The Implications of Hashtag Activism

May 9, 2014 • Culture

On any given day, traditional media either loves Twitter or hates it. The journalistic establishment is to the internet as Joanne is to Maureen. Most days, it feels like the two are locked in a never-ending karaoke rendition of “Take Me or Leave Me.” Traditional media is a control freak. A snob, yet over-attentive. A lovable, droll geek. An anal-retentive. Twitter is spontaneous, prone to faction and friction, at once self-reflexive and contradictory. But make no mistake: the traditional media’s fraught relationship with Twitter is not about to end anytime soon.

Last week, the Atlantic published a “eulogy for Twitter” accompanied by a distressingly lifelike illustration of the site’s cheery Fail Whale error graphic. “Something is wrong on Twitter,” the article opines, presumably in the familiar, foreboding cadence of a horror movie trailer’s narrator. “And people are noticing.”

To date, the digital obituary has been tweeted over 5,000 times.

A Eulogy for Twitter   Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer   The Atlantic

Just for fun, let’s imagine the staff of the Atlantic at the Life Café, singing, “Tweeters! What is it about them? Can’t live…” A pause for a deep inhalation. “With them or without them!

If the Atlantic article and the response to it tell us anything, it’s this: traditional media needs Twitter far more than Twitter needs traditional media. Why else would every article published in the last three years be adorned with pretty buttons to facilitate one-click sharing on dozens of popular social media sites? Why else would Buzzfeed and Upworthy customize article titles and formats to slide perfectly into a Facebook feed or a Tumblr dash? More often than not, the average Joe comes to a debate via a shared link, and not the original source.

Without Twitter, and its magical promotional properties, traditional journalism is becoming irrelevant.

Maybe it is this fear of its own irrelevance that drives traditional journalism to persistently belittle the journalistic and activist contributions of Twitter users. Twitter allows private individuals with no tenure, no media backing, and no funding to create enormous discursive waves. In some circles, this is cause for celebration. In others, it inspires frightened pearl-clutching, often shrouded in concern about online bullying and abuse.

Michelle Goldberg’s now-infamous essay for The Nation exemplifies this kind of reaction: decrying “feminism’s toxic Twitter wars,” Goldberg spilled ink criticizing a small handful of individual influential Twitter users, most of whom have no formal affiliation with any media outlet, structured non-profit, or academic institution. The result? A 150-year-old publication with a six-digit circulation coming down hard on individual Twitter aficionados with follower counts of a few thousand each. The women in Goldberg’s article aren’t particularly influential or numerous by traditional media standards, but they are vocal. They are eager and willing to engage with the ways in which media – yes, even feminist media – prioritizes the interests of the privileged and silences the voices of the marginalized. They show up in droves when traditional journalists fuck up, and that makes journalists very sad.

 Journalists like Stephen Colbert, for instance.


In late March, the Twitter account for “The Colbert Report” fired out a joking appeal for the creation of a “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals.” It was a line from the segment that aired that night on the satirical Conservative show on Comedy Central. But the show’s audience and Twitter are two different realms, and satire is a tricky thing, particularly in the hands of people who are complicit in white supremacy. Satire, as has been said before on this site, is oftentimes a dead fish.

In response to the tweet, activist Suey Park created the hyperbolic hashtag #CancelColbert to critique the unfortunate white liberal tendency to deploy racism in mockery of racism.

Boy, did people ever get pissed.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Park dared to float the idea that her white, American interviewers were, perhaps, not well-positioned to evaluate the effects of Orientalist racism.

“White men definitely feel like they’re allowed to talk over me,” answered Park. “They definitely feel like they’re allowed to minimize my experiences.”

“Nobody’s minimizing your right to have an opinion,” retorted Zepp. “It’s just a stupid opinion.”

Park promptly told Zepp that she would not waste her breath engaging in a dialogue who had so clearly disrespected her. She excused herself from the interview. The clip has now been viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and upvoted 11,500 times on Reddit – under the heading “EPIC FAIL,” natch. Park herself became a target of widespread mockery and derision. “Fucking hashtag activist,” groaned one YouTube commentator. “Yeah, your complaining about comedy is going to change the world.”

Park’s hashtag did, in fact, elicit a formal response from Colbert, and inspired truckloads of mainstream media discussion of racism. If Park had kept her comments to herself, or discussed Colbert offline, within her personal circle, that never would have happened.

Gatekeepers of traditional media are reluctant, if not completely unwilling, to acknowledge the reality that “hashtag activists” can change the world and, in fact, have been doing so for quite some time. As early as 1998, the Zapatistas were using e-mail and the internet both to organize activist efforts within Mexico and to coordinate with like-minded movements throughout the rest of the world. In 1999, the Indymedia Project was created to counterbalance negative mainstream media coverage of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. And even prior to the Battle in Seattle, sites like Countermedia were working to provide grassroots news coverage to aid in activist efforts.

Recent trending tags as diverse as #myNYPD, #BringBackOurGirls, and #whereislavernecox are, really, continuations of this tradition. Malcolm Gladwell can complain all he want that online activism is useless, that the revolution will not be tweeted, but the success of these tags illustrates that online conversation and virtual accountability can create real dialogue, and inspire real change.

I can’t think of many things more productive than thousands of people using their keyboards to decry police brutality, to call for the safe return of kidnapped women, and to expose transmisogyny in mainstream media.

I can’t think of anything less productive than mainstream media scorning these activists.



Listen: online activism is not without its faults. Hashtags are easily co-opted by parties which don’t have grassroots interests at heart. In the wake of #BringBackOurGirls, CompareAfrique co-founder Jumoke Balogun penned an appeal for Westerners to stop using the hashtag to call for American military intervention in Nigeria. “If you must tweet,” wrote Balogun, “tweet to support and embolden [Nigerian activists and journalists], don’t direct your calls to action to the United States government who seeks to only embolden American militarism.” It’s important that online activist efforts, just like those grounded in meatspace, are scrutinized, and online activists held accountable for their actions.

But, please, no more thinkpieces about how angry young women with keyboards are destroying the feminist movement. No more incredulity at the sight of young activists, born and raised online, using the internet to effect change. No more suggestions that the creation of tight-knit online communities finding friendship and solidarity within marginalization signals the twilight of Twitter.


Online activism is not dead. It’s not dying. It’s not even new. It’s strong, and it’s getting stronger. And if you’re surprised or shocked at any of this? You probably just haven’t been paying close enough attention.

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