries and even Presidents’ offices are on Twitter - these are offices ordinary people cannot access easily. Hashtag activism enables people to access such platforms and create movements around them, Chisamba adds.
“I strongly believe that as the world is evolving, hashtag activism is the future, it has good examples of impact. Most hashtag campaigns have moved on to being adopted across the globe, bringing more voice and urgency to important issues, a good example is #BringBackOurGirls.”
Pamela Mudakikwa, a communications officer, says that hashtags can cause a great movement in fighting for change and awareness on different issues, if only they are positive.
She says when you form negative hashtags; they can create a negative impact on someone’s image or organisation, which might also demolish the purpose of which they are formed.
However, she notes that for online activism to be effective, activists should talk about a cause that attracts people. That way, the hashtag can easily be shared on different social media platforms.
“Hashtags can be effective if they are short and easy to understand, they can only attract a wider audience if people can easily grasp them,” Mudakikwa explains.
Bobby Rutarindwa, a social media enthusiast and blogger, says hashtags can be effective in the sense that they create solidarity to achieve a common goal.
He emphasises that hashtags can be effective in promoting activism when they have a clear vision that many people can relate to.
“Most of them fail because they are controversial and have a goal to destabilise societies, rather than building them before you form a hashtag, arranging it, knowing who it is for, and the purpose you are forming it, and letting it have a clear objective,” Rutarindwa says.
Activists started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, in response to an all-white slate of acting nominees in 2015.
Is online activism masked outrage?
Moise Kabera, a social media user, says though this kind of activism can be initiated with pure motives, some people who take part either by sharing or promoting the tweets or tags do it for the sake of it and do not really care about the cause.
“Some people just want to appear trendy and seem as though they care yet in real sense they want to be part of a trending topic, this means little or no success for such activism,” he says.
Ninnette Umuhoza agrees with Kabera saying that the former way of activism is more effective because matters handled online are easily ignored, which is not the case with physical activism.
“With the speed at which technology is moving, millions of people use social media which leads to trends changing in seconds, and the minute a new one comes up, the other is forgotten. I don’t think such platforms are the best way of doing activism,” she says.
Umuhoza also thinks that the determination it takes to start a physical movement is what makes it effective, otherwise when it comes to online platforms, anyone with an idea is free to post what they want.
Author Sara Lippert says in her article Hashtag Activism: Is it Effective, Lazy, or Selfish?, the issue with hashtag activism is whether or not it is actually making a difference in the world, or if it is just a way for people to feel like they are making a difference.
Just because the whole world knows about a problem or acknowledges that it exists doesn’t mean that the problem is fixed. Actions need to be taken in order to fix the problem, and most would say that adding a hashtag to social media isn’t an effective action, bringing about the term “slacktivism.”
For issues such as world hunger, using #hunger isn’t going to solve anything other than raise awareness. Just because a hashtag is trending doesn’t mean the issue is being dealt with, she notes.
Lippert goes on to write that it is possible for hashtag activism to be effective. However, other than creating awareness, most campaigns don’t seem to make an actual impact. Some use the hashtags to bring attention to themselves in the midst of what’s often a tragedy. They use the hashtags to be thought well of as a compassionate or involved person.
She points out that success isn’t measured by how many times a hashtag is used, rather, by how much it truly helped the situation. The best way to make a hashtag activism campaign effective is to have a call to action. It needs money for the cause. It needs a doable plan to resolve the issue.
If you want to support a city that has been bombed, don’t think a hashtag is going to solve anything. Send them money, food and clothing. To make a difference in the world, you have to stop thinking a trending word on social media is going to accomplish anything without a plan. So instead, volunteer your time. Volunteer your money and donate to charities. Send your prayers out to those in need. But never rely solely on a hashtag to save the world, Lippert writes.
What are your views on hashtag activism?
I think it has an impact on society but the downside of it all is that what happens on social media usually remains on social media. I don’t think people actually follow up by taking the necessary actions to deal with a particular issue.
Anna Mulekatete, Student
I think that this form of activism is effective because it is a better and quicker way to spread a message. I would say it is better than other forms of activism because we all know how social media can be influential, so if someone has a cause, they will use the hashtag to relay the message which might lead to achieving their target, especially if it is about peace or fighting for human rights.
Marie Ange Raïssa Uwamungu, Activist
Hashtag activism can be effective only if it is backed up by action. It can be the best platform for social action because it reaches out to masses, a lot of people use social media, an advantage it has over other forms of activism.
Charles Shyaka, Student
To me, hashtag activism is a process that brings about improvement of lives. This world has had so many activists that have created positive change. But as of today, I urge activists to embrace the use of social media because it is now one of the most influential tools we have.
Jean Claude Muhire - Founder of Love the Kids Foundation