Do Hashtags Count As Activism?
In a commencement speech earlier this month, Shonda Rhimes ruffled some feathers when she said, "A hashtag is not a movement." Here's what Twitter activists had to say in response.
On June 8, Shonda Rhimes — producer, writer, and creator of hit TV shows Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, and executive producer of forthcoming How to Get Away With Murder — delivered the 2014 commencement speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth College. Her words — both inspirational and powerful — were meant for the graduating class of college students, but were also live-streamed and published on Medium the following day. Among other statements in the speech, Rhimes said:
And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #YesAllWomen #TakeBackTheNight #NotAllMen #BringBackOurGirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething.
Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It's a hashtag. It's you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show.
Rhimes' comments about hashtags sparked a lot of discussion and debate about internet activism between people who actively use social media in the name of social justice and those who don't think it "counts as a movement." Days later, Rhimes even took to Twitter to respond to her critics.
BuzzFeed reached out to a number of people who use hashtags and social media to enable social change by email and asked them all the same question: Do you think hashtags count as activism?
Here are the five responses we received by both email and telephone:
"I find it most amusing that many who do not identify as activists have the most to say about what does and does not count as activism. I have yet to meet a community organizer who hasn't used social media to enhance their work. In the social movements course I took in grad school, I was struck realizing how a shift in historical consciousness was necessary before any large social movement. For me, hashtags are a way to use a tool created for corporate branding and use it for base building and consciousness raising. I have met numerous student activists this year who have shared how hashtags from #BBUM, #NotYourAsianSidekick, #POC4CulturalEnrichment, and more have led to tangible on the ground actions and institutional change.
Dozens of young girls have reached out to me over this past year saying how if nothing else, my hashtags have helped them in their identity development and self-esteem. Before I became an activist, I had to know myself and counter so many societal messages that made me feel small and insignificant. Time will tell how these hashtags have transformed individuals and collectives, but I know what they mean for me.
The #AbuserDynamics hashtag was the most important one I've seen this year. It didn't start national conversations, but without a doubt in my mind, I know many realized they were in abusive relationships through that hashtag. Having support and realizing how abuse is normalized in a culture that embraces the romance myth can save lives. We get caught up in what is or isn't significant for revolutionary work, but something @chiefelk asked me on the phone following #AbuserDynamics is, 'How can we have a revolution without ending gender violence?' Which really means that sometimes as activists, we are asked to segment ourselves to do 'serious' work.
Yes, I would like for hashtags to shift discourse left. Yes, I would like hashtags to challenge dominant narratives. Yes, I would like the consciousness raising that happens through hashtags to inspire a whole generation to move into action. But at the end of the day, I just want people to survive. If nothing else, I want people to feel less alone. I want people to have courage and know their thoughts are valid, their feelings heard, and their struggles embraced."
"I think, absolutely [hashtags can be a movement]. I think there's this weird idea that the civil rights movement was just things like speeches, marches, and sit-ins, as if there wasn't any organization and planning like letter-writing campaigning and sitting down with politicians.
I hate-watch Scandal. It's funny to watch Scandal, use the hashtag on Twitter, and sort of mock the giant plot hole. I'm not a big Shonda fan, and I guess maybe because I'm not a fan I sort of stepped back and thought, It's a hashtag that keeps her show on the air. That first season, I remember when it first debuted, and on Episode 5 or 6 they were trying to get Twitter involved. No one was really watching Scandal like that, until 'Black Twitter' started really watching it and talking about it. But I often feel like when I use that hashtag, there's quite a number of people who use it the same way I am, not loving the show as much as you love the Twitter experience.
That's why when I saw what Shonda said specifically about hashtags and double downed with that response, I had to laugh. I don't think you know what people do with hashtags. I don't think anyone thinks that hashtags are the end-all, be-all; activists use them and build off the tag. They fundraise, they get people to call in mayors or governors, which is the same thing as the letter-writing campaigns in the '60s but now we're doing the thing you can't ignore — you're encouraging other people to do the thing they cannot ignore.
If you're flooding their mailboxes with physical letters, people may not get them and it's more likely your letter won't be seen. But your phone call and your email will get seen that day, if for no other reason than because some aid has to go through all of these emails and answer that phone over and over again. And so I feel like we talk about hashtag activism with the idea that nothing's happening as a result, but I know them. I know a lot of people who retweet hashtags and promote causes and then even send things to protesters.
We see it all the time — protests get supported thoroughly because there are people who were willing to support it through social media and were like, 'OK, I can't be there, I wouldn't have heard about this otherwise but I'm reading about it on Twitter so I'm going to call a local restaurant or grocery store, they're going to deliver water, juice, etc.' That just happened here yesterday in Chicago. There was a protest, someone I don't know tweeted about it, I saw the tweets, and I asked people to send food or water or whatever…juice, soda that kind of thing. That took me maybe 10 minutes, but I have a following of 20,000-plus people, so how many phone calls, how many emails could that possibly bring in?
I think Twitter is a great tool. Is it the end-all, be-all? No. But I don't think letter-writing, marches, and sit-in campaigns were the end-all, be-all, either."
"I really liked Rhimes' speech and I thought a lot of what she said was really interesting. I also really liked the part when she says, 'If someone tells you they have it all together, it's not true' because of how we view powerful and successful women. I thought overall it was very literary and empowering.
The part where she went into the hating on hashtag activism sort of struck a chord with me in a bad way. And I agree you cannot only rely on the internet to make social change happen in the world, but undermining the power of using the internet for social change I think is dangerous, and I think it's disempowering to those who use it to create real, sustainable changes.
Sometimes it feels like a generational thing when people say, 'Oh, you're just doing slacktivism.' That makes me think of the bell hooks quote about when people want to take away your power, that's what they do. 'Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don't see it, but because they see it and they don't want it to exist.'
And I've done my own activism by campaigning alone but I've also been able to see how hashtags and how Twitter influences news. Social media used to be driven by news, and then people would talk about what the new talks about. Now it's the reverse; now the news covers social media and what people are talking about on networks like Twitter.
Not a single major network cared or covered Wendy Davis' filibuster last summer, but thousands of Americans watched it using Livestream and tweeting, then these amazing conversations were happening around it online. You can guess, the next day every single news outlet was covering the story and talking about abortion, talking about the most anti-woman bill that had been proposed in a very long time. Wendy Davis was not a well-known person, but she was able to have a platform for her message and now she's running for governor.
Then with the #YesAllWomen conversation, there are writers who will tell you since the 1990s they've been trying to get this conversation going around violence and gender. A day after it started, it was trending more than Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's wedding. #YesAllWomen radically changed the conversation — MSNBC, ABC, and other major news networks were having this conversation that has been so long overdue.
The thing is, to give Rhimes some credit, the Bring Back Our Girls hashtag I think had a problem a lot like the Kony campaign in 2012. And that's an interesting conversation, and maybe she wanted to have that nuanced conversation and wasn't able to do it in the speech.
But we should be talking about this new form of activism, and to say that it's not helping at all I think is inaccurate."
"On behalf of Jenni and myself — first, we just have to say that we love Shonda Rhimes! She's an excellent example of how education, focus, and self-motivation can move a person into the life they want — rather than a life they're given. Now, getting to the hashtags at hand...
Well, Shonda kind of busted our bubble a little, because for us, creating the #StillNoLatinas hashtag and seeing it flourish to unimaginable levels was amazing! It united Latinos, Latinas, and many other cultures in comedy all over the country, by getting entertainment professionals to talking about something that is important to all of us: EQUALITY!
Established and credible news publications and blogs use hashtags all of the time to gain social media awareness and readership. It's the way we were able to spread such a great awareness with #StillNoLatinas. A majority of our response was that no one was aware this was even an issue with Saturday Night Live, until they clicked on our hashtag.
#StillNoLatinas, in a sense, put us on a stage and gave us that mic to enlighten others of the stereotypical stigmas that Latinos have been linked to for so long. It may not have landed a Latina on the SNL stage (yet), but it definitely put a fire under our Latina asses! We know now more than ever that if the studio heads are not seeing us as the comedy talents we are, then WE WILL JUST HAVE TO SHOW THEM OURSELVES! So we are grateful for #StillNoLatinas movement because it worked! We know that our people are more encouraged and motivated to create their own work — now more than ever before!"
"Rhimes is right in the sense that on their own, hashtags don't make change, but there's something about all of us kind of being on the same page with a similar talking point which can translate as a hahstag, that if 'click activism' leads to on the ground activism then we make change.
We saw that with the Occupy movement. I was able to get physical bodies out to protests by using Twitter and hashtags for Occupy College. I really think you need both to be effective.
You can't expect to create change with hashtags on their own, but even if it leads to someone writing an article because they're looking at Twitter to see what's going on, and then maybe thousands of people will read that article, and maybe one person will take action based on what they read, then that hashtag was worth it.
Just last week when House Democrats were talking about Elizabeth Warren's refinancing bill, they were using the #HigherEdNotDebt hashtag. That in itself, by people using and writing that hashtag, got people in power and legislators to use it. That's a win, and that is starting to create change. Because they saw that hashtag, they looked into what our organization is about and they felt comfortable using it.
I also really have to disagree with Rhimes specifically referencing #YesAllWomen as a hashtag that's not 'doing anything.' I went through that hashtag on Facebook and Twitter, and I read stories by my friends and people I knew that that they've never told before, people I was close with in my women's studies classes and good friends. It was a way for people to express the biggest injustices that happened to them as women and share them with a huge audience, and then so many articles came about because of the hashtag that raised even more awareness.
How is that not leading to change?"