It seems inevitable that with widespread social change comes the violent and bigoted pushback from those afraid of straying from the status quo. And in the age of the Internet, conflict comes with corresponding online movements. Plus hashtags.
This year alone, we saw a massive movement erupt around the shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers, from Los Angeles to Ferguson, Missouri. We saw several horrific mass shootings, including the misogynistic murder of college students in Santa Barbara, California. And we saw the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria.
Hashtags often emerge from tragedies, so this year’s fantastic crop of activist hashtags (hashtactivism?) isn’t necessarily good news. But in the middle of creating this article, something incredible rose out of yet another terrible incident. When a gunman in Sydney held 17 people hostage in a cafe, it ended in the deaths of two innocent people. Yet instead of the predictable reports of Islamophobic attacks on innocent Muslims, perhaps the most heartening hashtag of the year emerged.
People all over Australia are tweeting #IllRideWithYou. They’re offering themselves as personal guards and companions to Muslims who are now afraid to go out alone. They’re posting photos of themselves and wearing stickers with the hashtag so that Muslim people can identify friendly faces.
Slacktivism? I don’t think so. Here are the rest of the year’s best examples in hashtag-based awesomeness.
Because when a man smiles at me in public, I try to analyze intentions before smiling back or even nodding. #YesAllWomen— Release Kaye-raken! (@gildedspine) May 24, 2014
This hashtag unfortunately came about after 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six college students during a May 23 shooting rampage. Fueled by hatred for women and people of color, he had originally planned to target members of a University of California, Santa Barbara, sorority—women whom he blamed for his “involuntary virginity”—but ended up injuring 13 others before committing suicide.
In the tragedy’s aftermath, feminist women began critiquing misogyny’s violent impact on women and girls. Support was strong, but a number of men began to react defensively, co-opting the space to argue that “not all men” are misogynist murderers. What they thought this would do to advance the discussion, who knows, but it rightfully ruffled a few feathers. But then came #YesAllWomen, a hashtag started by an anonymous woman. It stopped the conversation from focusing on male exceptions and returned it to female struggles, which revealed that, although not all men are sexist, all women are affected by sexism.
In just a day, there were 1 million tweets on the subject. It was not only a powerful way for women to share their experiences, but it also enabled many men to finally understand that conversations about misogyny aren’t about bashing men, but about supporting women.
@FeministaJones soooooo many times i wished somebody, ANYBODY, had come to my aid while being harrassed on the street. IT MATTERS.— A Vibe Called Fresh (@JadedJaguar) June 7, 2014
Black feminist Feminista Jones launched this tag on July 10 to bring awareness to street harassment, but specifically the importance of bystander intervention—and how extremely rare it is. #YouOKSis encourages people to stand up to catcalling simply by reaching out to the victim. “If you just talk to the person who is the focus of the harassment, you’re placing yourself in that moment and giving that person an out,” says Jones.
An additional purpose for the hashtag is to show people how women of color experience street harassment, as discussions about the topic typically revolve around white women. However, women of color tend to suffer street harassment more frequently than white women, and it’s usually more violent and fatal.
Women not only use the hashtag to share their stories but also to exchange practical strategies for disrupting catcallers. Whenever a woman of color speaks out about yet another incident of street harassment, other women will send her messages of support and sympathy, embedded with the hashtag.
Many of the most popular hashtags were started because of tragedy, and this is no exception. After Boko Haram militants kidnapped hundreds of girls from a Nigerian boarding school on April 15, an international campaign was raised to pressure the Nigerian government to “Bring Back Our Girls.” In early May, nearly 500,000 tweets had been sent out with the tag. Its origins have been traced back to Nigerian lawyer Ibrahim Abdullahi, who first tweeted it on April 23.
The hashtag itself was so well-known and so inspiring that everyone from Michelle Obama to Malala Yousafzai participated in the campaign. Global attention and sympathy spurred the U.S. and other international governments to send aid to Nigeria in an effort to help with negotiations. Unfortunately, to this day 230 of the girls are still separated from their families. Sometimes a hashtag isn’t enough.
The way yall justify the killings of unarmed black men & women, I should be dead by your standards. #BlackLivesMatter— Kim Moore (@SoulRevision) December 8, 2014
If you don’t know this one, you might not be on the Internet at all. This hashtag has been emblazoned across signs held among the thousands of protesters who are calling for an end to police brutality and the killings of African-Americans in the U.S. After the last few years of seeing no justice for the unarmed black men who were shot and killed by either white police officers or local vigilantes, it’s hard to feel like black lives have any worth in the eyes of the U.S. justice system.
This tag was first started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi as a response to the trial (and eventual acquittal) of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. It saw a massive revival in 2014 with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And after a grand jury in New York cleared the officer who put Eric Garner in an illegal choke hold, eventually killing him, it was tweeted 13,000 times in the space of an hour.
Other hashtags have been created, including #ICantBreathe and #HandsUpDontShoot—but #BlackLivesMatter perhaps best addresses the larger problem of systemic racism and police brutality. Since the tag's latest iteration, Attorney General Eric Holder has declared that there will be a federal inquiry into the grand jury decision about Eric Garner.
The #GamerGate hashtag and the movement behind with it was certainly a big deal. However, the motivations behind the tag were, at best, convoluted. It began as an accusation against game developer Zoe Quinn, who was claimed to have traded sex for a positive review of her video game, but it grew into a fight over how gamers are portrayed by the media.
Veerender Jubbal, a Sikh gamer, started the opposing hashtag #StopGamerGate on October 14 to expose the misogyny, racism, and other prejudices held by many of #GamerGate’s followers. It was tweeted over 50,000 times in a single night.
Others used the hashtag to express their concerns and fears about the gamer community, which had been accused of attacking women who criticized the industry and its misogynistic, racist tropes. Women who have been targeted by #GamerGate—such as pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian and anti-GamerGate developer Brianna Wu—have had to flee their homes or cancel speaking events because of death threats they’ve received from male gamers who consider them to be “enemies” of the community.
Veerender himself suffered racist bullying from gamers on Twitter once he started the hashtag, which, unfortunately, proved his point. He’s now become somewhat of a Twitter celebrity, known for his unwavering politeness when responding to vile abuse: “Gosh.”
#StopGamerGate because I don't want to fear for my life if I attend a feminist seminar.— NefariousBanana (@NefariousBanana) October 15, 2014
#TweetLikeANeurotypical medication is harmful! just drink 8 glasses of water & go for a jog thats what I did when I got sad once! it worked!— Morgan (@holyumbrellas) December 12, 2014
Lesser-known hashtag #TweetLikeANeurotypical points out the mistreatment of people not “neurotypical,” people who don’t have mental illness or brain disorders. Like many of these hashtags, it’s typically used to share experiences, representing anyone whose brain doesn’t function the way our society seems to think it should.
Examples include venting about people who dismiss the common symptoms of mental illness; talking about how hard it is for family members to “deal with” autistic individuals; and misusing terms like “OCD” (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).
Though mental illness is extremely common—and developmental variations like those on the autism spectrum are becoming better understood—a massive amount of stigma still surrounds it. The very idea of “neurotypical” (and “neuro-atypical”) is unknown to most people. Hashtags like this are only beginning to raise awareness.
This hashtag was created on March 27 in response to a racist joke sent out by the official Colbert Report Twitter account on the same day. It was started by Asian-American writer Suey Park, who was also responsible for 2013’s #NotYourAsianSidekick, which called attention to both misogyny in Asian-American spaces and racism in mainstream feminism.
#CancelColbert created a huge stir as self-identified progressives found themselves confused by which side to choose, with many of them justifying the comedian’s tweet as a “joke” and crediting him as an ally to people of color. Thanks to the vast amount of Colbert fans out there, the tag was trending for days.
The incident started a wider conversation about the role of satire in activism and the trickiness of sarcasm when it’s used to defend, not deride, people. Unfortunately, many missed the fact that Park never actually wanted the Colbert Report to be cancelled. That resulted in a whole lot of people taking a simple hashtag too seriously while telling others that they were taking a joke tweet too seriously. It was a bit of a mess. On the bright side, neither Colbert nor his Twitter account appears to have made such a brazenly racist joke since.
Though widely ignored by U.S. media, a massive protest was staged by Hong Kong residents in September 2014 in response to the government’s decision to end civil nominations of candidates. Instead of letting the people freely vote, a committee would “elect” candidates before the public could vote on them.
Young people in Hong Kong responded with a massive, organized occupation of government buildings and key traffic areas. At its peak, more than 100,000 protesters flooded the streets to demand the restoration of their democratic process. Many of us in the U.S. would not have known about it had members of the revolution not spread the hashtag on Twitter, asking people to raise awareness by sharing it as much as possible. By September 29, it was big-time trending.
The term “Umbrella Revolution” is inspired by the umbrellas protesters used to shield themselves from police pepper spray and other chemicals. They started the hashtag along with #OccupyCentral, a civil disobedience campaign led by Hong Kong suffrage group Occupy Central with Love and Peace. On September 26, up to 100 protesters occupied the privatized Civic Square, climbing fences and breaking down gates to get in. Since then, thousands of young people have occupied areas of Hong Kong, despite mass arrests.
International awareness of these incidents skyrocketed thanks to the trending hashtags, and polls of Hong Kong residents showed that 59 percent supported the protesters. On October 23, the UN urged China to give in to the protesters’ demands by allowing free elections.
Although this hashtag has been revived recently as part of the movement against police brutality and the killing of black persons, it originated as a way to spread awareness of the high rates of disappearances and murders of indigenous women in Canada. First Nations have finally been getting some attention in their struggle for basic rights and protections from an indifferent and sometimes hostile Canadian government, and this hashtag has been a part of that.
The Twitter campaign launched on September 12, during which thousands of indigenous women—who make up only 4 percent of the Canadian population—tweeted their photos with the tag. As a result, Holly Jarrett, the woman who spearheaded the whole thing, gathered more than 300,000 signatures on a petition to the government asking for a public inquiry into the issue.
Like black youth in the U.S., indigenous Canadian women have to worry about having their lives cut short by brutal violence, which is often followed by a lack of interest from authorities and no justice. Their fight continues but without the support seen for other movements. However, more people are beginning to see that Canada is not the glorified land of polite liberalism that many thought it once was. The UN and organizations like Amnesty International continue to put pressure on the Canadian government to take meaningful action.
A large part of the problem with the narrative that takes place each time a black person is killed by police is how the mainstream media reacts. Almost every single time, you see news outlets reaching into the victim’s past and focusing on every so-called negative thing they ever did, whether it was being strong-willed as a young child or experimenting with marijuana. Even 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot by a white cop for playing with a toy gun, had his brief past analyzed by the media.
You can spot this trend in the photos mainstream media tend to use of the victims. Despite a variety of available images, including graduation and family photos, they always seem to find the one of the individual flipping off the camera. Activists have called this out as a victim blaming tactic—making victims appear to be deviants who deserve their tragic fate.
To call attention to this, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown started on August 10, one day after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. On Twitter, people of color started posting pairs of photos: one of the victim doing something “deviant,” like smoking a joint, and one that showed him with family and friends or celebrating an achievement. Hundreds of people of color participated, pairing photos of themselves in backwards baseball caps to those of themselves in graduation caps.
Each photoset reinforced the point that focusing on past misdeeds is dishonest and inaccurate, while also illustrating the disparity of coverage between black victims and white victims in mainstream media. Deeper research uncovered that white mass shooters are treated more fairly by news outlets than black individuals who are shot by white police officers.
I stayed because I was halfway across the country, isolated from my friends and family. And there was no one to help me. #WhyIStayed— Beverly Gooden (@bevtgooden) September 8, 2014
“Why would someone stay with an abusive partner?” is one of the most frequent questions asked when the topic of domestic violence is broached. The question can quickly turn into victim blaming. This narrative played out once again when, on September 8, celebrity news outlet TMZ released a video of NFL running back Ray Rice brutally attacking his then-fiance.
The #WhyIStayed hashtag was one of the most illuminating of the year. It was started by Beverly Gooden, a writer, black woman, and survivor of a violent marriage, who encouraged her followers to confront the victim blaming with their own stories. Thousands of domestic violence survivors of all genders used the tag to speak out. Meanwhile, those who never experienced domestic violence got the chance to hear why victims sometimes stay. Reasons ranged from believing that no one else would love them to fearing for their lives if they tried to leave.
For the first time, there was a trending method of explaining why leaving an abusive relationship is never easy. As a result, public figures like talk show host Meredith Vieira were inspired to share their own stories, which is a huge step toward ending the stigma that keeps so many victims silent.
Possibly the most hilarious tag of the year, #DudesGreetingDudes was a man’s response to the constant excuses and victim blaming surrounding street harassment. Journalist Elon James started the trend after a video of a woman getting catcalled for 10 hours went viral in late October. He posed a simple question: If men really think that catcalling is a harmless expression of flattery, then why don’t they do the same to one another?
He then called upon men to start the #DudesGreetingDudes movement bycomplimenting one another in public. What followed was hilarious.
"Listen, my boys and I watched you when you came out of the train. Your kicks is bangin' son. Can i give you my number?" #DudesGreetingDudes— Elon James White (@elonjames) November 2, 2014
"Damnnnn bruh you WEARING that Bluetooth" #DudesGreetingDudes— W.E.B.B.I.E DuBois (@fivefifths) November 5, 2014
As the hashtag trended, thousands of men chimed in to hilariously support women. Whether the tag actually helped to reduce street harassment is unclear, but one thing’s for sure—if any guy ever tries to tell you that catcalling is a compliment, you can now just direct them to #DudesGreetingDudes.
There’s been plenty of debate over whether “hashtag activism” is useful, or whether it’s just a way for lazy people to pretend they’re making some kind of difference. However, what’s not debatable is whether trending hashtags get the attention of mainstream media and, by extension, the general public. They do. Would awareness of the events in Canada, Hong Kong, and Ferguson, Missouri, have skyrocketed without Twitter? Would anyone besides a select few know what “neurotypical” meant if it weren’t for the Internet? Would anyone be able to pretend to care about ethics in video game journalism without #GamerGate?
If awareness is useful, then so are hashtags—as long as public interest remains to fuel them.