It’s been more than 10 years since hashtags were born on Twitter.
But who knew that such a tiny symbol would one day signal movements around gender inequality, poverty and injustice and thus help change the world?
As one who has been slow to grab hold of anything social media, I didn’t know until a week or so ago that #hashtag activism was even a thing, let alone a movement. Ignorant I know, but keep living. You’ll grow tired of racing after the next new thing, too.
I happened to be sitting and opening mail recently when I discovered that not only is there such a thing as #hashtag activism, but women who are much more observant than I had written the book on it — “#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice.”
d I not recognized one of their names — Moya Bailey, an assistant professor of Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.
Not that long ago, Bailey, you may or may not recall, was a college junior stirring up “good trouble” at Spelman College. It was then that I began to notice a resurgence of activism on college campuses across the country.
That was eight years ago, but even as an Emory University graduate student, Bailey told me the other day, she was keenly aware of #IranElection that set the hashtag movement in motion back in 2009.
Even then, she said, Twitter was an ideal medium for quickly creating reaction and response, particularly for the disenfranchised looking to provide a counternarrative to storylines or political spin.
“I was amazed that people were able to utilize this platform in ways that the creators I don’t think could’ve envisioned,” Bailey said. “That’s what I love about people involved in social media. They take the tools that are given and find new ways to use them.”
They only make me roll my old eyes, but stay with me. Bailey and her co-authors Sarah J. Jackson, a presidential associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Brooke Foucault Welles, an associate professor at Northeastern, can teach us things I never considered. Until now.
Jackson and Welles had already been working together around #MyNYPD, the hashtag created by the New York Police Department hoping people would share lighthearted stories about their interactions with the NYPD.
Twitter users hijacked the hashtag, writing instead about the abuse they had endured at the hands of New York police. As that was happening, Bailey was writing about the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs created by Janet Mock for and about trans women.
It was clear, combing those threads that a community was forming; that hashtags were telling a story about racial and gender justice.
“We found that everyday people were able to leverage hashtags to create community, to push back against problematic policies, and generally support organizing that they were already doing in real life,” Bailey said. “And so we thought it was important to tell the story of hashtag activism because people assume that hashtag activism is not only unimportant but it is sometimes derided as armchair activism or slacktivism.”
What the three of them found, however, were vibrant networks of activists using hashtags to create the world they wanted to see.
They studied, among others, #CrimingWhileWhite, which in some ways provided an opportunity for whites to acknowledge some of their privilege in relation to black people but served as a reminder of the differential treatment black people and other minority groups experience because of race. Gender justice hashtags such as #FastTailedGirls and #MeToo, on the other hand, created threads of conversation about particular experiences of women and girls in a culture steeped in sexual violence.
Hashtags, as you might have guessed, are numerous. The authors explored more than 24 alone, so I asked Bailey if there was one that stood out for its effectiveness and longevity.
#GirlsLikeUs, which started in March 2012 to raise awareness about a transgender beauty queen who wanted to participate in the Miss Universe Pageant, stood tall.
“That incident sparked the hashtag, but the hashtag itself became its own community-building hashtag,” Bailey said. “It’s still in use. There are others like #BaltimoreUprising from (2015) that happened in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray that had a real immediacy when it came into use but hasn’t been used regularly since.”
Some hashtags, Bailey said, are designed purposely for a specific time period while others like #MeToo, for example, are designed to last a long time and obviously to create a larger conversation that isn’t time-limited.
For all their heft, it’s important to note that hashtags are often coordinated with on-the-ground activism. Hashtags are tools in organizers’ toolboxes and as such can be effective all on their own.
Genie Lauren, who wrote the foreword to “#HashtagActivism” didn’t consider herself an activist but was moved to use Twitter when she saw one of the jurors in the George Zimmerman trial was going to get a book deal to talk about their experience on the jury.
“She didn’t think that was right,” Bailey said. “She used Twitter to contact the editor and encouraged others to do so as well, and the deal was quashed in less than 24 hours. That is the power of this particular medium.”
Will this new activism last?
Not likely, Bailey said.
“As the tools change, I think the strategies will change as well. I think we can already see that with how young people are using TikTok,” she said. “The demographics for TikTok and Twitter are very different. A younger generation will find the medium that works for them and their organizing. Whether that’s hashtags or Twitter is really up to them.”
If you’re wondering what TikTok might be, it’s a free social media app that lets you watch, create and share short videos — often to a top hits soundtrack.
Just one more new thing to learn, if you’re so inclined.
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