The power of hashtags

The power of hashtags

There are still some sceptics who dismiss Twitter, arguing that it has a limited impact and that its popularity will soon be surpassed by the next “big thing”. However, Twitter’s relevance continues to grow, not only as a social platform but also as an information sharing tool. It has undeniably revolutionised the way we interact with and consume the news. A tweet can now have a far-reaching global impact, most notably through the use of hashtags. What was previously considered an almost unbridgeable gap between the general public and high-level policy makers has now been almost entirely closed by the online social networking service.

There are 230 million active users on Twitter and those users post an average of 500 million tweets every day. Twitter is used by people in nearly every country in the world and is available in more than 35 languages. The clout of the social media platform through its reach alone is a significant force to reckon with.

In recent years, a number of global developments have been affected by campaigns led on social media channels, particularly on Twitter. Some hashtags went viral in a matter of hours and had a very clear impact on the international news agenda, compelling politicians and high level officials to speak out about the issue.

Hashtag campaigns, or “hashtag activism” as some call it, is undeniably a new way of raising awareness of certain issues. The general public sees those hashtags as their way of leveraging their comparatively limited influence to urge those who do have influence to act and bring about change.

The media pays increasingly close attention to Facebook and Twitter to see which issues are the most discussed. In turn, politicians read newspapers and care about votes. If a course of action is deemed to be popular, it is very likely that they will want to be a part of it.

Hashtag activism can of course not be used in isolation. It is one campaigning tool that needs be used in conjunction with other traditional campaigning methods in the context of a wider strategy to craft a truly effective, successful and engaging campaign. Some of the most noticeable examples of this in the past year have included:

[table] Hashtag,Number of tweets in 2014
#FreePalestine, “4,747,152”
#FreeAJStaff, “430,661”
#HeforShe, “1,166,493”
#icebucketchallenge, “5,479,805”

As the graph demonstrates, these hashtags have a limited life-span. While the Ice Bucket Challenge maintained traction for a month and attracted celebrities and high profile personalities, the momentum around HeforShe was a lot more short-lived. Though the hashtags are by no means the only tool used in these campaigns, these campaigns have therefore taught us that sustained momentum and online connectivity can often bridge politics and popular culture. Even though there might still be some scepticism towards hashtag activism, it is likely to only get more powerful in the future and gain even more traction. Cynics should not dismiss it so easily.

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