On Twitter, a new wave of hashtags floods the screen every day. While many are funny or inconsequential, others denote serious issues plaguing society. A quick retweet makes the post even more popular, and the average person becomes a modern-day political activist with just a simple tap on a screen.
While political movements among students and other young people have always been around, student activism reached its peak during the 1960s. People on college campuses fought for freedom of speech and civil rights and fought against things like the atrocities of the Vietnam War.
However, political advocacy in the information age looks much different than it did in the 1960s. Today, the prevalence of social media has drastically changed activism and not for the better.
So-called hashtag activism, or political movements centered around retweets and social media involvement, hurts activism because it creates identity within social groups, lacks an ability to create legislative change and provides comfort to online activists in being an ineffective advocate.
Activism mostly enacted through sharing and retweeting has become a way of expressing personal opinions and identifying with a social group. As social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have become integral to society, the things we post, like, share and retweet have become extensions of who we are. Political activism is no longer centered around the idea of enacting change. Rather, hashtag activism seems to care as much — or more — about giving people a group to identify with, regardless of whether one’s involvement in such a group changes society in any way.
Using hashtags can make people feel like part of a group, so people feel inclined to retweet and like hashtag-filled, politically-minded posts in order to fit in. Because it is human nature to want to fit in, it makes sense for people to jump on bandwagons and easily accessed hashtags. However, this means the use of political hashtags are often not accompanied by action and, thus, do little to advance a cause. Rather, they are simply a way of saying, “Look at me, I care!”
Despite this prioritization of identity over action, some hashtags have managed to have important social impacts. However, even these more impactful hashtag campaigns, such as #MarchForOurLives and #BlackLivesMatter, have shown an inability to create tangible legislative change.
The #MeToo movement, for example, rose to fame as a viral tweet and created real social change in awareness of the problems of sexual assault and harassment across the United States and the world. Even with this victory under its belt, the movement has not seen much success in passing worthwhile bills related to the cause.
While governing bodies have managed to introduce legislation updating rape kits and passing new workplace policies in the name of #MeToo, approaches to these changes have varied widely and many state legislatures remain unwilling to pass effective laws related to sexual misconduct.
This inability to enact policy change further demonstrates the problem with online activism and its mostly social impacts as opposed to tangible, legislative change.
Even though many online social media movements fail to translate to effective legislation, hashtag activism has provided a sense of comfort in being an ineffective advocate. Above all else, using social media teaches future advocates that activism revolves around feeling good about oneself despite not actually doing any work.
The main goals of activism are to inform and inspire people to take action for a cause. The presence of social media makes the goal of informing the masses an easy one to achieve; however, this is only half of the battle.
Activism is not just about marketing an idea; it’s about inspiring transformation in society, both on a social and governmental level. This transformation of society is what today’s online political advocacy fails to do, yet people continue to do it because it makes them feel as though they are making a difference.
Even the creators of online advocacy campaigns acknowledge this problem. Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, said, “If we keep on 'making statements' and not really doing the work, we are going to be in trouble."
Burke has acknowledged that social media creates this illusion that it’s easy to be an activist.
Retweeting hashtags on Twitter is a promising start to activism. However, nothing about political advocacy is easy, and bringing an end to complex issues like racism, sexism and every other -ism out there isn’t meant to be easy.
In a world so immersed in technology, it’s hard not to incorporate social media into every facet of life. When it comes to political activism, however, social media should be used only as a tool to accomplish change.
As a whole, social media involvement has hurt activism because it allows identity groups to be formed, lacks the ability to create effective legislative change, and provides individuals comfort in being an ineffective, lazy activist.
Social media isn’t the death of activism. Rather, it should be a tool used to supplement active, involved advocacy.
Don’t be a hashtag activist. Be an active participant in change.