For a long time, our life on social media was centered around Likes and Comments. But, as time progressed, we began using hashtags in our photos, memories, and moments to file our posts into a population of similar content. These tags allow us to share our posts with the world through a word, phrase, or sentence that perfectly embodies everything we live, feel, or think. A picture’s no longer worth a thousand words… it’s worth a thousand hashtags.
Since 2006, hashtags, those phrases or words preceded by #, arrived on Twitter and changed the way we found different messages and conversations created in the emerging social networks. Similar to other communication innovations, hashtags were born in response to our innate tendency to participate in social, cultural, and political events. Now, there’s an infinite space of different content that’s grouped under one, single term: a hashtag. Year after year, nuances were given to these various labels, thus evolving, and in some cases, revolutionizing the way we speak, think, and interpret the world.
The steady growth of social networks allows each message to be heard, understood, and shared across the world. On Facebook there are 2.2 billion active users per month; Instagram holds around 1 billion users; Twitter has 326 million; and YouTube has 1.9 billion. The feeling of being heard and understood does not come from a strange place in the universe – it’s an actual fact. Tweets with hashtags have more engagement, just like Instagram posts have more than 70% reach when they are accompanied by a tag.
Since their inception, hashtags have served many purposes, but there’s one use in particular that’s gained momentum. They are now being utilized, more than ever, for activism. Five years ago, people used social media to voice their opinions on political, cultural, and social issues, but those posts were mostly scattered about. However, in our current times, activism has poured out of social media and made it into our physical reality because of hashtags. It’s a predominantly good thing for the most part, but nevertheless, it’s important to evaluate this new form of social media activism, because this capability is still in its infantile years. Although hashtags appear quite simple, they’ve been the main catalyst for helping people find likeminded groups, which inevitably leads to masses in the streets, large scale protests, and big changes in our world.
But, when did hashtag activism begin? And what should we do with this new form of fight?
Hashtags have accompanied our photos, videos, and status updates for several years, but in 2014, we witnessed the true power of what can be accomplished when a short phrase is combined with a clear goal. This leads us to the viral movement we all recognize as the #IceBucketChallenge. It was started with intentions to raise research funds and generate awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); a disease that still lacks in the field of scientific research. Although this initiative originated in the US, it quickly spread and even managed to garner international support. Actors, singers, youtubers, celebrities, and social media users were compelled to support the same cause, and it all happened with a single hashtag on social networks.
In total, 17 million people uploaded videos to Facebook with this challenge and obtained 440 million user views. However, something miraculous happened two months after the challenge was introduced. It was reported that North America managed to raise $115 million. The trend became so popular, even the United Kingdom participated, with donations that reached $11 million. And it all started with a hashtag.
In 2017, digital platforms became the main stage for complaints that would make the entertainment world tremble, starting with the film industry. The #MeToo hashtag protest, a global movement, became the window to revealing a myriad of sexual harassment and assault complaints against film producer Harvey Weinstein.
The day the complaints were made public and the movement began, 500,000 people joined the trend by supporting the cause and/or denouncing a personal experience. On October 15th of the same year, the hashtag was used 200,000 times, and on October 16th it was used 500,000 times. Facebook later revealed that 45% of users in the United States had a friend who made a post with the hashtag. Facebook also reported that 4.7 million people contributed 12 million different entries after the first 24 hours of the hashtag’s creation.
Since October 2017, the harassment debate has spread to many different industries as more and more people take a stand against wrongdoers. Its influence has become so intense that several public figures, including Harvey Weinstein, are currently complying with legal proceedings for the accusations made. Again, all because of a hashtag… and courage of course!
Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, many social issues took on hashtag slogans. Similar to the examples above, these online identifiers help increase support for different causes, while also boosting their visibility and dissemination. This occurs not only in the different digital channels but also in traditional media which was previously unassociated with these digital movements. Social activism through hashtags has not slowed by any means. Every month there is something new to read, acknowledge, and share regarding the complaints -or- issues being spread through social networks. In 2019, a new hashtag emerged in the form of social protest. This time, it came from the island of Puerto Rico.
#RickyRenuncia was the label that thousands of Puerto Ricans and citizens from different parts of the world used to demonstrate the discontent that existed with Governor Ricardo Roselló. This occurred after the Investigative Journalism Center published 889 pages of a private Telegram chat that included Roselló and his closest advisors.
These conversations became relevant when the public learned how Roselló, and other members of the Government, referred to the opposition and recognized public figures with sexist and homophobic messages. Their heinous discussions affected a massive population, which even included Ricky Martin. Naturally, the voices of indignation rallied together almost instantaneously. By July 13th, the population of rightfully frustrated people convened through social networks to march demanding the resignation of Roselló.
The manifestations lasted a total of two weeks and were supported by artists such as Residente, Bad Bunny, Marc Anthony, Daddy Yankee, among many others. On Twitter, more than 40,000 users shared the hashtag, making it a worldwide trend, but the most important fact was the social pressure that was generated on the island, achieving Roselló’s resignation as governor.
It is in this new way that hashtags are presented in our lives, not only to obtain thousands of Likes and Comments in our last selfie, but to show us that there’s also a bridge between the digital and real world. Hashtag activism amplifies the voices, beliefs, and issues of the people who desire to revolutionize our society. They’ve recognized there’s strength in numbers, and by using hashtags, they can band together to bring different problems to the public’s eye and fight for the common good.