Hashtag Activism Is Alive And Well
July marks the five-year anniversary of the first use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and what many social media critics consider the birth of hashtag activism.
What makes the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag remarkable, beyond serving as a catalyst for both online and offline discussions, is its ability to bring people to Twitter and other platforms to generate more awareness for this and other important issues.
For example, #MeToo, #MAGA and newer campaigns have gained so much attention that they are now part of our everyday vernacular. Mention any of these hashtags in conversation and most people will know what issue you’re referencing.
Online activism doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Again, consider the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the hashtag was used nearly 30 million times on Twitter. That’s a bit more than 17 thousand times per day.
“The conversations surrounding this hashtag often center on issues related to race, violence and law enforcement, and its usage periodically surges surrounding real-world events,” the report states.
It seems that Americans are interested in participating in these conversations and, more importantly, they believe online activism is, for the most part, working.
In other words, online activism can lead to changes.
“Majorities of Americans do believe these sites are very or somewhat important for accomplishing a range of political goals, such as getting politicians to pay attention to issues (69 percent of Americans feel these platforms are important for this purpose) or creating sustained movements for social change (67 percent),” the report added.
Social media users who are black believe Twitter and hashtag activism are necessary for their own political engagement.
“Roughly half of black social media users say these platforms are at least somewhat personally important to them as a venue for expressing their political views or for getting involved with issues that are important to them,” the report states.
This falls to about a third for white social media users.
Although some social media users may be more politically active and engaged online, opinions are divided as to whether or not hashtags are useful for improving political discourse.
“Some 64 percent of Americans feel that the statement ‘social media help give a voice to underrepresented groups’ describes these sites (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) very or somewhat well. But a larger share say social networking sites distract people from issues that are truly important (77 percent), and 71 percent agree with the assertion that ‘social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t,’” the report added.
Regardless of race, users also seem divided on the benefits and costs of hashtag activism, but the majority of black Americans say Twitter helps to promote important issues and give voice to underrepresented groups.
So long as access is free and open, hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter will live on to promote social change.
Twitter purged millions of fake accounts from its platform last week.
Most of the stories about the Great Twitter Purge of 2018 focused on the millions of followers lost by celebrities and politicians like Justin Bieber and Barak Obama.
Singer Katy Perry took one of the biggest hits, losing more than 2.8 million followers in one day.
If you were here, you’d see a small tear rolling down my left cheek as I type this.
News organizations weren’t immune. CNN dropped 1 million followers, the New York Times lost a little more than 700,000.
Ironically, it was The New York Times who published an expose of a Florida-based firm that sold fake followers, likes and retweets, and other services to boost the social media profiles. It’s probably no surprise that those who purchased these fake accounts were celebrities and politicians.
By their own accounts, it was probably that New York Times investigation that got the purge ball rolling at Twitter, prompting calls for action from Congress and the Federal Trade Commission.
“Over the years, we’ve locked accounts when we detected sudden changes in account behavior,” said Vijaya Gadde, safety lead and Twitter’s director of legal, public policy and trust.
“In these situations, we reach out to the owners of the accounts and unless they validate the account and reset their passwords, we keep them locked with no ability to log in.”
For normal, noncelebrity-types like you and me, the hit was nominal, like a blip on the social media radar. In fact, most users lost an average of four followers.
Four. That’s it.
“We understand this may be hard for some, but we believe accuracy and transparency make Twitter a more trusted service for public conversation,” Gadde added.
And therein lies the real reason why this purge matters, the reason that gets buried in these stories about the millions of fake followers lost to people who didn’t need them anyway (i.e., Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, etc.).
The real reason: improved conversations, or more specifically, the steps Twitter is taking to improve our public conversations. It starts with dumping fake, locked accounts.
Your Twitter conversations are public. Anything Twitter does to make those conversations more civil and genuine should be viewed as a win.
“Our ongoing work to improve the health of conversations on Twitter encompasses all aspects of our service,” Gadde added.
Sure, the purge focused on followers, and not likes and retweets, because follower count is likely the most visible feature on Twitter, the feature most associated with credibility.
In other words, see someone with a million followers, and boom – instant credibility.
This is not to suggest that Bieber and Obama are any more or less credible now, only that the story is less about their loss of followers and more about our improved discourse on Twitter and, hopefully, elsewhere.
I keep returning to 2014, when I first started struggling with the amount of time my kids were spending on screens.
It was also around this time that I found a study that I still talk about today to anyone who will listen. I talk about it in my classrooms, in my research, in this column and at home.
It was published in one of my favorite journals, Computers In Human Behavior. If you do a quick search of past columns, you’ll see that I reference it often.
As researchers, it’s a requirement to read studies like these. We do this so that we know:
Unfortunately, it’s rare to find journals filled with these questions and answers so clearly laid out in the actual studies, let alone in the titles of the articles.
But that’s what I found – in 2014: “Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues.”
Every title should be so clear, so full of detail in 15 words.
Such was the case with the title and study from the team at UCLA, led by psychologist Yalda Uhls.
Maybe it was because I was struggling with my own kids’ screentime. Maybe it simply reaffirmed what I and most other parents already knew – that balancing time spent on- and off-screens was becoming exceedingly difficult to manage.
It was good to see it in print, to have something to refer my colleagues and friends to when discussing and debating screen time.
It’s bad that I’m still referencing it today, four years later.
How Uhls’ team found its answers is just as important as what they found.
First, they looked specifically at tweens who spent time at a nature camp, far from the screens and other technology. They tested the tweens – before camp and after camp – on their abilities to pick up on nonverbal emotional cues.
These cues are the expressions we use when we’re happy, sad, excited, and so on.
Not surprisingly, tweens who spent time away from screens improved their ability to recognize emotional cues. Increasing face-to-face, social interactions (i.e., hiking with friends in the woods, singing songs around the camp fire) clearly had something to do with learning those emotional cues.
It’s 2018, and yes, I’m still referencing that article, still having screen time debates with friends and battles with my kids.
But I haven’t given up.
Sure, we don’t have to send our kids away to overnight camp, but the next time we tell them to ditch the screens and go outside, it might be up to us parents to mix in an occasional play date with time spent away from tech.
We have a simple, easy-to-remember rule in the Earnheardt home for capturing video on our mobile devices. We call it the AFV Rule, named for the long-running ABC show, “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
When recording our exploding watermelons or obnoxious cats, we hold our recording devices horizontally, not vertically, to capture the best shots. We want those trampoline goofs and hilarious Wiffle ball bat swings to look spectacular and in proper format for future AFV submissions.
I’m kidding, of course. We’ve never submitted anything to AFV.
At least, not yet.
But that last part, “proper format,” is something we take seriously when capturing silly moments.
You’ve probably witnessed the problem with vertical videos on YouTube and other streaming services, and on TV shows such as AFV. Washed-out-gray or pixelated bars that border the space to the left and right of the video on our rectangular, 16:9 frames on mobile devices, computer screens and TVs.
Maybe it’s my inner Spielberg speaking, but I think it looks bad. So do my wife and kids. I’ve appropriately conditioned our future movie directors to capture and edit their masterpieces in horizontal mode.
“How hard is it flip your dang phone?” is a common rhetorical question my kids use when they see vertical videos.
Well, they did, until last week, when we started watching videos on IGTV, Instagram’s new long-form video platform.
IGTV is a bit different from Instagram’s short videos and Facebook’s episodic-like push into video content.
First, IGTV has its own stand-alone app, but we’re also able to watch videos directly in the Instagram app (for the record, Instagram is currently the only app we allow our tween daughters to use, but that’s a discussion for a future column).
Second, IGTV is different from other video sharing services like Facebook in one very important way, and here’s where our AFV rule was suspended. IGTV is built for how we actually use our mobile devices – full screen vertical.
“I’m shook,” was my oldest daughter’s reply.
Instagram’s been in the video business for a while, but those clips were limited to one minute. IGTV videos can be up to an hour long.
“We’ve made it simple, too. Just like turning on the TV, IGTV starts playing as soon as you open the app,” said Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder and CEO. “You don’t have to search to start watching content from people you already follow on Instagram and others you might like based on your interests. You can swipe up to discover more.”
Think of swiping as switching TV channels, or watching from your DVR, with content in sections entitled “For You,” “Following,” “Popular” and “Continue Watching.”
The Earnheardt’s AFV Rule may have to be amended, but that’s okay. When we have more options for capturing and sharing videos on different platforms, even in vertical mode, the sky’s the limit.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is special assistant to the provost and professor of communication in the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA where he also directs the graduate program in professional communication. He researches and writes on a variety of topics including communication technologies, relationships, and sports (with an emphasis on fandom). His work has appeared in Mahoning Matters as well as The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers.