Is #Hashtag a movement or not?

As social media becomes more and more politicised, Somya Mehta looks at Facebook and Twitter as platforms for change. Is this straying away from a tradition of activism? Or is it a new and innovative way to bring issues to all corners of the globe?

Social media activism has become an increasingly popular phenomenon in the digital era and it’s no surprise that the internet has condensed the world population, otherwise scattered across the globe, into an online sphere. In this day and age, where active social media users constantly post and repost statuses, videos, and tweets, one might forget the rich history of activism independent of internet aid. Civil rights activism and the need for political and social equality is a battle still very much being fought today, even if its original heroes have passed away. What has changed, however, is the diversity of such activists, their outreach and their implications. 

For instance, a civil rights activist of the 1960s only had printed independent media, a phone booth, the arts, and word of mouth to spread awareness of issues. One would believe that most activists were speaking from their own first-hand experience, at the sight of an incident.  

Today, the definition of the word ‘activism’ has been changed. When we refer to a modern-day activist movement, we refer to those thousands of trending hashtags that go around social media, bringing people from across the globe together through a unanimous cause. One such example would be the #BlackLivesMatter movement that started from a single hashtag that went viral across all platforms, and possibly even helped to change the face of Black History Month. Black History Month takes place in many countries worldwide, to acknowledge important people and events from the African diaspora and has been observed each year for decades. Through social media, however, the outreach of previously under-reported Black History has increased tremendously. 


Earlier, what used to be a neatly organised and limited classroom discussion about heroic African stories, has now become a fully-fledged global debate, signifying the importance of black lives in a way that physical campaigns and placards could not. The internet thus provides a forum for young people to easily access information and stories relating to black history that children of the 20th century would struggle to find. Stories in the form of videos and statuses. Across Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, Snapchat. They are not only easy to access, but also easy to share on a vast scale in one go. The process is quite simple, yet fascinating. If activists resonate with what they see on social media, they click ‘share’ or ‘repost’, add that hashtag to it, and in a matter of a few seconds, the movement can go viral. 

A social change might not always be visible at the end of such social media campaigns, but the awareness it garners amongst thousands of people makes it worthy of being classified as a successful, new-age form of activism. Furthermore, it is also important to note that some of these ‘hashtag’ movements actually do help bring about social change. Earlier in 2016, April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to express the lack of racial diversity in the 2016 Oscar nominations, which got picked up by the mainstream media and went viral in no time. As a result, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was pushed to make notable changes in its governing parameters, increasing the diversity amongst the association for its future events. 

While social media may be a wonder for many, some might still see hashtags as futile and disagree with them being an actual exercise of activism. In all honesty, the impact of physically going out and taking part in demonstrations and experiencing the depth of the situation is a void that cannot be filled solely by social media movements. After all, gathering in a large group and rallying for a cause requires a lot more determination and motivation than reposting a hashtag while you wait for your Netflix series to load.

Somya Mehta

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