Social media movements are inspiring new activists

Bailey Ayres, Sports Editor

If you watched the 2018 Golden Gobles on January 7, you may have noticed that the majority of the celebrities wore all black. These celebrities were showing support for the #TIMESUP movement. They stood in solidarity with individuals all over the world, across all industries, who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, and sexual coercion.

Prior to the Golden Globes, activists took to social media to announce that they would also be wearing black on Sunday in solidarity with the #TIMESUP movement. Using social media filters that identify and encourage the widespread usage of identical, trending hashtags, participants fueled this movement with a relatively new concept known as hashtag activism.

What is hashtag activism? It’s when someone shows their support for an issue using a given hashtag, and then proceed to share their post via social media platforms. Recent hashtag movements include #MeToo, #TIMESUP, and #NetNeutrality.

Hashtag activism got its start in the early fall of 2012. One of the earliest movements arose around the activities of war criminal Joseph Kony, a man who kidnapped child soldiers in Africa. I remember seeing tweets and stickers on street lamps around Madison with #Kony2012 on them, attempting to draw attention to the horrors committed by this individual.

At this point in time, hashtag activism was still in its infancy. Six years later, hashtag activism has only increased in popularity. Hashtags can now easily spark conversations within seconds or hours of being posted. They can also educate, by spreading news of policy changes and other political and cultural occurrences.

For example, on October 15, a response to the Harvey Weinstein case sparked the beginning of the #MeToo movement within 24 hours of being posted. It began as a tweet from actress Alyssa Milano: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as reply to this tweet.” Milano replied to herself by tweeting, “Me too.”

By 4 a.m. the next day, the tweet had exploded. That afternoon, the Washington Post reported that over 200,000 #MeToo tweets and 80,000 plus Facebook posts had been published as a response to Milano’s original request. Within hours, a French equivalent called #BalanceTonPorc (in English, out your pig) began. #MeToo had become an international movement.

From what I’ve witnessed, #MeToo hashtag activism has been very affective. It shows others who have experienced sexual assault or harassment that they aren’t alone, while still giving each individual autonomy over their experience and the decision to publicize it. Every victim has their own story, and the right to decide if it’s shared.

Yet hashtag activism is hardly limited to issues of culture and human rights. #NetNeutrality is an example of political hashtag activism. Net neutrality began as a guarantee that internet providers would allow unbiased access to online information, regardless of content and source, to all legally eligible viewers. However, recent policy changes have allowed the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to develop a plan that allows Internet providers to control the speed of their customers’ internet, and the sites and services that users can access. Through these regulation changes, Internet providers (including Charter, AT&T, and Comcast) stand to make considerable profits from regulating certain websites and customers.

The #NetNeutrality hashtag began widely circulating in early December. On December 14, the FCC held a vote on the proposed deregulation. While the vote was happening, I remember seeing social media posts promoting activism. These messages usually provided contact information for state representatives who could help block the plan, and links to websites where people could sign petitions.

Yet in this case, hashtag activism did not achieve its goal. Net Neutrality was overturned. Since then, the remnants of this movement have mostly faded from headlines, unlike the #MeToo and #TIMESUP movements.

Yet the #NetNeutrality outcome raises the question: is hashtag activism productive? Sometimes, yes. It depends on the issue, the political climate, and public sentiment behind the movement. Are people invested enough in an issue to speak up? Are they engaged enough to act upon these sentiments in day to day life? Past hashtag movements have proven that one tweet or hashtag can start a conversation, and one post can inspire millions to take physical action (for example, the initial planning stages of the Women’s March began online, via social media platforms).

In my opinion, hashtag activism adds new, pertinent layers to traditional activism. It shines light on issues too often silenced, and gives everyone with internet access a voice. As long as hashtag activism does not replace in-person conversations, planning, and effort, it will hopefully be a powerful next step in the practice of activism as a whole. Here’s to a future of digitally empowered new activists!