Do Hashtags Make Change? Critics Say No.

In previous posts, I asked if hashtags were making an actual change in Hollywood by having them trend on social media. This question was asked in regard to the lack of diversity that is currently taking place in the film and television industry, but for this post I will broaden the subject to hashtags of all topics. To find the answer to my question, it’s unnecessary to focus on certain hashtags when they are all aiming for the same end result—to make a difference in the world.

Critics of hashtag activism argue that trending phrases do not make a substantial change in the real world.

Opponents of activism through hashtags say that people participate just to feel good about themselves, also known as “slacktivism”. They believe people on social media want to look socially aware and impress their peers and friends by seemingly being a part of an online movement, while not actually caring to be involved in the actual movement. This slacktivism can come across as insensitive, like when Facebook introduced a filter for France after Paris was attacked by terrorists. Adding a filter does nothing to help a cause and feels insensitive to do so when the user doesn’t personally know anyone from there and is using a tragedy for their own personal gain by getting a couple of extra likes.

Nicholas Mirzoeff, a media and culture professor at NYU said, “to click the ‘angry’ icon on Facebook or retweet in an outrage can be useful. But it is not enough.” He thinks online activists that constantly share their thoughts on social media should prove that they stand behind a movement by bringing it offline and gathering in person. Users on social media share their posts to appear to be politically aware to their followers, but that’s as far as they go and will not do anything to create change in the real, tangible world.

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Infographic showing hashtags raising awareness, but not solving problems; Photo Courtesy: Brown Political Review

Those against online activism believe that it doesn’t make any real differences in the world is because there is no organization to these hashtags. Online, no one really knows who is in charge of creating the hashtags that trend on Twitter. There is no clear leader, just the users with the most retweets and likes. Without anyone to lead the cause, hashtags can’t gain any momentum in reality.

According to Law Street Media, “the absence of organization and leadership found in many Twitter-based campaigns have some people critical of the realistic capability these movements have in comparison to the street pounding tactics used during the civil rights movements.” While people can voice their opinions online, it doesn’t have the same effect as protesting in person. The most that hashtags can do is gather people together for a discussion about certain topics, but after that there is nowhere to go and the conversation dies down. The phrases are too short-lived for people to act on it and there’s no one to make sure that everyone keeps talking about it and push the conversation further, so it slows down to a stop.

Critics believe that hashtags can’t do anything because the audience is limited to a certain number of users and a specific type of person who is exposed to the hashtags. Millenials are a big group of people who witness these phrases online, but many of them are minors who can’t vote on any legal changes until they are older. Also, they aren’t taken seriously due to their young age and often their opinions go unheard. Middle aged adults and older wouldn’t be exposed to this type of activism and wouldn’t be aware of these “movements” happening. Those in this age range are typically the ones making the decisions that the younger generation is speaking up against, so it’s a flawed system that could not get anything solved.

Opponents of online activism do not think that hashtags can create any significant change in the world since participating in these is typically for the benefit of impressing others on social media.

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