Hashtags #DontWork

In my other posts, I have looked into the debate of how effective online activism actually is. Supporters of online activism believe that it works because topics gained exposure to the public through trending hashtags and many people on social media were encouraged to partake in the conversation. Critics believe that online activism doesn’t work because posting online doesn’t directly affect the physical world.

After considering both sides of the debate, I think that hashtags are not effective in making a substantial change in the real world.

Even though hashtags created a direct response in the Academy Awards, that was only one change out of Hollywood’s many diversity problems. The phrase, #OscarsSoWhite, highlighted how no minority was nominated for the best lead and supporting roles for the second year in a row. With the pressure of the public, the Academy invited 683 more members, and of those new members 46% are women and 41% are people of color. Other than this change, nothing else in the industry has attempted to fix its lack of diversity.

The majority of Hollywood is still very much white and male and they are still whitewashing roles in 2016. This can be seen in the Ghost in the Shell trailer starring Scarlett Johansson that’s just been released. A movie inspired by a Japanese manga that takes place in Japan with clear Japanese influences, shouldn’t have Scarlett Johansson with an Asian-like haircut playing Motoko Kusanagi—a role that clearly should’ve gone to an Asian actress. The whitewashing in this movie hasn’t gone unnoticed and people are calling them out on it, yet the movie is still being released with no regard to how offensive it feels, just to feature a famous actress.

Although these hashtags are able to create a discussion, they don’t do much of anything else. It gets people to talk about certain topics they normally wouldn’t discuss, but never gets past that. Online activism with hashtags creates discourse with no action. For example, #StarringJohnCho had people talking about the lack of diversity and whitewashing with Hollywood’s lead roles. People participated in photoshopping John Cho’s face onto movie posters, such as The Martian and Spectre, to show what it’d look like if an Asian-American starred in those films. This hashtag got actors and other users on Twitter to talk about whitewashing, and they showed support by tweeting how they would watch movies starring John Cho. The discussion lasted for a short while, but then talk died down and eventually stopped completely.

These phrases are made with no physical end goal; they’re just used to create awareness for certain topics. When a phrase is trending, thousands of users with share their initial thoughts and when there’s nothing else to add, they stop talking about it and then the phrase stops trending. Once it’s out of sight, it’s out of peoples’ minds and they don’t discuss it again after that.

If online activists wanted to make an actual change in the world, they should organize in person rather than relying on the hashtag to do all the work. The other day I was in a classroom and on the wall, there was a sign with a hashtag about Trump. It was implying that whoever read the sign could join the conversation and discuss their thoughts online. The hashtag alone did nothing at all; it was forgettable and insignificant to the point where I couldn’t even remember what the hashtag was.

Meeting up in person and protesting together is far more effective as it catches the public’s attention. Any kind of crowd gathering in public will typically be talked about by those passing by, which is exactly what they should be aiming for. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation”. He says that protesting “seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored”. Being able to visualize the number of people who are against something helps point out that people are ready for change. This has been effective with the #NotMyPresident protestors who have been rallying nation-wide since Trump was elected. Their activism was only taken seriously once they gathered in person and took their words to the street.

Anti-Trump protests in the US; Photo Courtesy: USA Today

For people to truly make a difference in the world, they should do more than share their thoughts through a hashtag. Instead, they could make a change by being proactive in movements offline. Hashtags are ineffective because they don’t have the same impact and emotional response as people do in real life.


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