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Understanding Hashtag Activism

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, June 6 2014

An illustration of how high up hashtag activism can go. (Wikipedia)

Kimberly Ellis opened the break out session on “Understanding Hashtag Activism” by addressing the trend of bashing hashtag activism (not to be confused with a bashtag). “In many ways,” she said, “hashtag activism is more positive than negative.”

Ellis had already spoken earlier in the morning about “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter,” and is currently working on a book about the subject.

Ellis addressed how segregation in the physical world impedes tough conversations between disparate groups. “We don't have the conversations in person about changing the world,” she said, but “hashtags are shoving us into this space so we can have these tough dialogues.”

She spoke to the danger of trolls, but pointed out that the element of negativity exists in any space people take their activism. “There's always going to be that element of negativity in our movements but we shouldn't let that stop us.”

Ellis also warned against the tendency to become too myopic about a certain issue as a result of hashtag activism. She mentioned #BringBackOurGirls: what about the men, women and children who have been killed in the region since then? Are we so singularly focused on “bringing back our girls” to the exclusion of all else or “can we use #BringBackOurGirls to springboard us into a larger conversation?”

Dave Karpf followed Ellis, explaining that he was on the panel because of a “cranky blog post about #CancelColbert” which, incidentally, was titled “Hashtag Activism Isn't Activism (A comment on #cancelColbert).”

Speaking at PDF, however, Karpf seemed to back off from the extreme position that hashtag activism isn't activism. He said that he had been watching the #YesAllWomen campaign develop—and that he supported it—and was trying to determine the difference between the two.

Karpf told a story (greatly simplified here) about being a dedicated environmental activist and vegetarian in college, up until the moment he saw someone wearing a t-shirt that said “Real Environmentalists Don't Eat Meat.” A few weeks later he was back to eating meat.

What he took issue with was the divisiveness of that statement, a divisiveness he saw in #CancelColbert. Yes, it does provide a sense of solidarity within a group, but, Karpf said, it is also “constructing an other out of your potential allies.”

Karpf takes issue with using 140 characters to build up walls instead of forging new allies.

Laura Olin, having run social media for the Obama 2012 campaign, is familiar with hashtags becoming “an unrelenting echo chamber” in which “nothing is ever productive.”

However, having looked as closely as anyone at social media optimization, she knew that hashtags begin trending when people in different social circles begin tweeting under a hashtag around the same time.

Soraya Chemaly helped organize the #FacebookRape campaign to rid the platform of rape and sexual violence “jokes,” jokes that are really just graphic images of abused women. She spoke to the importance of specific targets, e.g. money talks: they addressed Facebook directly but also took the issue to companies whose advertisements were appearing next to these graphic images, and getting them to abandon Facebook.

And now that Facebook is on board it makes it easier to take this issue to other media companies or technology platforms still defending sexually harassing material online as free speech.

Chemaly also spoke about the importance of building educational platforms before launching campaigns. Before participating in a hashtag movement, Chemaly always writes extensively about a topic, creating lists of facts or FAQ format posts and then sharing them under the relevant hashtag so that everyone participating in an online discussion has the same information.

“I think hashtag activism is fantastic,” Chemaly said. “I think it's an organic thing that's so free form that we don't really know what the result will be when we start...from the perspective of [combating] media monopoly, hashtags are transformative...we don't really think about the role of free speech [tackling] status quo norms...hashtags confront media monopolies on hierarchies and [are important] for that reason alone.”

For more about hashtag activism and the significance of microaffirmations on social media platforms, check out this techPresident recap of the “Internet's Double-Edged Sword” yesterday.