August 18, 2018

Secular Hashtag Activism

Lots of HashI've written about hashtag activism here before. While I am generally skeptical that it has a lasting impact in many cases, I acknowledge that it can be a cost-effective way to raise awareness about various issues. If one's hashtag takes off, more people are likely to think about the topic it reflects that would otherwise be the case. At a time when much of our mainstream news media and clickbait-oriented Internet media seem to jump at the opportunity to report on popular hashtags, it can be a way to bring attention to important issues that would otherwise be neglected.

Some hashtags end up being unnecessarily divisive and do not provide a clear expression of any sort of cogent agenda. Upon encountering such a hashtag, the meaning may be unclear and people aren't initially sure what to make of it. When they seek information, they find wildly conflicting content and bitter disagreement. It is difficult to imagine this being terribly helpful to anyone's agenda; however, I suppose that would depend on what the goals of the hashtag campaign are. Maybe there are cases where even that is beneficial.

Other hashtags manage to avoid being unnecessarily divisive and offer simple messages (e.g., #NormalizeAtheism, #AtheistVoter). These campaigns were very small in scale but had clear goals. Someone who ran across them for the first time could easily figure out what they were about and how to get involved. I'm not sure how successful each has been though. Most of the #NormalizeAtheism tweets I see these days are from the people who started the hashtag trying to sell items displaying the hashtag. The #AtheistVoter campaign never really seems to have caught on and is uncommon to encounter it outside of a week or two before high-profile elections. That pretty much defeats the point.

Some are bound to disagree, but I do not believe that the apparent intentions of those responsible for a particular hashtag campaign should necessarily detract from the good the campaign can do. Suppose, for example, that the intention behind a particular hashtag campaign appears to be little more than an attempt to sell t-shirts. Even though many will undoubtedly find this off-putting, it does not automatically invalidate the campaign. Perhaps the campaign was successful in raising awareness about an important issue in spite of whatever intent guided its creators. I think that is at least possible.

If you are a regular social media user, what do you think of secular hashtag activism? Is it something we should be doing more of, or do you see it as accomplishing little?