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Hashtag Activism: A Look Back On How Social Media Changed Protesting

Strength in numbers.

2018 will go down in the Annals as the year activism tolled loudly.

Trump experienced his second year as sitting leader of the free world, people started listening to David Attenborough about the flaming state of the nation and Commonwealth countries finally began to shake the colonial legacy of homophobia and white supremacy.

Marrying impassioned activism with convenient mobility is that of the hashtag, which has grown synonymous with international activism of late – given its on-the-pulse nature and instant researchability.  

The term “Hashtag activism” was coined by The Guardian in 2011 to describe the Occupy Wall Street protests and the corresponding hashtag campaign, #OccupyWallStreet. Since then, hundreds of hashtags have been created to build communities of activists eager to share information and raise their voices.

Social media in general and hashtags, in particular, get a lot of flak – often typecast as purely decorative and utterly frivolous. But a deep dive into the world of hashtag activism of late shows they can be more impactful than you’d expect.

In Ireland, we witnessed a groundswell of new activism in the tense and personal run-up to the Repeal the Eighth movement. 

In a study compiled by Twitter, the #repealthe8th hashtag was the top-shared hashtag by Irish people online by far, with other popular hashtags on the topic including #together4yes, #8thref, #savethe8th and #repealthe8th.

The #MeToo social media movement gained popularity some months before that, not long after sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein were brought to light. But the phrase itself was actually first created ten years ago by feminist activist Tarana Burke, with the intention of allowing other people to share personal stories of sexual harassment and assault in an effort to display the magnitude of the issue. 

In the past year, the hashtag continues to be used as shorthand for a cultural revolution in which women are raising their voices against sexual harassment and fighting for respect in the workplace.

February saw #NeverAgain trend, following the harrowing gun violence on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed. The students and associated hashtag campaign used the new link to fight for tighter gun control laws, and denounce U.S. lawmakers who received financial support from the NRA. 

This, in turn, led to the March for Our Lives rallies across the US and a full-fledged revolution to boot.

Thanks to the social media outcry, many major corporations have cut ties with the NRA; Florida Governor Rick Scott raised the minimum age for gun purchases to 21, created a three-day waiting period after purchases, and banned bump stocks; and advertisers have pulled funding from the Laura Ingraham Show after she was found taunting survivor David Hogg on Twitter.

The #BelieveWomen hashtag arose as a show of solidarity with survivors of sexual assault during the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing.

The hashtag itself is political in nature with aims to challenge society’s default scepticism and criticism of survivors who talk about their experiences. It also invokes a long history of women’s voices being sidelined, ignored, and dismissed, and calls for more empathy.

This featured alongside #TimesUp which dominated social media feeds from January onwards. “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it,” says, which is an online resource for victims of sexual harassment, allies and advocates.

The Times Up Legal Defense Fund also provides subsidised legal support for women seeking justice for sexual harassment in the workplace.

The issues that have dominated and will continue to do so in 2019 are spearheading off of terms past, with issues such as misogynoir and sex workers rights coming to the forefront.

#AbortionRights and #TheNorthIsNext continue to dominate Irish media with #MeToo still rallying people together internationally. The only differences being newfound social awareness and diversity. 

The strength in numbers that international hashtags like these bring raise awareness to those struggling through their own battles. The most recent edition is that of #YouKnowMe, spurred on by the strict legislation change regarding abortion laws in Alabama. 

The movement was popularised by actress and activist Busy Phillips who was keen to dispell stigma and promote conversation around abortions. 

“Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know a woman who would have an abortion,’” Phillips said last Tuesday on her late-night talk show, Busy Tonight. “Well, you know me.”

She has since been encouraging other women to use the hashtag when telling their own abortion stories. “Let’s share it,” Phillips tweeted. “And start to end the shame.”

While there will almost certainly always be people who feel uncomfortable about sharing intimate details of their medical history online (which is, obviously, absolutely alright as well) there is no doubt surrounding the power of communication when it comes to the international grasp of hashtag activism. 

Those lucky enough to join the conversation gain knowledge and comradery, and those who can't gain a far-flung set of staunch secret-keepers and noble watchdogs.

Contrary to popular opinion, sharing your story with the world doesn’t end at clicking “Tweet.”

Often, these women—like supporters of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo before them—knowingly open themselves up to online harassment at the moment when they’re most vulnerable.

On crowded social media platforms, revealing personal traumas is increasingly the only way to cut through all the chatter. And, potentially join the noise, too. 

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