Introduction to Digital Communications
Social media & social change: The power of hashtags
With the growth of social media platforms and their subsequent audiences, it is now easier than ever to use the internet to learn the daily news. Whether it’s through a friend sharing an article on Facebook, a celebrity’s Instagram post paying tribute to a city that has just experienced a terror attack on its people, or a Tweet being used as a rallying cry to voice a political opinion, the pieces of information consumed day to day on social media now have the potential to have a bigger impact on the audiences who see them than ever before. By using hashtags to add content to larger, platform-wide conversations, users can search to see content that is relevant to them and their interests, or use a hashtag to keep up with current events, as often users will live-tweet an event. Be it a protest or a popular television show, the release of a new album or a press conference, tweets and their subsequent hashtags have become one of the easiest ways to quickly find a range of information on any one specific topic.
Of course, online platforms other than Twitter do employ hashtags. Facebook uses hashtags as a search function, and Instagram relies heavily on the method, particularly for influencers who are trying to have a brand noticed. Twitter, however, was the first platform to popularize the hashtag and it continues to be the platform where their use is most normalized and user-friendly, with quickly found “trending topics” and the ability to click into a hashtag and immediately see the rest of the cultural discussion taking place. It is also important to note that when referring to this “cultural discussion” that occurs on Twitter via hashtags, specifically surrounding current events, there is a hierarchizing of voices. First, those with larger audiences are more likely to receive a greater number of likes and retweets, sending their message out to larger audiences still. This makes it more difficult for those with smaller audiences to be noticed as quickly, or to have their content picked up and shared. Secondly, it is important to note that the conversation which happens on a social media platform like Twitter, while culturally relevant and important to take notice of, is not always the most diverse conversation. While Twitter is technically open to anyone to make a profile and make use of, it is important to remember that like any platform, its users are those of a certain socioeconomic position – those with access to technology, those who can afford not only a computer or cell phone but a monthly internet bill, or at the very least, those with a piece of technology and access to free Wi-Fi in order to participate in the conversation. This means that often, those of lower economic classes and from parts of the world that are not as technology-dependent as the Western world are left out of the conversation.
While hashtags can be used on a multitude of social media platforms, for the purposes of this paper I will be focusing on the use of hashtags on Twitter. Due to spatial constraints, I believe it to be important to focus the discussion to one area. Beyond this, Twitter was the first platform to popularize the use of hashtags, and it seems to be the one where they are most often used to garner attention to a particular cause, or to encourage and incite social change. Twitter also is, especially in our current sociopolitical climate, a platform wherein politics are largely at the forefront of the conversation, and as such, there is much to be found within political hashtags in terms of study. I am particularly interested in the use of hashtags on Twitter in recent weeks and months surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump, and the way that the internet, especially Twitter, attempts to rally together to make their voices heard. It is important to acknowledge however, that through my own political viewpoints, I am more likely to see content which matches my own interest – that is, I would be more likely to follow users who are against many of the actions of the current president than I would be to follow content that praises Trump for his actions and decisions.
As voiced by Glenn (2015), “[t]he influence of social media and technological developments has changed how groups and organizations advocating for social change generate awareness and participation in their causes” (81). Twitter can have a huge pull in terms of messages reaching audiences that they otherwise never might. Valesquez and Larose (2015) go so far as to say that “while social media have become the form of participation of a new citizenry, it also seems to be the preferred means in which youth currently engage in politics in America, and organize different types of individual and collective actions around the world” (900). This is especially evident when monitoring the ways in which youth in America have been engaging in the politics of Donald Trump.
Recently, #TrumpResign has surfaced on Twitter. Within the hashtag there are numerous calls to action which demand a resignation of the current president, claiming that he is unfit for office. Whether or not you share in this belief, it does well to acknowledge the importance of a collective group of people (those who do not condone Trump’s presidency) to come together over a common interest and use a platform such as Twitter to amplify their cries to a level which could not necessarily be otherwise obtained. #TrumpResign is not the only hashtag of note in the current political climate. #Charlottesville is still being widely used to share news of the Virginia rallies, and #PhoenixRally was used to share information to marchers and observers alike during the Trump protests outside his Arizona campaign rally in late August 2017. Whether it was to share information about what was happening on the ground for those who could not be there in person, or sharing safety tips for the marchers who may have feared encountering alt-right groups in their path, #PhoenixRally was another example of the ways in which hashtags can be used for political purposes. “Digital communication facilitates much easier informal communication between a movement and unaffiliated but sympathetic individuals, as well as decentralized communication between and among those individuals. Thus, the Internet provides not only a bridge from a movement to the public but also… empower[s] and expand[s] a network of… ties” (Veenstra et. al, 2015, 91).
Hashtags, particularly on Twitter, open and expand conversations surrounding politics and the current political activity in America. At such a tumultuous political time with a country divided both by their president as well as in their support of him it is particularly important to pay attention to the conversations happening on every sphere, rather than simply via traditional media… and with a president who seems to be fond of Twitter and hashtags himself, there has never been a better time to be paying close attention to the platform and its participants. Twitter allows users to engage in new ways, to have their voices be heard by larger audiences, and for collectives of people to band together and have their rallying cries be heard around the world in order to achieve, or attempt to achieve, a common goal. As for #TrumpResign, the verdict is still out on its success in achieving its goal – but it has certainly brought people together to voice their shared concerns and find solace within a community.
Glenn, C. L. (2015). Activism or “slacktivism?”: Digital media and organizing for social change. Communication Teacher, 29(2), 81-85. doi:10.1080/17404622.2014.1003310
Veenstra, A. S., Iyer, N., Xie, W., Lyons, B. A., Park, C. S., & Feng, Y. (2015). Come together, right now: Retweeting in the social model of protest mobilization. In N. Rambukkana (Ed.), Hashtag Publics (pp. 89-100). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.