Twitter Chat: Can hashtag activism have real impact?

BY Nora Daly  August 21, 2014 at 5:00 PM EST
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 17:  Nautica Blanks (L), Santori Blanks (on shoulders) and Launcia Blanks pose for a portrait with their signs during a protest of Michael Brown's murder August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Tensions still run high in the Ferguson community after 18 -year-old Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson Police Officer August 9 on Canfield Drive. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Nautica Blanks, left, with Santori Blanks and Launcia Blanks, right, hold signs featuring some of the trending hashtags being used on Twitter in the wake of the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images

This past week, countless users have taken to social media to discuss the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer and the ensuing protests and violence in Ferguson, Missouri. Hashtags such as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #HandsUpDontShoot have spurred an online conversation about race and justice.

Simultaneously, Twitter and Facebook users have been overwhelmed with videos of people dumping buckets of ice over their heads as they take part in the #icebucketchallenge, a now viral effort to raise awareness of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. What do these hashtags have in common (other than the fact that they are trending on Twitter)? Both are examples of hashtag activism — a term coined to describe the use of viral hashtags to raise awareness and foster discussion about specific issues and causes via social media. Other examples include #Kony2012, #BringBackOurGirls and #YesAllWomen.

As you might deduce from this list, different instances of hashtag activism have had varying degrees of legitimacy and success. Similarly, the practice of employing social media to promote the cause du jour has received a mixed reception. Proponents of hashtag activism celebrate its ability to raise awareness and magnify voices that might not otherwise be heard. Critics claim that hashtags rise and then quickly fade from public consciousness, in part because they are often embraced by individuals who have little or no vested interest in the cause.

Does hashtag activism foster a false sense of accomplishment, allowing Facebook and Twitter users to feel they have done something when in reality their social media post will have no tangible impact? Or is it an important method of raising awareness, one with the potential to affect real world change? We asked you to share your thoughts in a Twitter chat. Stacia Brown of ColorLines joined the discussion through her Twitter handle, @slb79. Read a transcript of the conversation below.