Online activism, also known as “hashtag activism,” has reached millions of people across the world. Hashtag activism allows anyone who has access to the internet to become active civic participants, something that was not possible just a couple decades ago.
A notorious example of online activism in motion was the #IceBucketChallenge in 2014, which was created to spread knowledge on a brain disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. According to the ALS Association, this movement prompted more than 17 million people to post their own videos as well as a number of celebrities including Oprah, Lady Gaga, Bill Gates, and former president George W. Bush.
Supporters raised over $115 million for the ALS Association. In just two short years, it led to the discovery of NEK1, one of the most common genes that contribute to the disease, providing scientists with a potential target for clinical trials.
“Viral hashtags are absolutely an effective way to spread awareness about a cause,” Twitter activist The Calitaliano Kid, called C.K. for short, said. “For one, the hashtag creates a space, whether it be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other Social Media, where one can go to see what lots of different people and sources are saying or posting about a current event or trend. This ‘repository’ so to speak of what everyone is talking about is already, in and of itself, an interesting resource.” C.K. said.
Hashtags can attract views, bringing in engagement and discussions about a specific topic or cause. It is different from traditional “feet on the ground” forms of activism such as protesting, speeches, sit-ins, and other historic examples of resistance.
Online activism refers to online participation for a movement. It encourages conversation and interest but the ambiguity of what is considered as “activism” in the digital world sparks criticism against the rise of hashtag activism.
In 2014, television show creator and author Shonda Rhimes gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth, criticizing online activism.
“#YesAllWomen, #TakeBackTheNight, #NotAllMen,#BringBackOurGirls, hashtag stop pretending hashtags are the same as doing something,” Rhimes said. “A hashtag does not change anything. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show.”
Rhimes and other critics, who dub online activism “slacktivism,” claim that because of the easy nature of online activism, it allows users to collect brownie points for their good deeds rather than work toward actual change. The United Nations has defined slacktivism as when people “support a cause by performing simple measures” but “are not truly engaged or devoted to make a change.”
Although C.K is proud of his work as an activist, he said critics have a valid point. “All the time we spend tweeting is less time we spend calling our MOCs (Member of Congress), writing letters, signing petitions and voting,” he said. “Of course, I do all of those things as well and so do many … of the online activists.”
Moving from California to Italy and being physically away from America, C.K. says he regrets not being able to do more for his country. However, due to the rise of online activism, C.K. is able to fight for his beliefs despite the geographical divide.
“I feel like I am part of something bigger,” C.K. said, “As far as calling [online activism] ‘slacktivism,’ it’s obvious they’ve never put in the time to do online activism seriously… Just like anything else, it requires time, thought and effort.”
In a New Times article, Ashley Rudo Chisamba, a gender activist, defends online activism. “It is different from real life 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,” Chisamba said.
And it did. Five years ago, 276 girls were abducted from their school in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The size of this mass kidnapping led to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag that went viral all over the world. It was shared by the likes of activist Malala Yousfazi, the Pope, and former first lady Michelle Obama. Because of the hashtag, The United States deployed a 200 military and law enforcement members to help search for the girls. In a matter of months, 57 of the girls were returned. In today’s day and age where movements go as fast as they came, #BringBackOurGirls is still going strong in its fifth year.
In our own school, Palo Alto High School students are rising up. Senior Miles Breen organized a rally last year for the one year anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting. Breen said that his friend prompted him to organize the event.
“Someone I was friends with on Snapchat who was in New York was part of an organization called ‘Shattering the Silence,’” Breen says. “He was looking for chapters for the rallies and I started organizing it with a bunch of friends.”
The hashtag #VegasStrong was used throughout all of the rallies. What may appear to be just a hashtag to many is an indication of strength and resilience to Las Vegas residents and those involved in the #VegasStrong rallies.
“#VegasStrong represents the people living in the area and who were in the concert,” Breen says. “They now have an emotional connection to Vegas because they were there during a terrible thing that happened. You’re strong because you survived that.”
The argument that online activism is not real activism because it does not lead to real changes or is not meaningful is simply false. Yes, not all online activism is effective or will go viral. What is trending on social media will come and go. However, we have seen already that online activism can help a movement significantly.
Online activism may be seen as silly to many, but no one can deny the impact of the causes which went viral were, and still are, significant.
A hashtag is not as simple as it seems.