The Power of a Hashtag
This Fall, #BlackLivesMatter, a powerful hashtag movement coursed through Twitter in response to the murder of an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri following a skirmish with a police officer. A grand jury acquitted the officer which led to fierce local protests.
At first, the story gained little mainstream media reportage, but online activism aided by significant citizen journalism coverage on Twitter and Facebook helped increase crowd size and brought international attention to the issue. This was one of a series of murders of black men that created a tipping point fed by social media that led to protests around the country, including Act-Up-style “die-ins” during Black Friday shopping season. What began with a hashtag has become a U.S.-based international movement co-founded by three black women activist/organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi following the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida. Trayvon Martin’s story gained worldwide attention in part due to the efforts of Martin’s parents, who created a Change.org petition to protest Zimmerman’s acquittal.
As of late at least 672 “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations have been held worldwide to protest the murders of Michael Brown; John Crawford III, a 22-year-old African-American shot to death by Beavercreek police officer Sean Williams on August 5, 2014, in a Walmart store near Dayton, Ohio, while holding a toy BB gun; the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
Following the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New Yorker protesters took to the streets in December, adding #ICantBreathe to hashtag literacy, which echoed at national sports arenas in t-shirt solidarity.
The movement has led to meetings by group leaders with U.S. President Barack Obama and other officials to demand an end to racial profiling, police brutality, mass incarceration, and demilitarization of many U.S. police departments.
This past week #MuslimLivesMatter became a new trending topic following the murders of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The victims were two sisters — 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha — and Yusor’s husband, 23-year-old Deah Barakat, all top students in their fields and committed to community service. Here is the story from Democracy Now!:
President Obama issued a statement this week denouncing the killings and the apparent religious freedom injustice the incident represents:
Yesterday, the FBI opened an inquiry into the brutal and outrageous murders of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In addition to the ongoing investigation by local authorities, the FBI is taking steps to determine whether federal laws were violated. No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship. Michelle and I offer our condolences to the victims’ loved ones. As we saw with the overwhelming presence at the funeral of these young Americans, we are all one American family. Whenever anyone is taken from us before their time, we remember how they lived their lives – and the words of one of the victims should inspire the way we live ours.
“Growing up in America has been such a blessing,” Yusor said recently. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here, we’re all one.”
The incident brings to the surface the culture of Islamophobia in many sectors of the United States, fed by mainstream media stereotypes, ignorance of non-extremist Islamic culture, the ongoing wars in the Middle East, as well as coverage of extremist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS
In the absence of social media’s amplification, stories like these would often be buried in back pages of newspapers, or offered as sidelines in local news. Through the power of social media, these news items have more recently gained significant global attention. What is your experience with hashtag activism in general, and these two movements in particular?
Really appreciated this article. #BlackLivesMatter hit home for me as Eric Garner was killed in my old neighborhood just outside my uncle’s business. I’d had my own dealings with the police when I lived there following my reporting an armed robbery. Their handling of that incident was deplorable, overtly racist and for me completely disheartening. Sad to say, when Eric was killed I wasn’t surprised. But I was surprised and delighted to see #BlackLivesMatter banners and signs in the streets after witnessing the hashtag gain momentum online. (similarly too with #YesAllWomen)
I was also delighted by the response of my teenage male African-American students when they witnessed NYC’s #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators. They expressed bewilderment upon seeing so many white folks involved. So while I continue to believe in the actualization of the American Family that Yusor and Obama speak to and hope to see it in my lifetime. I am resolved in knowing that we’ve got a long way to go yet. I believe only our authentic love for one another as human beings sharing this brilliant blue marble in space will get us there.
Peta , I really enjoyed your last comments about American Family. It brings me back to the topic of how important altruism is and how unity through authentic love is much needed.
I am also glad to hear these kind of articles where we can see the difference that can be made through social media. For me, coming from Mexico, it is difficult to imagine mexican citizens protesting even 5 years ago. You would be scared that dangerous people could track you and harm you. Now, it feels like although there are still atrocities being made in my country, we can create immense groups to protest and create pressure into authorities nationally and internationally to act against the lack of justice.
Beautiful comment: “I believe only our authentic love for one another as human beings sharing this brilliant blue marble in space will get us there.”
Wonderful, thought-provoking article. I did, and still do, think the Eric Garner case was handled absolutely horrifically. The situation surrounding Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot dead in the park by police because someone called about a “probably fake” weapon (indeed, it was an airsoft gun), was astoundingly awful as well.
I followed #BlackLivesMatter closely, especially the debate about the hashtag many preferred to use, #AllLivesMatter. In theory, I agree: I agree that human beings of all races, genders, backgrounds, religions, etc. deserve equal love, equal opportunity, and equal respect. But in a way, I can see how #AllLivesMatter overshadows the plight of certain groups that are still completely stereotyped in this country, and to some extent, this world.
For lack of a better analogy, I was reading a post once on Vogue’s black issue. Someone commented wondering aloud why there was a black issue of Vogue since there is no white issue of Vogue. Someone else responded and said…well, basically every issue of Vogue is the white issue of Vogue.
Not the best comparison, as one has to do with a fashion magazine and the other, vicious murders, but it is the closest I can come to vocalizing my feelings on these hashtags. I was thrilled to see #BlackLivesMatter do what it did…and honestly, I don’t think mainstream media attention could’ve pulled off the same things and given this issue the consistent attention it deserved. It forced the media’s hand because people were speaking up.
As Peta pointed out, #YesAllWomen was a stellar moment of online activism as well.
Honestly, sometimes it is difficult for me to fathom we still exist in a world where people are judged, and too often, hated, because of their beliefs or color of their skin. I know we do. It just seems like we should be further along in our understanding, compassion, and general human-ness by now. That said, I believe hashtag activism has moved us forward leaps and bounds…because now, media is no longer controlled by a brand or board of directors. Not really. Media is voiced by the people.
I did tweet things using #BlackLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter, and #YesAllWomen, but my only up-close-and-personal experience with hashtag activism was in September 2014. September is childhood cancer awareness month—and the Empire State Building (which lights up for numerous events and organizations…including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) refused to “go gold” to bring awareness to pediatric cancer. #empiregogold was booming on Twitter for a while, I had the opportunity to write about it, and eventually, the Empire State Building was forced to issue a statement. It got to the point where they were actually blocking people from their Facebook page who commented mentioning it (which seems to borderline on infringing a freedom of speech right?). Not the result we wanted—but the attention did prompt them to take some form of action.
Above all, my heart goes out to Razan, Yusor, Deah, and their families. I’ve spent time in Chapel Hill and it is actually a community with much acceptance and integrity, where these people were obviously doing tremendous, noble things.
My question: Do we all have the ability to be activists now? Is it our public responsibility to use social media for good?
The #BlackLivesMatter movement was a powerful moment in history, as many banded together in support of the African American community. In my neighborhood, shootings are not so uncommon, but not many citizens here were touched by the movement. This was surprising to me, as our community is predominantly people of color.
Still, I was glad to see how moved many of my peers at The New School were. In a class with Dean Browner, we held a discussion about the importance of social media in this time of uncertainty. Throughout the internet, information was being spread like wildfire, keeping everyone up to date on the scandal that was unfolding. Months after Michael Brown was killed, the hashtag still lived on, with people urging their followers to not forget what happened.
Along the way, someone began a counter-hashtag, #AllLivesMatter, which did not sit well with many activists. Arthur Chu, former Jeopardy Champion, commented on this, saying, “WTF is the impulse behind changing #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter. Do you crash strangers’ funerals shouting I TOO HAVE FELT LOSS”. The significance of the original hashtag was to put the focus on African American communities who have felt the loss of their members. While the sentiment of the other hashtag is true, it takes away the focus from those who are currently grieving.
While we grieve with these communities, I believe it is importatnt to recognize them as what they are: communities. We are not necessarily a part of them, but that does not mean we cannot lend our support.
The power of implementing a message through a hashtag is extremely powerful as it is seen through the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It was the first time I saw everyone come together disregarding race, ethnicity, age or any demographic to promote the unjust action of what had happened to Eric Garner. People were able to communicate with one another discussing the details of when the next protest would be held and sharing useful informations across all social media platforms with the hashtag. Not only was the hashtag powerful on the web but seeing it painted on boards, posters, and buildings held a strong message.
I was able to encounter Times Square when a protest was held there and seeing #BlackLivesMatter and hearing the protestors chant about it was a big reason why the movement was so powerful – it engaged bystanders to join in and fight together. As for the tragic murdering of 3 Muslim students in North Carolina this past week, the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter shows the importance of how everyone is a community fighting together for peace eliminating discrimination. The ability to speak about the movement and allowing contributions from everyone is a powerful way to have their voice be heard.
Great timing that the issue raised in Kathleen’s post about the differing takes on Islamist terrorism- a natural morph by an extremist religion, as Republicans like to say; or a peaceful religion hijacked by extremists, as President Obama said Wednesday.
Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, back pedaling today from his comments last night to a GOP fundraiser about Obama not loving America and not being “raised like you… or me …” – was reflecting some conservatives reaction to the President’s comments that, “the notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie.”
I’ve written about Giuliani’s foot-in-mouth on my work Facebook page. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/BillRitterABC7 .
The hashtag – #MuslimLivesMatter – was a great reaction to the disproportionate number of blacks shot and killed by police officers – a sign of support that people all over the country, and world, could latch on to, in a show of solidarity.
It remains unclear, however, whether the man indicted for the murders of three Muslim students at UNC, Craig Hicks, a self-described gun-toting atheist, was targeting Muslims. Cops in Chapel Hill, NC, say it doesn’t appear he was. Instead, he had long been complaining about where people were parking, and that’s what this dispute was about.
The motive wouldn’t surprise me either way. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that the argument was only over the parking spaces and Mr. Hicks doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. In that case, while the #MuslimLivesMatter moniker is truthful, wouldn’t it be off-target if the guy were just a run-of-the-mill murderous whacko? I think so.
The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has been hugely successful as an organizing tool. But not all of its causes are the same. Hard to equate the shooting death of Michael Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, with the apparent police chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York. Wilson grabbed a cop’s gun. All bets are off when that happens, at least based on my experience first as an anti-war protester and later as a journalist. Mr. Garner, on the other hand, did nothing that warranted his death after his arrest for selling illegal cigarettes. And what the NYPD cops at the scene showed that day was a total lack of humanity when they stood around, doing nothing to help as Garner lay unconscious on his stomach, with his hands cuffed behind him, dying.
That was the biggest crime, and burnishes the theme of this particular hashtag movement.
The hashtag movements do offer us in the news business a great way to keep up on ideas, trends, and, equally important, the location of any demonstrations. Protesters have made it their M.O. to post their demonstration times and locations, using various hashtags.
One more thought about the use of social media for social change. In the early 70s, I worked for an underground (now we’d call it an “alternative”) newspaper, and we’d take pictures of undercover police officers watching anti-war demonstrations. We would publish their pictures in our paper – and had an “undercover agent trading cards” section (“don’t forget kids, collect the whole series! trade with your friends”). That was, from my perch, a use of a type of social media. True we didn’t get the hundreds of thousands of engagements that today’s Twitter and Facebook and Instagram get, but we made our presence felt. Here’s a picture from those years:
Over time I think I’ve become a bit of a hashtag cynic.
Perhaps it’s due to my line of work where hashtags are used simply for PR and not for organizing and rallying, so it’s needless to say the #BlackLivesMatter movement has restored my faith in hashtags.
Living in New York City and watching the protests unfold was the one of first times that I could actually say I was seeing firsthand the true impact of social media, from organizing online to demonstrations in the street, to media coverage afterwards. As many have noted above, there were more than black people participating in the movement, it became an issue that reached across the spectrum of all people, and I think that speaks to the ability that social media and hashtags have to connect us with so many people we otherwise might not be able to.
I think there are still issues with hashtags, as seen with #AllLivesMatter, and I do think that for every hashtag that starts a movement in the streets, there will be ones that simply stay online. But the conversations started around police brutality in the African American community and now #MuslimLivesMatter prove the hashtag is much more than just a trend.
I love this article as well. Living in New York and going to The New School I have been exposed to social issues around the world more than I have ever been. #Blacklivesmatter as well as #Muslimlivesmatter are a great way to spread coverage on issues that would often be tucked away by major news channels. A few other activist hashtags that caught my eye were #iftheygunnedmedown where the issue that the news channels would chose photos of african americans in the streets or looking dangerous rather than with white people being shown in the media with their graduation photos. If they gunned me down provided people to share images of what photo they believed would be shown in the media verses which ones they would want. Another one that was very touching was #bringhomeourgirls which was about the misses girls last year in Nigeria. I believe hashtags are a beautiful way to get message heard and see an unbiased view of the social issue.
I, like Roderic, am a bit of a hashtag cynic, but then again, I’ve always been a bit of a cynic in regard to some social media. I quickly jumped on the Facebook bandwagon back when it became very popular among my age group in 2006 but was very late to jump on the Twitter and Instagram bandwagon.
That being said, the power of social media to promote or bring awareness to an idea is undeniably effective in today’s day and age. I think that this was perfectly represented in #BlackLivesMatter. and they DO matter, of course they do. The way the Eric Garner situation was handled was unacceptable. Awareness DID need to be raised, and it still does. The hashtag in this situation was powerful. Living in Harlem, I still see the hashtag on t-shirts in shops, a daily reminder that we still live in a world where some lives matter less in the name of the law.
My one problem with some of these widely publicized hashtags, however, is that sometimes the message becomes overly simplified to the less informed citizens. I suppose this is THEIR responsibility, but I feel like there has been a strong and somewhat blind disrespect to police officers that has emerged. Of course, this is valid in the case of Eric Garner and other similar stories. But for people to act as though the world in its entirety would be better off without law enforcement is ridiculous. I think part of this comes from the anger generated by the hashtags. While that hashtag is COMPLETELY valid in what it represents, it sometimes has backlash that harms other people…
You all raise some great points about the limits of hashtags in and of themselves to create lasting social change. But as with all social movements, it is often a small vanguard of dedicated individuals who are consistent, do the leg-work, meet with politicians, draft legislation, organize rallies, write Op-Eds, create online discussion groups and those who simply retweet or sign the petition. But without those thousands-into-millions of clicktivists joining with the roll-up-your sleeves dedicados, mass movements would not be possible. Hence the power of hashtags. Even if you want to stay safe and not put yourself out there in danger of being arrested, etc., the role of online digital journalists provides the echo effect of needed amplification. Everyone plays their role. And some messages just need to repeat, repeat, repeat in order to adhere. Unfortunately some mistruths (hello, FoxNews) are disseminated in this way as well.
So glad you added #alllivesmatter and #bringhomeourgirls to the mix. While Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake did a great send-up (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57dzaMaouXA) of the sometimes ridiculousness of hashtag culture, the power of the messaging can be huge. When it takes, it resonates…
Every time I come back to this subject, I realize, more and more, how important technology is in our culture. Its amazing to witness social media unifying people from around the world successfully. It is true that issues like this would be buried if it wasn’t for social media. The success of social media allowed people to not only spread awareness but it gave people a voice and a chance to stand up to what they believe in altogether. My experience with hashtag activism is pretty fair. It was powerful in getting everyone’s attention especially mines. I saw it everywhere and was very aware of what was going on because of these hashtags. They become like a powerful symbol where if you see it more than a few times, it’s something important. It becomes something that I need to look up and become familiar with. Then it acts like a newsfeed where you are constantly updated on the matter. I also encountered one of the protest and I had an indescribable moment. It was like I was proud of all these people, because we were standing up for justice & taking matters into our own hands, but then upset because we shouldn’t have to protest to spread awareness and demand for justice.
I completely agree with you when you say that it gives people a voice. There is an incredible opportunity for anyone to joint the conversation, and make their voice heard through the use of hashtags. With this, people can have global debates, learn from each other’s experiences, and mostly – be connected. This is incredibly important to be aware of what’s going on in the world, and to give moral support by being connected – one of the ways being the integration of hashtags.
Michelle, I totally agree with what you said about how important technology is in our culture. Sometimes, it’s amazing to see these apps and sites that we view as methods of communication come alive as activist tools.
You also make a great point about hashtags being a reminder & being updated on the situation at hand. I actually think social media makes people more aware of what is happening in the world and causes us to formulate thoughts and opinions on it.
2014 has been a very active year in terms of the level of hashtag influence. Several mass movements were created and enhanced through the power and engagement of hashtags across different social media outlets. It’s incredible how a single message has been communicated through several different channels, reaching international and external audiences. An event that sparked my attention was when NFL members embraced the protest through the power of the hashtag, #icantbreathe on their shirts. This shows the massive potential of hashtag use. The setting of this issue focused mainly with activists across the world, to expression in national sporting arenas. It dramatically heightened the issue, bringing large government and media attention, but also raising certain issues of ignorance to the surface.
I think what’s incredibly important is how you use hashtags. #blacklivesmatter and other influential hashtags became widespread because of their supporting hashtags as well. To successfully communicate an issue, I think it’s necessary to know how to channel your issue on the digital web. What’s interesting about the Jimmy Fallon + Justin Timberlake video is that they implement trending words, phrases, emotions, sounds, and musical lyrics to strengthen the point they are trying to get across.
I’ve noticed specific companies adopting hashtags for the use of branding. They create a customized hashtag that works to characterize their brand. Through this they are increasing engagement, and strengthening customer awareness. I think this is a useful tool for marketing and to also learn deeper who is your target audience – the real customer.
Hashtags also create communities of dialogue. It’s a way to find like-minded people and by tracking hashtag trending it’s a map of the collective mindset. When social issue hashtags break through the chatter, it’s like a light bulb goes on…a potential for change at a huge level. This past October #PeoplesClimate trended during the incredible 400,000 person march in New York City, echoing marches around the world calling on world leaders to shift away from fossil fuel economics. Once again an interplay of social media and take-to-the-street activism. Truly euphoric to witness. Change is possible and key hashtags can be part of the shift.
I love the idea that change is possible-and that communities are what can create it. It is amazing that something as simple as a hashtag has the power to ignite communities. To me, it reinforces the belief that change happens one person (or in this case, one retweet) at a time. There is a lot of negative press that surrounds social media (some of it accurate, in my opinion) so I love reading about the positive things it has done and given us the ability to do.
Professor Sweeney I agree! I think the collective reasoning and not swaying from these important issues have allowed for effective change. A lot of people have dismissed Twitter as a “social networking tool” but are now recognizing it as an agent of change. It is truly amazing to see how Twitter has transformed in the six years since its release.
I am quite inspired by how the simple usage of a hashtag can motivate so many people to get acquainted, involved, and motivated on a cause. Sometimes certain causes seem so insurmountable and big that it overwhelms people from getting involved. The hashtag provides this simple vehicle for people to become a part of a movement and in turn provoke change. It crushes the old question of if one person can really effect change. Because with this simple act of participation each person adds to the conversation and creates a whole. Commercial jingles or slogans can become ingrained within societies culture and social fabric. This does a similar job but applies it to social issues and dilemmas that are in need of our attention and service. It becomes a effective means of drawing attention and change to current issues.
I was personally impressed and happy with the impact and attention that #BlackLivesMatter had. I felt it made it easy for people to get involved. These three words are strong, impactful, and emotionally charged words. By using them it gets to the root of the issue and has the ability to emotionally connect people to the cause and each other. I felt this hashtag as well as the #MuslimLivesMatter enables people to become and feel a part of a community. That in itself is immeasurable.
This was a great article. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been an important and fantastic effect of social media. The ability to mobilize people through the internet has helped different social justice movements gain so much traction and attention. This hashtag continues to get millions of hits. To be able to hear and see the diverse voices behind the movement is important and I think social media will aid us in creating social movements and helping us solve many of our current inequity problems.
I totally agree! It allows people who are afraid to be seen the space to support those that they feel have been marginalized. The large scale demonstrations around the world prove that there are people who are going to fight for the oppressed, until true equality is achieved.
Hashtags have decided that they no longer want to live on our mobile devices. They want to be physically represented at historic events that will (hopefully) have chapters dedicated to them in future history books. Along with popular shows such as Melissa Harris- Perry, Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper these hashtags have entered intellectual spaces and constructive dialogue has followed behind them. Hashtag activism is important because it allows people who don’t want to be seen (or aren’t allowed to be present) at certain events have a space where they can be part of a community that isn’t native to where they currently live. It allows a greater space of people to collectively decide on what steps are needed to move forward and gain traction. To answer your question, I think that if we are able to think of larger points that can become connected and allow for other narratives to be explored, we can all become activists. A lot of people are focused with having a woman or man behind a movement, but sometimes an idea that speaks to a lot of people (marginalized or otherwise) can prove to be instrumental agents of change.
one thought – i love the idea that the simple use of a hashtag can inspire and provoke and educate and get a message out. that part of the hashtag trend is wonderful. but the link to the fallon/timberlake hashtag send-up (he has done several of these) is not meant to salute the hashtag as much as it is to critique it for its reliance on simplicity. can we really parboil an intense, complicated issue down to a hashtag? the answer is yes, because it’s being done. the broader question: is this hashtag reliance sometimes providing a smokescreen for inaction? for people to think they’re doing their part simply by hash tagging? perhaps, at least for me. i think the real answer lies somewhere in the middle: hashtags are great symbols of organizing potential, and the good ones can represent – either in the short or long term – a significant symbol for a cause. but it’s just one tool, and can’t take the place of good, old-fashioned hard work and organizing that goes into any movement or effort.
Just as with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, I was able to participate and to feel deeply connected to a Mexican movement that resulted into a hashtag campaign called #Faltan43. I was born and raised in Mexico City, and after living abroad for more than 6 years, sometimes I was not in touch with all of the news (good or bad) that happen in my country. However, I became extremely concerned when 43 students were kidnapped and taken away from college in a normal day in Ayotzinapa, a town located the southwest of Mexico. Citizens in Mexico were not sure if this outrageous incident was connected to the drug dealing cartels or with the actual government of the Guerrero state. Just 3 days after this happened, the use of the hashtag helped to spread the news all over the world, and mexicans got together internationally to protest against the dissapeared students. Until now, the use of social media for these sad news keeps constantly reminding that we should care and support even through our accounts in the internet scene.
My professional life has focused on the social media side, and in the past 5 years I have seen the incredible evolution of using a hashtag. While I notice that for fashion brands it is a new way to spread marketing campaigns and to engage with new customers for promoting collections, I am still shocked by the power it has created for bigger social issues, and for the pressure that people can transmit to governments and authorities to solve these problems.
Without social media and the wide spread and freedom of the internet, some of these cases would have never made it to the public’s eyes. It is sad and horrifying as it is to realize that the police force in our country thats serves to protect us are not doing their jobs. Not only they are not doing their job, they are abusing their authority and power. I witnessed some of the activities of #BlackLivesMatter and its inspiring how a hashtag can unite groups of people from all over the world to stand out for something they believe in. I grew up in a harsh environment where people often are judge or made stereotypes based on their race. That was also when social media is not present and i think people were also less aware and sensitive about racial topics. Nowadays, people almost have to watch our with their behavior because anything and everything you do or say can come back and hurt you.