Can Hashtag Activism Inspire Real Life Social and Political Changes?

4 years ago

2013 was a year of anti-racist activism online. Barely a week has gone by in the past couple of months without a race-based meme. In some cases, online activists have taken influential people to task, most famously Phil Robertson, for his homophobic remarks and defense of the Jim Crow South; folk singer Ani DiFranco, for her plans to host a feminist songwriting retreat at an antebellum plantation; and tech executive Justine Sacco, for her tweet about Africa and AIDS. At the other end of the spectrum, people previously unknown, such as Mikki Kendall and Suey Park, have launched into Internet fame by starting hashtags (#solidarityisforwhitewomen and #notyourasiansidekick, respectively).

Image Credit: Retis, via Flickr

There is significant power in the online world and the effort to hold people accountable for their actions. In some senses, the Internet has become a “voice of the voiceless” for people whose stories have historially been marginalized (or straight-out ignored). Facebook and Twitter serve as an immediate way to gain support, but seeing the social conversation over this past year leaves me with the question: How successful is online activism in relation to making changes in the “real” world, and what are the next steps?

In the cases of famous people, the public outcry on the Internet caused swift reaction when businesses were affected. A&E suspended Robertson, IAC fired Sacco before her plane even landed in South Africa, and DiFranco finally cancelled her Righteous Retreat.

But the conversation included much more than just racial justice activism. While the online response was a catalyst in getting Robertson suspended, online activism by Robertson’s defenders actually helped him get back on the air. (The positive ratings for the show were also most likely a strong motivation, even though he is a bit -- though beloved -- player.) Plenty of people cried “free speech” online. And in an interesting example of how confusing “hashtag activism” can be, nearly 200,000 supporters took to the Twitterverse mistakenly using the hashtag #Imwithphil, which was associated with Phil Campbell, a social advocate in Alabama, to express their frustration with A&E’s suspension (which was lifted on December 27).

For the more grassroots campaigns seeking to generate widespread change, the results are harder to measure, because there’s not a single threatened company motivated to take action, nor is there a single perpetrator to take action against.

Last summer, Mikki Kendall created the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen . She was reacting to the widespread sympathy from white feminists given to professor Hugo Schwyer, specifically about his admission that he had been "awful" to black women feminists. Via Twitter:

Kendall says she created the hashtag to address the tenuous relationship between white feminists and feminist of color:

"It appeared that these feminists were, once again, dismissing women of color (WOC) in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women. For it to be at the expense of people who were doing the same work was exceptionally aggravating."

The conversation was enlightening. But there's evidence to show that the success of the hashtag (which trended worldwide) did not necessarily lead to real-life opportunities to further Kendall’s work. In fact, when NOW-NYC held an event aimed at women of color, even using the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag despite the fact that Kendall was not in attendance. Kendall later told The Root that while she received a Twitter message from NOW it was not framed as a formal invite to be a panelist, and she was not made aware of the Google Hangout discussion that also referenced the hashtag.

Graduate student Suey Park created the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick in early December 2013, calling attention to Asian American women and the discussion of intersectionality within the feminist movement. According to, within a day of its inception 45,000 tweets had used the hashtag, and it trended for eight hours straight.

However, some feminists within the Asian American Pacific Islander community were initially wary of the effectiveness of hashtag activism. Jen from Reappropriate mentions that the popularity of the hashtag is also problematic in moving the discussion from online to meaningful activism in the real world:

"#NotYourAsianSidekick demonstrates that our ideas as Asian American feminists are out there, under the surface, waiting to be heard. But #NotYourAsianSidekick also proves that Twitter is the wrong place to have this conversation. 140 characters isn’t enough to express a lifetime of experiences — both oppressive and uplifting — and to be able to do it in a place where it can be heard and taken seriously."

Kai Ma from TIME Magazine also points out that while digital media is great for the younger generation to become aware, a lot of Asian American activism is not and will not ever be accessible online. She notes several social activists whose physical presence made a huge difference in making change:

"(Mari) Matsuda, who like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs, has a strong history of activism — actual picketing and taking to the streets — and her point was a good one. One of the reasons we are marginalized is because battles hard-fought by activists like Matsuda are undernourished."

And just like the backlash to criticism of Phil Robertson, there is also a backlash to online activism by feminists of color, which begs the question: Is hashtag activism actually working? Megan Murphy of Feminist Current has a valid concern that issues get generalized when condensed into 140 characters:

"I think it’s a place where intellectual laziness is encouraged, oversimplification is mandatory, posturing is de rigueur, and bullying is rewarded. I think it’s a place hateful people are drawn towards to gleefully spread their hate, mostly without repercussion. And more than half the time I feel as though I’m trapped in a shitty, American, movie-version of high school that looks more like a popularity contest than a movement to end oppression and violence against women."

Based on her ethnicity, I’m not sure Murphy has personal experience with the issues addressed by Kendall or Park. But I do believe she is correct that oversimplification based on the limited amount of characters is an issue and generalizations (not ALL white people are evil, by the way) are enough to turn potential allies off.

At age 23, Park has youth on her side, and she’s good at getting the younger, Internet-addicted generation, knowledgeable about important issues. But will they be proactive with this knowledge? Park recently teamed up with 18MillionRising, a group of Asian American political organizers who are taking care of Park’s speaking engagements, which may help promote her activism with real-life audiences.

Then again, even speaking to audiences and appearing on TV is not enough. While online activism is incredibly useful as a way to immediately communicate social issues to a global audience, it's still unclear if this conversation -- or any mediated conversation -- is the only tool necessary to spark change. Many people need to get their hands dirty in the "real world" (i.e public protests, sit-ins,boycotts) in order to further these online conversations. Will these tweets ever turn into something as substantial as a change to public policy?

And then there are the personal conversations. As someone who’s been watching the world of racial justice activism for a while, I know that talking about race in real life is stressful and can cause personal and professional fallout. One of the most well-known white anti-racist activists, Tim Wise, had a online meltdown this fall when online critics - who reportedly resent him as a much-sought-out public speaker -- went after him on his Facebook page:

"And this is what's funny...every second that fools troll my site, complaining about how I take up all the antiracist space so they can't be heard, is a moment they aren't setting up their own website, blog, or writing their own book…"


"...seriously, it's time for people to be told to step off...feel free to jump off the page trolls....or I can bounce you...and would love me, u will lose this beef..badly…"

Talking about race, even among our friends, is difficult. It’s hard to do online – but even harder in person. People of colour are using the Internet to exercise their rights to challenge racist behaviour, and I applaud that. But we still must also challenge systemic and institutional racism, as well as the alive-and-well racism within our interpersonal relationships, every time we see it.

Ultimately, it is not just the online activists, nor those of us who sit back and RT a hashtagged tweet, who will make the significant effort needed to spark real-life change. It is up to us also get out behind our computers, create or attend meetings in affected communities, or start our own grassroots organizations.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

My Book: What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal

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