I recently joined Twitter, and am striving to become proficient in the language of hashtags so that I can use my account for more than following the journey of John Green’s Paper Towns.

I caught the tail end of it, but thanks to his frequent tweets  I feel like I’ve been filming right alongside him the entire time.
I caught the tail end of it, but thanks to his frequent tweets I feel like I’ve been filming right alongside him the entire time.

Even when I didn’t have twitter, I was exposed to hashtags. They have made a transition from the little “trends” bar at the side of the twitter homepage to internet headlines, t-shirts, the front page of newspapers, and protest signs. Hashtags are no longer just for tweeting your thoughts on the movie you just saw or following cleverly coined weather phrases (#santabomb, I’m talking to you). They are for social movements.

Hashtags have always mimicked the real world, but as of late they have had a direct influence on it. #illridewithyou, a hashtag to reach out to people in religious attire who didn’t feel safe taking public transportation after it was reported that the gunman who was holding hostages in a cafe in Australia was Muslim, resulted in people actually riding with Muslim people. It was not only a show of support, but it also led to, real life actions that had a positive impact.

Hashtag activism (defined by PBS newshour as “a term coined to describe the use of viral hashtags to raise awareness and foster discussion about specific issues and causes via social media), also called by some “slacktivism” doesn’t always result in things happening in real life, though. Some people tweet their support of things and assume that they have fixed the problem simply by tweeting using a trending hashtag representing a social movement.


I’ve come to wonder about “slacktivism”. The term is often referred to in a negative light, but can tweeting something with a hashtag really make a difference?

Well, for one thing, it educates people about the cause. Before I saw the #illridewithyou movement, I hadn’t even considered that innocent Muslim people might face backlash. The hashtag broadened my perspective on the issue, and alerted me to the other side of what was happening. Twitter is essentially another news outlet, just one where the news isn’t a lengthy print article but instead 140 characters. It is able to give a wide range of perspectives, since it is used by people from all over the world.

Trending hashtags draw people’s attention to a cause that they otherwise might not have known about. For example, this summer’s sweeping #alsicebucketchallenge, where people nominated their friends to dump a bucket of ice water on their heads to raise awareness for ALS disease and donate to the cause. Over $100 million was raised from this viral challenge – money that came from people who donated to the cause because of the hashtag campaign inspiring them to do so and who might not have donated otherwise.

(Image from marketingland.com)
(Image from marketingland.com)

One problem with social media activism is that it enforces the mentality that all change can be effected online, and that nothing needs to be done in real life to make a difference. As #illridewithyou and the ALS ice bucket challenge show, tweeting support for a cause can make a difference. However, showing support for a cause through actions is a different thing, and one that has become buried in hashtags and online activism.

If all of the world’s problems could be fixed through tweeting about them, then we would be living in utopia. However, we are not; so clearly, twitter isn’t the only answer here. As Dave Ramsey puts, it “when actions meet compassion, lives change.”

Thanks to hashtags showing us what is happening, and all of the perspectives involved, people can become more educated about what is happening. This knowledge can then help people to be more understanding and compassionate. It that compassion can be combined with actions, then change can be effected and lives (and the world) can be changed for the better.

What is your opinion on hashtag activism?