Research Essay (Hashtag Activism)

Hashtag Activism: Counter-public Acquisition of Agency Via Online and Digital Tools

Kylie Wojciechowski

Saginaw Valley State University

Hashtags became known as hashtags — rather than pound symbols or representatives of the word “number” — in 2007 when Carnegie Mellon University alum Chris Messina suggested such on Twitter: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” (“#OriginStory,” n.d.). In the time that’s passed, The New York Times has since dubbed the hashtag “the typographical symbol with ambitions” (Turner, 2012, n.p.). Turner, the author of “#InPraiseOfTheHashtag,” has traced the hashtag from its days as purely functional – as a tool to categorize conversations – as described by Messina to present day: when the use of hashtags has exploded exponentially in terms of both instances of use and purposes of use. Hashtags are now supported across social media platforms, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram, and from Google+ to Tumblr to Pinterest, though the degree to which they are supported varies (Hiscott, 2013).

They now serve purposes beyond organizing conversations; they encompass, as Wikström (2014) argues, a variety of other communicative functions, like structuring information, playing games, and engaging in reflexive meta-commentary, to name a few. What this undergraduate course research endeavor will focus on, though, is the extent to which hashtags allow social media users to serve as advocates for civic and political causes. Put another way, this research is concerned with what hashtag activism is, how it takes place, and whether it is an effective activism strategy. Initial findings suggest that hashtag activism is an effective activism strategy if and only if the understanding of what actually constitutes civic and political engagement is modified to encompass a multifaceted view of the sociological specialized online public (and counter-public) sphere. Additionally, this research briefly explores how counter-publics (as subordinate to and dominated by publics) can acquire and enact agency via online and digital tools.

Hashtag Activism as a Concept

Hashtag activism was first described as such by Guardian journalist Eric Augenbraun (2011) in his critical analysis of the #OccupyWallStreet protests, which formed in response to alleged rampant corporate greed and influence on government actions. While Augenbraun initially expected the protests to fizzle out after a few days, he argued that, at the time of his writing, nearly two weeks after the protests had begun, the movement wouldn’t likely achieve any measurable political change. His premise for arguing such laid in the movement’s relative lack of clearly defined goals and leadership structure or constituencies, which he then attributed to the movement’s basis in and reliance on technology, i.e., its nature as a form of hashtag activism:

The advent of “hashtag activism” has been greeted with breathless claims about the birth of a new form of technology-based social movement. While such technologies can be extremely useful tools, they do not represent alternatives to the exhausting, age-old work of meeting people where they are, hearing their concerns, reaching common ground, building trust and convincing them that it is in their interests to act politically to change their circumstances. There are no shortcuts here; or to put it another way, it’s not the protests that matter, but what happens in the time in between. (n.p.)

Before Augenbraun’s use of the term, however, other terms, like “slacktivism” and “clicktivism” were used. As Lauri Goodling described, slacktivism was and is a “pejorative neologism used to describe actions taken by an individual through digital channels as opposed to in person in order to affect change” (2014, n.p.). These actions could include liking, sharing, and signing e-petitions; joining an online community without participating in its efforts; changing your avatar to a cause’s logo for a set period of time; and so on. A synonym for slacktivism is clicktivism, due to the act of clicking that’s necessary to advance such social causes (or the technology-based nature of the advancement of such causes).

Despite this criticism, many people engage in some form of technology-based social movement already. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012 (Rainie, Smith, Lehman-Schlozman, Brady, & Verba) analyzed the extent to which American adults engaged in political or civic discourse through social media platforms. Of the 60% of American adults who use social media platforms, 66% of those users – or 38% of all American adults – have engaged in at least one of eight civic or political activities via social media: “liking” or promoting material related to political or social issues that others have posted, encouraging others to vote, posting their own thoughts or comments on political and social issues, reposting content related to political or social issues that was originally posted by someone else, encouraging others to take action on a political or social issue, posting links to political stories or articles for others to read, joining a group that is involved in political or social issues or working to advance a cause, or following elected officials and candidates for office.

Many of these civically and politically engaged American adults, at least those who post their own thoughts or comments on political and social issues or repost content related to political or social issues that was originally posted by someone else, likely have used or use some of the most popular socially or politically relevant hashtags in their discourses. Caitlyn Dewey, a journalist for The Washington Post, compiled what was in 2014 allegedly the “complete, divisive history of ‘hashtag activism’” (n.p.). Dewey drew comparisons between slacktivism and clicktivism and hashtag activism, which is allegedly just the “latest iteration of a long-standing debate between people who think awareness is its own kind of protest … and people who, for various reasons, do not” (n.p.). She highlighted the following movements as integral to the history of hashtag activism: #StandwithPP, #Kony2012, #JusticeforTrayvon, and #BringBackOurGirls.

Toward the end of 2015, Twitter (“Most Influential”, 2015) compiled a few moments (and their complementary hashtags) that had the biggest impact across the world that year: #PrayForParis, #JeSuisCharlie, #BlackLivesMatter, #HomeToVote, #LoveWins, #RefugeesWelcome, #IStandWithAhmed, #FIFAWWC, #PlutoFlyby, and #BlueandBlack / #WhiteandGold.

Hashtag Activism as Ineffective: “Half-Assed Retweet Activists”

An informal, non-scholarly poll I conducted on Twitter (Fig. 1) shows a split right down the middle in terms of whether 42 of my 368 followers believe hashtag activism is effective.

Fig 1. Informal poll of Twitter followers from Dec. 5-6, 2016, on the topic of whether hashtag activism is an effective form of advocacy for civic and political movements.

Many people, scholars or otherwise, Augenbraun and 21 of my Twitter followers included, are of the mind that any form of hashtag activism (rather, of technology-based social movement) cannot be successful in its aims because, with the tools it makes use of, it is allegedly unable to really meet people where they are.

A semi-popular YouTube channel, Blimey Cow, posted a video in 2014, titled “Why I Hate Hashtag Activism” that begins to explain this view. In it, a host describes his conception of hashtag activism: “It’s this thing where some injustice in the world is given a catchy hashtag, and people get it trending online.” The host then says to another actor, “Hey, I noticed something really messed up in the world this week, and you know what I did? I started a hashtag to raise awareness. I really hope that we can get it trending.” The other actor says, “Cool. What are we doing to do once we raise awareness?” He replies, “Oh, I don’t know, celebrate? I’m thinking pizza.” The host later concedes that awareness of social issues is necessary:

You can’t do something about something that you don’t know about. But that’s the thing: I don’t see anyone actually doing anything! They stop at awareness. I mean, if I’m just aware of every single problem in the world, and I’m not doing anything about anything, all we’ve done is create a new problem. (n.p.)

He then asks, “What is the goal of raising awareness? Really, what is the point?” Another actor replies, “Um, I’m trying to raise awareness so that other people can take care of problems that I can’t take of myself.”

Sean Hannity shared similar sentiments in 2014 on Greta Van Susteren‘s show on the Fox News Channel. Though the pair was meant to discuss the controversial topic of atheist military chaplains, the conversation kept going back to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, formed in response to the April 14, 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 school girls from the Chibok Government Secondary School by Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria. Awareness of the issue grew exponentially after First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted an image of herself holding a piece of paper with “#BringBackOurGirls” on it. It’s been retweeted nearly 80,000 times and liked by more than 100,000 Twitter users (FLOTUS, 2014). Hannity expressed frustration with this technology-based social movement, with this form of hashtag activism: “Terrorists don’t read Twitter!” he exclaimed (LSUDVM, 2014).

Ann Marie Lipinski was also critical of #BringBackOurGirls, but for a different (perhaps more logical) reason. She didn’t believe that the movement was meant to communicate a message to Boko Haram terrorists as Hannity did, but she spoke with Ameto Akpe, a Nieman Fellow and Nigerian journalist at a “Bring Back Our Girls” rally organized by a Harvard graduate student in 2014. At the event, Lipinki spoke with Akpe, and she described how the “overly-simplified story” of Nigeria and the kidnapped girls “seem[ed] to suit a Western audience” (2014, n.p.) Lipinski explains how the emotional pull of the story was “undeniable” and “understandably appealed to distant observers aching to respond with rallies, donations, and tweets” (n.p.). Akpe, however, waves this off: “’We don’t need an emotional response,’ she said. ‘We need an intelligent response’” (n.p.).

From a different perspective but to the same end, Shonda Rhimes, known most for her roles as creator, head writer, and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, delivered the 2014 commencement address at Dartmouth College. Amongst a slew of other advice to the soon-to-be college graduates, Rhimes suggests they volunteer or “focus on something outside [themselves and] devote a slice of [their] energies toward making the world suck less every week” (n.p.). They should do these things, Rhimes said, instead of using hashtags (or instead of engaging in hashtag activism):

A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething Hashtags are very pretty on twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. 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 into your computer and then going back to binge watching your favorite show. (n.p.)

After the Orlando nightclub shooting in June 2016, Trevor Noah, a South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, summed up the United States’ seemingly complacent response to rampant gun violence quite simply: “We’re shocked, we mourn, we change our profile pics, and then we move on” (Claymore, 2016).

New York Times reporter David Carr adds another dimension to the argument that hashtag activism can’t be effective; he discusses ‘favoriting fatigue,” wherein the digital causes of the day, week, month, year all start to blend together: “Another week, another hashtag, and with it, a question about what is actually being accomplished” (2012, n.p.).

Blogger Sam Biddle concedes that social media has proven useful in situations like the Egyptian revolution or Occupy Wall Street movement but acknowledges that people using Twitter and Facebook to organize impromptu rallies or other events represent a small portion of users. “The rest of us,” he argues, “are fakers – half-assed retweet activists, who ‘support’ Iranian dissent or ‘raise awareness’ about homophobia with the same zeal that we click Like on a video of two cute cats playing with an alligator” (2012, n.p.).

Hashtag Activism as Effective

Many other people, also scholars or not, including another 21 of my Twitter followers, will argue otherwise—that hashtag activism (or technology-based social movements) can be and are effective. As indicated by the Pew Research Center’s 2012 work about social media engagement in their political and civic lives, almost 40% of all American adults have used a social media platform to share or learn about a political or social issue. Citing Robert Putnam’s work, Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark (2016) argue that there exists a decades-long decline in traditionally defined youth civic engagement (i.e., that which requires interaction with established civic and political institutions, like governments):

Recent scholarship in this area has observed that 21st-century youth may march to the beat of a different civic drum than earlier generations, preferring individually-motivated, digitally-enabled, cause-based activism to the more top- down, institution-centered, adult-directed civic styles of yesteryear. (8)

From the perspective of 169 representatives from 53 national advocacy groups in the United States, as researched by Obar, Zube, and Lampe (2011), social media can facilitate civic engagement and collective action in four tangible ways: strengthening outreach efforts, enabling engaging feedback loops, increasing the speed of communication, and being cost-effective.

Laura Goodling, a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Georgia State University, calls for “MOAR Digital Activism, Please” (2014) in her acknowledgement that the Internet and mobile technologies are changing the face of activism, as Putnam and thus Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark (2016) argued, creating the necessity for a modified understanding of engagement.

Even Carr (2012) has come around, too, to this notion of a modified understanding of political and social engagement. He highlighted a successful online petition started by a teenager to change the rating of the film “Bully,” which is about child-on-child harassment and violence, from an R to a PG-13 so that those most affected by the issue could actually see the movie. He noted that this softened his own cynicism about Web activism: “Sure, hashtags come and go, and the so-called weak ties of digital movements are no match for real world engagement. But they are not only better than nothing, they probably make the world, the one beyond the keyboard, a better place” (n.p.).

This modified understanding of what actually constitutes civic and political engagement is something the arguments against the usefulness of hashtag activism fail to acknowledge or understand. These arguments ignore the true goal or goals of, then, this modified form of activism. Blimey Cow’s YouTube rant comes close, poking fun at an answer to the question of what the true goal of activism is as “Um, I’m trying to raise awareness so that other people can take care of problems that I can’t take of myself.” The sarcastic delivery of this line makes it clear that this is an answer deemed weak, unsuitable by the script writers.

But this is exactly one of the main goals of activism; it has to be one of the main goals of this modified understanding of political and social activism. Not every person can donate money to or volunteer with organizations focused on boots-on-the-ground (BoTG) activism, organize rallies, write letters to or call their local government representatives – and even if they could, they all shouldn’t necessarily advocate for the same cause in the same way. As Carr noted, there are new social and civic causes fighting for our attention day in and day out, to the point where it’s easy to get them confused with one another and become fatigued. For people with finite amounts of time and money (i.e., everyone), how do they pick and choose which causes to promote? Easy – They engage in each cause as they can. They may, for example, donate monthly to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity on the weekends, tweet relevant articles with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter or #BringBackOurGirls, and change their Facebook profile image to the Human Rights Campaign Marriage Equality logo.

Stephanie Vie suggests, in her article “In Defense of ‘Slacktivism’: The Human Rights Campaign Facebook Logo as Digital Activism,” that “even small moves of support, such as changing one’s Facebook status to a memetic image, assist by demonstrating a supportive environment for those who identify with marginalized groups and by drawing awareness to important causes” (2014, n.p.). Each action taken meant to further a particular civic or political cause has an effect, so it’s erroneous to chalk some efforts up as ineffective. The effect may be relative in scope to the amount of effort exerted, but, as described below according to a multifaceted approach to understanding the sociological specialized online public (and counter-public) sphere, successful civic and political movements are comprised of efforts of varied sizes.

Illustration: #BlackLivesMatter

Researchers at the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University’s School of Communication, Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark, examined in February 2016 how online media and other digital tools have contributed to the goals of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. They did so via analysis of three types of data: 40.8 million tweets, more than 100,000 web links, and 40 interviews with BLM activists and allies. While the scope of such analysis is beyond the scope of what this particular research endeavor could hope to accomplish within the confines of an academic semester, their conclusions are relevant and valid: BLM and other related movements (those generally standing for anti-brutality) have been able to successfully leverage online tools – including hashtags – to facilitate social and political change as they define it.

This change was facilitated in a few separate ways. First, it’s important to note that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was first used in July 2013 but rarely used until the summer of 2014, only truly signifying a meaningful part of the movement until the months following the initial Ferguson protests that began after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9. The researchers determined that, when the hashtag was being used frequently, social media posts by activists were essential in spreading Brown’s story to communities outside of Missouri; in this way, protestors and their supporters were able to circulate their own narratives (particularly on Twitter) without having to rely on mainstream news outlets. Their goals in social media usage were education, amplification of marginalized voices, and structural police reform.

How Hashtag Activism is Effective

Hashtag activism is effective to an extent, as it accomplishes the goals of modified engagement, because it creates multifaceted counter-publics, which are absolutely essential for accomplishing any social or political goal. I will describe here what I mean by (publics and) counter-publics, specialized online (counter-)publics, and how those concepts relate to hashtag activism; then I’ll explore how their multifaceted nature contributes to their digital and online efficacy.


As the concept of publics sets the stage for the concept of counter-publics, publics will be discussed first. From a sociological and rhetorical perspective, publics, originally described by prominent scholar Jürgen Habermas in the 18th century, “have become an essential fact of the social landscape” (Warner, 2002, p. 49). Publics – and the public sphere in which they exist – are difficult to define, but their definition should be based on the fact that they come into being in relation to texts – defined broadly here – and their circulation. As Warner has, publics will be described according to six aspects of their existence.

  1. Publics are self-organized (i.e., organized by “nothing other than discourse itself” (p. 50). Space and physical presence, personal identity and the factors that comprise it, or common interest are not used to determine whether one belongs to a public because a public is understood to be different from “a crowd, an audience, or any other group that requires co-presence” (p. 53). Warner argues that “merely paying attention [to the ongoing discourse] can be enough to make you a member” (p. 53) of a particular public.
  2. A public is also described by its status as a relation among strangers; in fact, “strangerhood is the necessary medium of commonly in a public” (p. 57). A public, Warner posits, does not make sense or exist in a situation where everyone could be known personally, where there were no strangers.
  3. The address of a public is both personal and impersonal. Then, public speech must be perceived in two ways: as addressed to us and also as addressed to strangers. As Warner put it, “We know that it was addressed not exactly to us, but to the stranger we were until the moment we happened to be addressed by it” (p. 57).
  4. A public is constituted through mere attention. While most groups (social classes, identities, etc.) encompass their members all the time (i.e., you’re always an American until you live in another country; you’re an American no matter your mental state or sobriety level, to use examples provided by Warner), a public does not function like this. A public is not a voluntary association, but it is a virtual entity (p. 61); the existence of this entity is contingent on its members’ attention and activity, no matter if that attention or activity is notional or comprised. This means that “attention is the principal sorting category by which member and non-members are discriminated” (p. 61).
  5. A public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse. Public communication is often contingent on dyadic speaker-hearer or author-reader relationships. Because no single text, voice, genre, or medium can create a public, all are insufficient to create the reflexivity, or concatenation, of texts, necessary to form a public as an ongoing space of encounter for discourse. This means, at its core, there must be exchanges of and responses to texts for a public to exist. So, a public is not sustained by one-way, transactional attention paid to just a single text or medium, but by a “multigeneric lifeworld … organized by potentially infinite axes of citation and characterization” (p. 63).
  6. Warner then argues that a “public can only act within the temporality of the circulation that gives it existence” (p. 68). Put another way, the speed with which a public is created in response to a text or speech and the length of time that public remains in existence (i.e., the length of time that individuals sustain the public through their attention paid to the text or speech) affect how close a public “stands to politics” (p. 68). What this means is that the more quickly a public is created in response to X, the more quickly members of that public can form responses and opinions about X and engage in behavior that reflects those views.

Warner then discusses the life of a public, which is “ongoing” (p. 68). Texts aren’t disseminated or published to be immediately archived; if they were, they may have never actually had a true public. To have a public, texts must continue to be circulated through time and, Warner says, “this can be confirmed only through an intertextual environment of citation and implication [that] all publics are intertextual, even intergeneric” (p. 68).

Warner add nuances to the ongoing feature of the life of a public by stating that the Internet and new media sources are “profoundly changing the public sphere through changes implied in temporality … [which is becoming] increasingly organized as continuous rather than punctual” (pp. 68-9, emphasis added).


It’s important to note that publics can acquire and thus possess agency. Warner argues that “is also sometimes possible to attribute agency to the virtual corporate entity created by the space of circulation as a whole” (p. 88). Publics can, he says, do all these things:

They are said to rise up, to speak, to reject false promises, to demand answers, to change sovereigns, to support troops, to give mandates for change, to be satisfied, to scrutinize public conduct, to take role models, to deride counterfeits. (p. 88).

With this agency, publics are privileged, “by definition those that can take their discourse pragmatics and their lifeworlds for granted” (p. 88), those that are normalized.

Counter-publics, then, are a form of publics, but ones that cannot conventionally acquire and possess agency, so they “mark themselves off unmistakably from any general or dominant public. Their members are understood to be not merely a subset of the public, but constituted through a conflictual relation to the dominant public” (pp. 84-5, emphasis added). Most social movements, those commonly supported by hashtag activism at the least, are forms of counter-publics. Take, for example, the case of #BlackLivesMatter: a counter-public formed in response to the dominant narrative of the ‘indisputable’ authority of law enforcement in the United States.

If a public is a dominating group, a counter-public is dominated group, one that “finds itself in conflict not only with the dominant social group, but also with the norms that constitute the dominant culture as a public” (p. 80). Nancy Fraser (as cited in Warner, p. 85) noted that “[counter-publics are] parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.” From this, Warner wonders how counter-publics can possibly imagine their agency.

As exemplified by how the BLM movement leveraged their status on social media, counter-publics can imagine their agency via digital tools, and Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark (2016) support this view: “Social media … uniquely benefits oppressed populations … [and] level[s] a media playing field dominated by pro-corporate, pro- government, and (in the United States) anti-Black ideologies” (p. 8). #BlackLivesMatter is a prime example of this: how a counter-public can acquire and thus possess agency.By taking advantage of unconventional avenues, like digital tools such as social media and sites, representatives of these counter-publics can make their voices heard.

Specialized Online Publics

Additionally, by virtue of existing online, these counter-publics are more specifically what Kowalewski (2013) calls specialized online (counter-)publics. They

  1. Exist in digital spaces
  2. Rely on mutual interests among individuals and are driven by the circulation of texts and discourses around those shared interests
  3. Are inclusive of vernacular discourse and exist in relation to other discourses as part of a larger ecology.

Multifaceted Features (Peripheral and Core Participants)

It’s clear to see how specialized online counter-publics can take advantage of digital and online tools to acquire a sense of agency in spreading their mission. But how can they most effectively do this? It’s important to remember that the larger the counter- public (or public), the larger the awareness of the goal and the larger the possibility for expanding that counter-public (or public) even further. If publics and counter-publics are comprised of a number of people paying attention to one discourse at a particular time, it’s essential to break them into constituent parts: their committed minority and their peripheral majority. The “committed minorities [that] … constitute the heart of protest movements” (Barberá, Wang, Bonneau, Jost, Nagler, Tucker, & González-Bailón, 2015, n.p.), really, those are engage in BoTG efforts, must be supported by peripheral participants to maximize the number of citizens exposed to the movement’s messages. Their aggregate contribution to the spread of a movement’s goals and other messages is “comparable in magnitude” (n.p.) to that of the core minority of participants.

This critical periphery is most successful when it uses standardized hashtags because these “structure the chaos of online conversation (i.e., they form specialized online (counter-)publics) around semantically loaded phrases” (McVey & Woods, 2016, p. 1); technological affordances (i.e., grouped hyperlinks) allow the texts (Tweets) to be rapidly circulated amongst strangers, forming “durable yet temporally delimited discursive connections” (2016, p. 1). Thus, by expanding the size and demographics of the audience of messages sent by the committed minority with standardized hashtags, the peripheral participants can amplify the core voices and actions, and thus provide a way for larger numbers of online citizens to be exposed to news and information about the counter-public’s goals and actions, even (or especially) in the absence of mass media coverage.


Twitter users began humbly using hashtags nearly 10 years ago; now, their use has exploded exponentially in terms of both instances of use and purposes of use. Most notably, they are useful ways to spread information about civic and political movements to a large number of people who may otherwise be uninformed. This spreading of information is made possible by the hyperlinked grouping feature of hashtags that allows for multi-faceted specialized online counter-publics to form; their multifaceted nature allows the peripheral participants to better support the actions of the core minority of participants engaged in BoTG efforts; thus, this form of activism (hashtag activism) is effective in that it equips counter-publics with this ability to acquire and enact agency against domineering publics.


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