The week of January 18, 2015

The new era of hashtag activism

By Andrew Couts

Just before 3pm on Dec. 3, word leaked that a New York City grand jury had decided to not indict an NYPD officer for killing Eric Garner, an unarmed 43-year-old African-American, using a banned chokehold. His final words: “I can’t breath.”

Word of the Garner decision erupted across the Web. Everyone was waiting for a 4pm announcement, but the New York Times had scooped the NYPD, blindsiding everyone into a surprize tizzy of outrage and morbid excitement. Only two weeks prior, a Missouri grand jury had issued a similar decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Riots ensued. In a virtual instant, my Twitter timeline shifted from #Ferguson and #MichaelBrown tweets to #EricGarner and #ICantBreath.

I texted Shawn Carrié, who had been in Ferguson, Mo., to cover the unrest there for the Daily Dot and had recently returned to NYC. “Do you know of any demonstrations taking place?” I asked.

“Groups are scrambling now to coordinate a response, I’m told by organizers,” Carrié said. This scramble only lasted a moment, however, as tweeted word of demonstrations trickled into the stream. Within less than an hour, hundreds, then thousands, began to pour into the streets, guiding by little more than #EricGarner.

Not long ago, pundits derided hashtag activism as the epitome of feigned outrage.

Before the night ended, tens of thousands of people had gathered, seemingly spontaneously, all around Manhattan. The demonstrations spread across the U.S. as well. Boston. Chicago. San Francisco. Pittsburg. Washington, D.C. Before long, what started as mere tweets and Facebook posts would spread to the upper echelons of the U.S. government and spark a police-led movement against the most powerful mayor in America.

This is so-called hashtag activism now: No longer a joke but a proven tool for democratic, decentralized IRL action.

• • •

Not long ago, pundits derided hashtag activism as the epitome of feigned outrage, indicative of a new era in which we all want to appear as though we give a shit about things others tell us are important.

“My hunch is that people often affiliate with causes online for selfish and narcissistic purposes,” Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, told the New York Times’s David Carr in 2012. “Sometimes, it may be as simple as trying to impress their online friends, and once you have fashioned that identity, there is very little reason to actually do anything else.”

Using hashtags as a way to organize information and conversations on Twitter was conceived by former Google developer Chris Messina in 2007. The original purpose, Messina told the Kernel, was to create a way to have organized conversations on a platform that lacked the traditional forum-moderator structure.

“I wanted a solution that was easy to do on my mobile phone, and could be emulated by others without much thought,” Messina said. “To that end, I was inspired by what I saw in open-source software development and wanted to encourage ‘forking,’ or the ability to express a divergent opinion on how things should be without getting prior permission.”

The idea, of course, caught on, ushering in the age of ubiquitous hashtags we see today, mostly used for basically the purpose Messina envisioned.

The anti-police-brutality movement has overflowed from our timelines and into the streets.

Hashtag activism, though it wasn’t initially called that, arguably began in late 2011, with the wild spread of the Occupy Wall St. movement. By that winter, however, when the tents of Zuccotti park began to come down, efforts to #StopSOPA replaced #OWS, as the Internet raged over the Stop Online Piracy Act. The contentious copyright-protection bill would ultimately fail in early 2012, marking the first major win for the Internet as a platform for high-level political disruption.

Around the same time that SOPA stumbled into its grave, women’s rights activists flooded the Susan G. Komen foundation with incensed #StandWithPP tweets over the group’s intention to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. In early February 2012, less than a month after the campaign began, the foundation reversed its stance and agreed to restore funding to Planned Parenthood. Between Occupy’s popularity, SOPA’s death, and Komen’s flip-flop, the idea that everyday Internet users could usher in change simply through tweets, petitions, and angry phone calls took hold.

Then #Kony2012 happened.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that an American-made documentary and the flurry of hashtagged tweets that surrounded it had zero chance of ushering in the overthrow of a Ugandan military tyrant. But tweet and faux-rage we did, with millions of #Kony2012 posts forced into the digital ether for that amorphous goal of “awareness.” As the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey points out, the #Kony2012 campaign and film of the same name did ultimately lead the African Union and the United States to send 5,000 troops to fight back the warlord barbarian Joseph Kony. However, Kony remains at large, though U.S. troops did manage to capture one of his leading henchmen earlier this week.

Grassroots movements no longer need a centralized leader to grow into a noticeable tree of discontent.

Americans, however, had had enough. The #Kony2012 campaign was too successful, one could argue, leading many to become perturbed, even disgusted, by the outpouring of posts cluttering their timelines and feeds. It was around this time, March 2012, that “hashtag activism” earned its weak reputation.


Despite the general contempt for hashtag activism that followed, the years since #Kony2012 have seen a nonstop succession of new causes, to greater and lesser success. (Who can ever forget the #IceBucketChallenge?) The #WeAreTrayvonMartin movement percolated to national significance just as Kony fatigue set in. This outcry would ultimately lead to the arrest of George Zimmerman, who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, on charges of second-degree murder. The death of Martin would have gone largely unnoticed without the social media campaign. Ultimately, however, Zimmerman would be acquitted in April 2013, for better or worse.

More recently, we saw the meteoric rise of #BringBackOurGirls, a campaign, bolstered by First Lady Michelle Obama and invented by Nigerians, to save a group of Nigerian school children captured by Islamist militant faction Boko Haram. The girls, tragically, are still in captivity or dead, and Boko Haram is still massacring people by the thousands. Did it raise awareness? Yes. But like Kony, there was—and is—little us Twitter users in the U.S. can seemingly do.

• • •

That brings us back to #Ferguson, to #ICantBreath, to the burgeoning movement against police use of violence and a system that seems to protect the boys in blue more than average American citizens, especially minorities. Unlike #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls—unlike even #StopSOPA or #StandWithPP—the anti-police-brutality movement has overflowed from our timelines and into the streets. It has shown that hashtag activism is not simply a tool for mushy awareness (it’s that, too), but a democratized organizing tool that allows for near spontaneous demonstrations to rise from a rush of 140-character cries for change.

As Deray Mckesson, an activist who rose to prominence on Twitter during the Ferguson uprisings, explained it to the Atlantic earlier this month:

“Ferguson exists in a tradition of protest. But what is different about Ferguson, or what is important about Ferguson, is that the movement began with regular people. There was no Martin, there was no Malcolm, there was no NAACP, it wasn’t the Urban League. People came together who didn’t necessarily know each other, but knew what they were experiencing was wrong. And that is what started this. What makes that really important, unlike previous struggle, is that—who is the spokesperson? The people. The people, in a very democratic way, became the voice of the struggle.”

In other words, grassroots movements no longer need a centralized leader to grow into a noticeable tree of discontent. “You are enough to start a movement. Individual people can come together around things that they know are unjust,” Mckesson said. “And they can spark change. Your body can be part of the protest; you don’t need a VIP pass to protest. And Twitter allowed that to happen.”

“Your body can be part of the protest.”

Chris Messina believes the migration from top-down social movements, like those of the Martin Luther King Jr.-led Civil Rights era, to the decentralized civic actions we see today are a result of the media—social media—we have available today.

“MLK and Malcolm X (among others) were products of their generation’s media—namely newspaper and television,” Messina said. “Now we live in a much richer, more chaotic media landscape, and there are millions more voices contributing to the mix than there were back then. While there will always be a place for charismatic leaders that can channel the feelings and aspirations of different groups of people, these ‘lightning rod’ figures are no longer necessary for movements to form today.”

Of course, traditional organizing structures, like those that have changed American history since its founding, remain both powerful and necessary. In September 2014, for example, hundreds of thousands of people—more than 300,000 in New York City alone—gathered for the People’s Climate March in more than 160 countries around the world, marking the largest environmental demonstration in history. Unlike many of the #Ferguson or #EricGarner marches, however, the People’s Climate March was spearheaded by a centralized organization,, along with some 1,500 other organizations. The hashtag, #PeoplesClimate, was invented not out of mere popularity but as part of an intentional branding effort.

In fact, as University of California Berkeley researcher Jen Schradie points out, even social movements that appear to have momentum simply because of tweets and Facebook shares are often the result of traditional grassroots organizing.

“In an era of hashtag activism, clicktivism, or whatever you want to call digital politics, it still takes some level of organization to create and sustain a movement, even an online movement,” Schradie wrote. “If you pull back the online curtain in the digital activism land of Oz, you will see that it is often a very structured organization pulling the levers.”

Mckesson, who cofounded and helps publish the Words To Action activism newsletter, agrees, saying that the newsletter is a tool to help “create infrastructure for the movement.” Rev. Al Sharpton has become a de facto leader (albeit a controversial one) in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner unrest, as has St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who played a significant role in bringing attention and clarity to the unrest in Ferguson. These figures, and many others like them, are the tangible rungs of a ladder to which the rest of us can hang on and use to climb further skyward.

“While there will always be a place for charismatic leaders that can channel the feelings and aspirations of different groups of people, these ‘lightning rod’ figures are no longer necessary for movements to form today.”

So, what have #Ferguson, #ICantBreath, and the plethora of other related hashtags helped achieve? Well, for starters, President Obama has vowed to equip more police officers with body cameras and better training—one small step in a larger national movement toward greater law enforcement accountability. And while it’s just a tangential consequence, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has managed to upset virtually the entire NYPD force for sympathizing with the Eric Garner protesters. As a result, many New York cops largely stopped arresting people for low-level crimes or issuing traffic tickets, effectively giving the anti-police-brutality crowd some version of what they’ve been demanding and showing the world that heavy-handed policing isn’t a necessary evil.

Just as a hashtagged tweet is part of a larger conversation, so too are these are small but potentially consequential steps toward something beyond the status quo.

It is unclear, however, whether this is just the beginning or the beginning of the end for the anti-police-brutality movement—and if it’s the former, it seems likely that hashtags will play a supporting rather than a leading role in whatever comes next. What is clear is that hashtag activism has matured into a new stage of life, one in which simple awareness is more a byproduct than a central goal.

Illustration via wikimedia (Public Domain) | Remix by Max Fleishman