Twitter, Hashtags, and You: The Shortfalls of ‘Hashtag Activism’


This is something I’ve talked about, regarding the #GamerGate and #StopGamerGate2014 hashtags on twitter. The problem that I’ve seen with “hashtag activism” is because anyone- I mean anyone– can co-opt a hashtag. The screenshot of the ISIL/ISIS tweet above, for example, proves this, as it is utilizing the #GetWellSoonAshton hashtag to make it more visible.

When you go onto twitter, you don’t have anything that forces you to use one thing or another, and you certainly can’t ‘authenticate’ the use of a hashtag. This makes it an open use ‘term.’ Hashtags are really just keywords designed to be easily searchable on twitter in the first place, as they are using the # sign to identify them as such. You can see them in web design in metadata, and in fact- the use of them on twitter was inspired by the channel titles from IRC, suggested by Chris Messina in 2007.

If you look at the account that used the #GetWellSoonAshton hashtag, you can also see that they’ve attempted to co-opt the #StopGamerGate2014 tag, as well, as pictured below:

This is the problem with laying blame on a single hashtag, for stuff. I will not argue that there’s poison in the #GamerGate hashtag, but considering the fact that I’ve seen harassment and doxxing happening from the #StopGamerGate2014 hashtag shows that the pot should be calling the kettle black. Both have their points, but both have their detractors as well. However, something that surprises me with people proclaiming 100% faults on both sides has told me that these people don’t understand how twitter, and consequently, hashtags work as a whole. With that, I want to point back to the statement that I made about the “co-opting” part of this.

I had commented to someone on a messenger early on in the situation with #GamerGate that I would not be surprised if people from outside of it were choosing to fan the flames by trolling both sides. I can point to the #CutForBieber hashtag and the debacle surrounding that to help add to my case, even. This was a twitter prank started by members of an infamous trolling group known as GNAA, and soon the prank eventually took off on its own. Or what about #EndFathersDay that was started by /pol/? There’s a very frightening, and dangerous, thing about both of these hashtags, though: they took off on their own.

Girls who are fans of Justin Bieber ended up picking up on the #CutForBieber hashtag, and feminists jumped onto the #EndFathersDay hashtag- because the original, trolling, posts were completely believable and people took them as a real trend- and as such, the did trend with the help of ‘normal people’ involved.

As a result, I had some suspicions that the flames were being fanned by GNAA or some other group. Now, am I right? I have no clue, but I did see something recently that made me sit back and think for a moment:

The screenshot above comes from the FYAD forum of A user there (known as ‘Goons’ on the site) is proclaiming that ‘Goon-Started Drama’ has made the front page of the New York Times. What was it that made the New York Times? An article on the threats sent to Anita Sarkeesian.

As a result, we have Goons making trolling claim from this. Then there’s also been the fact that a journalist in Brazil got outed as being a stalker for Anita. Are both of them part of the #GamerGate movement? Personally, I doubt it. But it’s certainly easy for them to pick up a hashtag.

I can’t say that it really was the Goons that were behind the threats and it could still be someone from #GamerGate, or it could be a conspiracy theory of someone from #StopGamerGate2014 trying to perpetuate the issues. Without proof of any of these situations, we can only offer speculation- just because they used the hashtag still isn’t proof enough, as it’s just as easy as loading and typing it in yourself.

Worst case scenario of hashtag co-opting: say a hashtag calling for support of Taylor Swift started on twitter. Let’s just use #ISupportTaylorSwift as the hashtag in this hypothetical situation. This makes your tweets easily searchable by the other users of said hashtag to find and gain notoriety. Users of the hashtag will become more and more known amongst the other users, and retweets will happen left and right. I can see it being fully possible for a stalker of Taylor Swift to see the hashtag and utilize it as a method of getting more ‘infamous’ in the circle of fans that may be closer to her than others. An outlier of the fandom utilizing a hashtag that they may, or may not, fully honestly support, as a means to an end.

This is why you find many hashtags with traffic from southeast Asia, too: bots will co-opt them to gain more visibility.

In the end, this is one of the several reasons why twitter- while an amazing social media platform, in my opinion- can be a problem regarding the need for communication for a greater cause. 140 character limits + completely open medium. The only form of privacy you have on twitter is simply the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ option of locking your account. Everything you tweet is public. Everything. And it can be archived. You don’t want the world to know about something? Please for the love of God, don’t tweet it. The internet most certainly does not forget, even if you delete it. It would do many people some good to not forget this detail.

Twitter is also very noisy. Very, very very noisy. A single tweet is like a drop in an ocean- and only has as much impact as its influence- the followers of the account, how public the tweet is, and its potential for retweets.

Ellen’s famous selfie at the Academy Awards is a great example of this concept. You can see that it received over 3 million retweets. However, when you think about it, that is a mere fraction of the number of people who actually watched the Academy Awards, which came in to 43 million viewers. A majority of the retweets are likely to have been people who saw it happen during the Oscars and joined in to retweet it. Ellen’s selfie did, afterall, crash twitter- and I remember that a million of those retweets were before the end of the awards show itself.

Here are some notes based on the quick stats of twitter to help drive home the amount of activity happening on twitter:
* Twitter has 271 million active users – this is over 1/4th of the world’s population.
* 500 million tweets are sent per day: this comes out to about 6,000 per second, and 350,000 per minute. If these numbers hold steady, it will total out to 200 billion tweets in a year. That is enough for every single person in the world to tweet 27 times in a year. That’s a lot.

But despite all these shortcomings, don’t let this discount the good that can come from a microblogging platform like twitter. Twitter is also the opportunity people have to be in contact with stars and corporations. It is incredibly useful in customer service applications, and some of the best marketing stunts ever done, I think, have happened on twitter, such as Oreo’s ‘blackout’ tweet during the Super Bowl in 2013.

So while this post talks about a lot of the issues of trying to carry the torch of a cause on twitter, don’t let it discourage you. If you wish to use twitter for a cause, then let it be your jumping point. It is the best place to drive up interest and lead people to a place to carry on a much needed conversation. Just don’t let twitter be the only place for your conversation- try to provide outlets that break away from the high speed, busy, and quickly worded shouts that can drown out one’s words and cause.

For that reason of being able to communicate with people you would have never met anywhere else, twitter is still my favorite social media platform. However, we all know that even the things we love best still have many, many flaws. It’s just that you need to know how to step around the flaws to make the best of what you love.

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