#OscarsSoWhite. #MeToo. #TimesUp.
Anyone who has an Instagram, Twitter or Facebook account should recognize these hashtags and the movements they represent. In recent years, as the smartphone has risen in popularity, so has social media activism. And as angry, politically-charged posts continue to flood our timelines, one may ask the question: Do hashtags work?
The television producer — and political activist in her own right — Shonda Rhimes says no. At Dartmouth College’s 2014 commencement, Rhimes ended her speech with the comment “Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show.” In a sense, Rhimes is correct.
A simple hashtag on social media will not change the world. It will not change preconceived notions of racism, nor will it change the misogynistic attitudes that form the foundation of our nation’s rape culture. If people want to create tangible change — particularly in the realm of public policy — they cannot demand it from their couches. That much is true.
But, of course, that all depends on the goals of the movement. For instance, if people actually wanted to change gun control legislation, perhaps they should utilize more resources than the apps on their phone. But in the case of #MeToo, the objective of the campaign is to simply raise awareness of sexual assault cases and create some solidarity among victims. But the campaign far exceeded expectations: Acting as a story-advancing mechanism, it kept the subject of sexual assault relevant in public discourse, encouraging more women to share their stories and allowing more journalists to uncover the truth about once-respected public figures.
Furthermore, the advent of social media activism dramatically increases opportunities for people to make their voices heard. It is logical to assume that a political bystander may not participate in a protest after watching one broadcast on the evening news. But if people see their friends sharing content, they may be more likely to click on the retweeted article and share it themselves. Perhaps after reading the content on their timelines, they decide to further research the issue and maybe even find some way to become politically engaged. Not the most likely case, but at least they’ll be more educated on the issue.
At USC, the most recent social media demonstration against administration concerned the removal of the Director of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, Christina Yokoyama. And although there was no viral hashtag to dramatically take down University officials, the simple act of sharing of an article on Facebook could make students more aware of an important change to their school’s administration.
Maybe that’s all we need sometimes. In its entirety, the concept of social media activism is what people make of it. Sometimes a particularly viral issue can influence change, and sometimes a hashtag can act as a simple supplement to the fight against a larger political issue. In the end, sharing content or using a hashtag cannot cause any harm to political progress. But to truly become a political activist, to truly create a movement, one’s best bet is to get off the couch and actually move.