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#whatsinahashtag: The Pointlessness of Twitter Activism

Credit: Sendible - click on image for original

Credit: Sendible – click on image for original

Leo Jay Shire is #sick of #hashtags that #oversimplify the horrific things going on in our world. And are they really as unifying as we all think?

Activist hashtags are online slogans that represent various political movements…

If 2014 was known as the year of the protest then it must also be known as the year of the activist hashtag. Activist hashtags are online slogans that represent various political movements and are often used on Twitter and other social networks that use hashtags to file and categorise public posts. They’re considered useful in getting awareness about world events and political issues into the forefront of public attention without relying on mainstream media to do the job. Yet outside of social media, are activist hashtags more of a superficial tool than a functioning one?


From my in-depth research (ie being a living person who uses Twitter) I’ve noticed that the key to a successful activist hashtag rests on two things. The first is obvious: brevity. What with the 140 character limit already being pretty limiting when it comes to commenting on complex sociopolitical world events, having a hashtag that uses up too many precious symbols is not going to catch on. The second is more subtle: the suggestion of unity.

Think about it; after three gunmen stormed the offices of magazine publication Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people, the entire twitter sphere was awash with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, which, translated, means I am Charlie. Yes, I am Charlie, you are Charlie, we are all united in being Charlie through our use of this hashtag. It doesn’t stop there either; other frequently used hashtags such as #BringBackOurGirls (started after terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 school girls from Chibok, Nigeria), or #WeCan’tBreathe (started after no charges were made for the death of Eric Garner on the streets of New York) both include pronouns that suggest that these are all of our issues and we are all united when we use these hashtags.

…brevity …the suggestion of unity.

What with worldwide trends being visible through Twitter users’ home pages, implying that the Twittersphere is all united by an equal stance on political issues is what makes an activist hashtag a success. Awareness of issues can’t be raised if there is not mass agreement about what the issue is. But here’s the thing: political issues are complex and sometimes – actually, often – the complexity of situations can be lost amongst solidarity hashtags.

#JeSuisCharlie was created to honour the victims working at Charlie Hebdo, a noble cause that’s hard to disagree with. Yet Charlie Hebdo is not a publication above critique: they are known to use racist and Islamaphobic symbolism to make satirical statements, such as depicting black Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey and reimagining the missing Chibok schoolgirls as pregnant Muslim benefit frauds. A mass consensus of those stating ‘I am Charlie’ to honour the victims actually seems more like a mass consensus of people aligning themselves with the content of Charlie Hebdo itself.


This in turn led to the birth of hashtags by those who wished to mourn but didn’t necessarily want to align their views with those published in Charlie Hebdo. #JeNeSuisPasCharlie (‘I am not Charlie’) cropped up in deference but that just seemed crass considering people actually died, easily misunderstood as support for the attacks. Another hashtag created in opposition was #JeSuisAhmed in honour of the Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet who also lost his life during the attacks. The sentiment is well considered, but for those who aren’t Muslim and won’t experience the lslamaphobia that runs through Western Europe it can be uncomfortable to use the name and experiences of a real person and suggest a shared similarity exists where one probably doesn’t. It’s a hashtag to support, but not one that every supporter should feel united in using.

White people aren’t going to hold their breath when a policeman walks past…

#WeCantBreathe used the last words of Eric Garner to demonstrate how suffocating it is to be a black person in America where the police proves all too often to be institutionally racist. A white person using that hashtag is insulting. White people aren’t going to hold their breath when a policeman walks past, having to mentally consider whether or not their hands are visible or whether or not their hoodie makes them look threatening. In this instance, they are not part of the ‘we’ in #WeCantBreathe. When these hashtags transcend social networks to become political chants at protests it feels too late to explain to a white protester why shouting ‘we can’t breathe’ at the top of their lungs is inconsiderate. Twitter has already determined that this is the slogan we are all united in using.

Xn3l4xl-_400x400Enter #BlackLivesMatter, which was created alongside #WeCantBreathe in order to raise awareness of how black Americans are treated unfairly by the police system. This hashtag seemed perfect for the cause; it doesn’t rely on pronouns in order to suggest solidarity and it doesn’t require needing any specific life experiences or an accompanying set of views in order to use it. In theory it should be freely used by everyone who is in support. It’s a statement, it’s simple, and it’s fairly unprovocative. Except, bafflingly, some activists felt that that although they supported stateside protests against police brutality, they didn’t feel united in the suggestion that black people predominantly suffer from this police brutality more than any other racial group. Another hashtag was created, the vague and sanctimonious #AllLivesMatter. Of course, all lives do matter, but it’s also entirely missing the point.

…these hashtags are not representative of a united voice or a united way of thinking…

Although Twitter creates the illusion that we are all united, and although out of hashtag activism predominantly comes progress and positivity, these hashtags are not representative of a united voice or a united way of thinking. They are representative of a sect of people who are privileged enough to be activists from the comfort of their own home, conveniently separated from the realities of world issues by the invisible bridge of the World Wide Web. We are comforted by the artificial sense of solidarity we have created, picking and choosing which issues get public attention this week while ignoring those that are too tricky or too sensitive to tackle on Twitter.

As the words ‘Paris Est Charlie’ were projected in bright lights onto the Arc de Triomphe this week, the same week reports of firebombs thrown at mosques in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings have been largely ignored and unreported, it’s becoming more apparent that these brief statements of unity that work on Twitter by any other form may not be as functional.

So #whatsinahashtag? Should we all be tweeting for unity or doing some actual physical activism? Or is a hashtag enough? #Letusknow. Tweet @rifemag #whatsinahashtag with your thoughts.