Hashtag Activism: Good or Bad for Civic Engagement?

Social media has become a significant part of our daily lives and majority of us honestly can’t live without it. People, including myself, wake up every morning scrolling through social media accounts liking pictures, commenting, tweeting, etc. We get so caught up in likes, shares, and retweets, that we don’t even realize how much social media has been shaping our society. It has even begun to have an influence on civic engagement. Being a media centered society has led to the general public being more informed about social issues and even politics because of the constant news feeds and opinions being accessed by millions of Americans.  We also have methods of interpersonal communication that can easily connect many people who are not in the same physical space, or even people who do not know each other at all (Tufekci, 2017). 

Social media platforms have had a huge impact on civic engagement. If you think about it, there are roughly 2 billion people on Facebook and users spend an average of an hour a day on the site. Close to 80 percent of Americans use sites, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to get their daily news. These statistics gives a small glimpse at exactly how much of an impact social media platforms are having on civic engagement. 

A recent study from the Pew Research Center shows that “more than half of All Americans have engaged in at least one political or social-minded activity on social media in the past year” (Anderson, Rainie, Smith, & Toor, 2018). This includes people looking up general information on protests, using hashtags, and even encouraging others to take action. The study also showed that 8/10 African Americans valued social media platforms for bringing light to issues that aren’t usually discussed. Black and Hispanic social media users are more likely than whites to say that social sites help them find politically like-minded people, get involved with issues that are important to them and express their political views (Anderson, Rainie, Smith, & Toor, 2018).

Social media has given protesters an amplified voice and a much bigger space to inform people on social issues and bring about changes. According to Pew Research Center, about 2/3 of Americans agree, but a larger portion believe social media distracts people from more important issues (Anderson, Rainie, Smith, & Toor, 2018). More importantly, these platforms have also given a voice to diverse and minority viewpoints that had previously been overlooked.

A prime example of this is the continuous presence of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter. #BlackLivesMatter is searched an average of 17,000 times a day. The Pew Research Center study also points out the hashtag’s presence continued to spike following the publicized killings of African Americans by law enforcement. 

For those who don’t know, #BlackLivesMatter began in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The movement was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The entire movement, however, expanded into several smaller groups around the country. For a number of #BlackLivesMatter, or BLM, groups, social media was referenced as a tool for building direct, personal ties within the community of BLM activists (Burnett, Mundt, & Ross, 2018).#BlackLivesMatter became a way for not only people of color, but everyone to voice their frustrations with the lack of justice served after the Trayvon Martin case.  As Parker stated in her article, #BlackLivesMatter movement used social media for fostering black solidarity, not changing white people’s minds (Parker, 2017). It wasn’t until late 2014 that the movement really gained its prominence, following the death of Michael Brown in August.

  • On Dec. 4, 2014, the day after a New York grand jury decided not to indict police officers in the death of Eric Garner, #BlackLivesMatter appeared 189,210 times – the most it was ever used in a single day (Anderson, Rainie, Smith, & Toor, 2018).
  • The Oct. 13, 2015, presidential campaign debate in which Senator Bernie Sanders defended the Black Lives Matter movement and decried institutional racism spurred the hashtag to appear more than 127,000 times on Twitter the following day as many users voiced support for Sanders (Anderson, Rainie, Smith, & Toor, 2018).
  • On the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death, August 9, 2015, the hashtag appeared 120,067 times as well as 98,518 times the following day (Anderson, Rainie, Smith, & Toor, 2018).

After the killing of Brown, attention really shifted to the injustices taking place and the #BlackLivesMatter movement was brought to the national spotlight. Protests and riots began in cities all over the country. Over the course of an 1,000-day study period, 38 percent of #BlackLivesMatter mentions were positive, compared with 11 percent negative (Chokshi, 2016). People really began to notice the movement and paid more attention to the killings of people of color and other social injustices that have been taking place for decades as well. 

Twitter was the first social media platform to really promote the use of the hashtag. The use of Twitter for activism, sometimes referred to as the “Twitter Revolution,” started in 2011 with the Arab Spring protests. Since the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter, other hashtags have also become prominent and have created a place for conversations about race, racism, and social justice Even those who were more naïve about the social injustices happening were able to witness what was happening and join the conversation by simply using the hashtag.

Hashtag activism has become a way to control the narrative of social issues and movements that have either been neglected or negatively represented by the media. It also gives people around the world a chance to participate in movement that might not necessarily take place near them. I’ve briefly spoken about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but other hashtags such as #MeToo and #BringOurGirlsBack, have emerged as well. Although I think social media has done a lot of good for civic engagement and activism, there are some people out there who aren’t as convinced as I am. 

Of course, online activism appears easy. I’m sure a good amount of people believe it’s as simple as sharing a video or using a hashtag. In reality, that’s not the case. In fact, digital activism requires hard work in order to be effective. Being consistent and staying relevant is a very difficult thing to do. No one wants their movement to be forgotten about. Digital activists have to work twice as hard to ensure their movement or cause in people’s minds when it’s no longer a trending topic on Twitter.

 The first downfall many skeptics refer to is the idea of Slacktivism. Slacktivism combines the words ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’ to create an epithet that suggests that online political actions that require relatively little time or commitment often act to supplant, rather than supplement, physical, ‘real world’ activism (Allsop, 2016).They believe online activism very rarely transfers offline. At other times, people assume that movements fueled by social media are organized by people with “weak ties” – people we do not know well – unlike protests of the past (Tufekci, 2017).

Echo chambers and filter bubbles are two things we absolutely need to stray away from as well. In a nutshell, echo chambers are online communities made by like-minded people in order to stay together and only be surrounded by those who agree with their ideas. Echo chambers can be somewhat dangerous and have even been associated with the rise in extremist groups under the Trump administration. “Nobody likes the idea of echo chambers. They amplify fake news. They serve as breeding grounds for terrorists and white supremacists” (Parker, 2017). 

Filter bubbles are described as algorithms that dictate what users encounter online. Many sites offer users the opportunity to control what information others see about them and also what the users want to see themselves. For example, when a site asks what genre of music or the type of news and entertainment you prefer, they’re essentially creating a filter bubble. When people use Facebook to see exactly what they want to see, their understanding of the world can be greatly affected(Sustein, 2017). Echo chambers and filter bubbles may not sound harmful, but they can severely distort our realities. Being involved in either one of these things can lead to the assumptions that everyone we encounter thinks like us, and no other perspectives exist. 

At the end of the day hashtag activism is a great thing that the advancement of technology and social media have given us. It’s definitely a great way to get involved in social issues, but it certainly shouldn’t be the only way we get involved in any social issue or movement. If we really want to see a change, we have to be that change. Digital movements are no match for real world engagement (Carr, 2012). Yes, sharing and retweeting things on places like Twitter and Facebook are a great way to get people engaged, but we still can’t forget the traditional ways of activism. 




Allsop, B. (2016). Social media and activism: A literature review. Social Psychological Review, 18(2), 35-40.

Anderson, M., Rainie, L., Smith, A., & Toor, S. (2018, July 11). Activism in the social media age. Retrieved from Pew Research Center Internet & Technology: http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/07/11/activism-in-the-social-media-age/

Burnett, C. M., Mundt, M., & Ross, K. (2018, October ). Scaling social movements throught social media: The case of black lives matter. Social Media + Society, 1-14.

Carr, D. (2012, March 25). Hashtag activism, and its limits. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/business/media/hashtag-activism-and-its-limits.html

Chokshi, N. (2016, August 22). How #BlackLivesMatter came to define a movement. Retrieved from The New York TImes: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/23/us/how-blacklivesmatter-came-to-define-a-movement.html

Parker, E. (2017, May 22). In praise of echo chambers. Retrieved from The Washington Post : https://www.washingtonpost.com

Sustein, C. (2017). The Daily Me.Princeton : Princeton University Press.

Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest.New Haven: Yale University Press.