When it comes to charities and social movements, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook can help mobilize and spread the word. But when hashtags or trending topics on these social media platforms help a good cause go viral, does that come at a cost?
When friends began calling Tarana Burke last October to tell her that #MeToo, a slogan she came up with ten years prior, was being used by women all over the world (including a vocal cohort of A-list Hollywood actresses) to share their experiences of sexual assault, she was surprised, to say the least. "What happened is, people started calling me and saying they saw #MeToo trending online, and they were like, 'Where are you in this conversation? I keep seeing #MeToo, and I don't see you attached to it.'"
Within 48 hours of Alyssa Milano's tweet encouraging survivors of abuse to share the hashtag, there were more than a million tweets about it and over 12 million posts, comments and reactions to #MeToo on Facebook. Burke and Milano connected, and the actress credited Burke for initially starting the campaign, something Burke had done in her capacity as a youth activist to help the young women she works with feel less alone. Within days, a viral revolution had begun, and it stood on the shoulders of an intersectional, grassroots movement that had been in the works for ten years.
A similar social media trend emerged in 2014, when women tweeted #YesAllWomen 1.2 million times in four days to share their experiences with harassment and assault. A poignant illustration of the physical, mental and spiritual threats that all women live with, the #YesAllWomen campaign began as a reaction to the hashtag #NotAllMen, an ill-advised attempt by some men to excuse the male gender and patriarchy as a whole from the actions of Elliot Rodger, a self-professed misogynist who had embarked on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California in May of that year.
Whereas the #MeToo hashtag marked the beginning of a groundswell movement around the world that has led to the downfall of many powerful, previously untouchable men (though not quite yet the systems that uphold and protect them), #YesAllWomen has largely disappeared from our timelines, receding from the frontline battles of online discourse. Whereas #MeToo already has a sister organization in Time's Up, an initiative started by top Hollywood actresses, directors and producers that launched earlier this year and includes a multi-million-dollar legal fund for survivors, #YesAllWomen has mostly faded away.
"All movements are hard. Let's just start there."
Why do some social media campaigns create lasting change, and others disappear into the dusty dens of our collective search histories, never to be revisited again?
"All movements are hard. Let's just start there," says activist and writer Shaun King, who has been one of the most vocal organizers within the Black Lives Matter movement and often engages with fellow activists and allies on social media like Twitter and Facebook. Social media has been integral to Black Lives Matter since it first took off in the summer of 2013, not only helping activists like King organize but also serving as an important conduit for transmitting visuals of police brutality to the public.
Just as Facebook and Twitter enabled young people across the Middle East to find one another and organize mass protests that led to the toppling of more than one regime during the Arab Spring, so too did social media platforms allow easier organizing of the mass demonstrations that spread from Ferguson, Missouri throughout the country that became the lifeblood of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Though the pace of real change can feel maddeningly slow, especially in relation to the heady eruption of public discourse and mass protests, some things were starting to shift as a result of BLM activism. In May 2015, then-president Obama tried to decelerate the militarization of police departments by calling for an end to transfers of certain military-style equipment from the federal government to local police. Former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel both fired their police chiefs amid city-wide protests over police brutality, and in December of that year, the FBI announced that it would get better at tracking deadly police shootings.
Even if laws didn't change overnight, the conversation was moving to the state and federal levels. Young BLM leaders were meeting with politicians, and officials were finally being asked to answer for the way fatal police shootings were being handled under their watch. And despite some of the backlash the movement faced, Beyoncé made its cultural influence undeniable with her tribute to the group and its messaging, performing her Black Power-inspired halftime show at the most American of events — the Super Bowl — and paying tribute both subtle and explicit to BLM throughout her visual album, Lemonade.
"An online movement without any public action is not one that is here to stay."
Then, Donald Trump was elected. The chaos that ensued sent veteran and newly minted activists alike into overdrive. Announced just a few days into his tenure, Trump's "Travel Ban" on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries resulted in thousands protesting the move at airports around the country and on social media. Hashtags sprung up for each new violation of liberal values and civil rights.
The ban on transgender military personnel sparked a new battle, as did Trump's attacks on immigrants. But forward motion for an already-established movement like Black Lives Matter felt stalled indefinitely in those first few months, amidst the backdrop of internal White House chaos, rollbacks of progressive Obama-era policies and the newly emboldened white nationalists now making their hatred publicly known.
Where social media once felt like an agent of change, it now appeared to be a faulty medium overloaded by foreign bots, relentless trolls and clattering echo chambers all shouting at each other.
King says that this doesn't have to be so. When used correctly, social media is just a virtual arm of the organizing that's been happening since the beginning of modern civilization. "4,000 years ago or 40 years ago — leaders were struggling to keep momentum," King says. "It's never easy. So we're no different in that respect, but with social media, people are overwhelmed with information, and that means it's harder and harder to keep sustained attention. For me, that's why I use social media as a tool to build communities in other ways, like in-person rallies or through email or text, so that I know we're reaching people through more than just tweets."
King has since created a 25-point action plan for addressing police brutality that he rolled out over a month-long series of Facebook posts. The series is 25 parts long, he wrote in a Daily News article, because "the problem has so many nuances and layers that need unpacking that it will take me a full month to do so. In the end, we will lay out the problems, but will have solutions and action steps for each one."
"We worry that with time, people become desensitized to what happened and jump onto the next big distraction."
Lisa-Maria Neudert, a doctorate of philosophy candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute who studies behaviors around social media and activism, says that real-world action and social media campaigning feed each other. "Viral social media campaigns do not exist in a vacuum but are closely interlinked to social movements," she says, mirroring what we've seen with BLM and the Arab Spring. "If a hashtag or campaign is able to capture a society's concerns, fears and hopes, and at the same time mirrors events that directly impact the public, it has a big potential to become part of mainstream culture. But it is important to understand that typically online movements are sustained from action and social change, as well as vice versa. An online movement without any public action is not one that is here to stay."
When a massive fire broke out on June 14, 2017 at the 24-story Grenfell Tower block of public housing apartments in West London, causing 71 deaths and over 70 injuries, public outrage was swift and fierce. Within days, #Justice4Grenfell was trending on social media, drawing millions of eyes to the horrific spectacle of the burnt tower and the negligence and poor construction of the building that led to the deaths of so many. Just as #PrayforParis, #JeSuisCharlie, #PrayforPuertoRico and #BringBackOurGirls channeled public outcry into actual action, #Justice4Grenfell felt, in that moment, unbelievably urgent to share.
Eight months later, and "nothing has really been achieved in the journey for those who lost their lives, those who survived, the bereaved families and the wider community," #Justice4Grenfell spokesperson Tasha Brade says. "Our biggest challenge has been time."
She continues, "With the passing of time, people do tend to lose interest, so a huge part of what we try to do is keep the story in the public eye. We worry that with time, people become desensitized to what happened and jump onto the next big distraction."
To renew public interest in the cause, the movement's creators erected three billboards demanding reparations, inspired by the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. They read: "71 Dead," "No arrests" and "How come?" Oscar-winning Three Billboards star Frances McDormand has backed the cause, and the organizers hope the visibility will invigorate the response to their mission.
"Our nation moves from crisis to crisis, emergency to emergency. It's exhausting."
Brade's comments about the challenges #Justice4Grenfell faces are echoed by King in a Medium post in which he wrote, "A primary reason we struggle to make a deep lasting impact on any particular issue in this country, including mass shootings, and gun violence, and police brutality, and all of the many different issues related to the tangled web of mass incarceration, part of why we sincerely struggle to change, even though we have every necessary tool and resource to make change, is because our nation moves from crisis to crisis, emergency to emergency. It's exhausting."
King writes that when the movement began, what he "never imagined was that America's justice system was fully willing to watch millions of us march and protest, see tens of millions of us Facebook and tweet and dominate the trending topics, and that every case would be the top news story in the nation, over and over and over again, and do nothing."
Frustrated with this lack of tangible action following the virality of Black Lives Matter protests, King decided to create the Real Justice Political Action Committee, "a grassroots political team determined to reimagine and completely overhaul America's justice system." Rather than zeroing in on the police departments themselves, the Real Justice PAC aims to get reform-minded prosecutors elected at the county and municipal levels.
While King is a respected activist with 20 years of experience organizing, fundraising and fighting for causes, a common criticism of those engaged in social media campaigns is that their efforts exist solely in the online space and have no real-world impact. Academia has even developed a name for this: "Slacktivism." Neudert says the term refers to "a show of support online with the main purpose of boosting one's own ego.
Efforts such as liking content, signing an online petition or sharing a video are often associated with low-costs, and are often criticized as less substantial forms of political activism." The fear is, when a hashtag in support of a good cause starts to resemble any other Internet meme or trend, people may start to forget why they're sharing it in the first place and move on to the next trending topic as easily as they would a new Instagram post on their feed.
Hashtags oriented around a charity or non-profit, like 2014's ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, prove the opposite. The challenge may have been a viral online fad that absorbed the country's attention for only a summer, but proceeds from the trend raised $115 million in a matter of months, $96 million of which has been committed to research projects, the ALS Association says. The Livestrong bracelets were sort of an analog meme and a precursor to the Ice Bucket craze; though flashing a yellow rubber bracelet under a sleeve or filming a friend pouring a bucket of ice over your head may simply be virtue-signaling for the approval of others, increased self-respect or the feeling of belonging to a cause, when goals like raising awareness and fundraising are met, perhaps the ends justify the self-serving (and earnestly human) means.
But social and political movements, unlike charity organizations and non-profits, often face more challenges. Not only do many of the most revolutionary and vital movements face backlash (especially at first) from certain parties who disagree with their message, but their goals must also encompass more than soliciting donations and raising awareness and include advocating for legal, political and social changes that can only come about via sustained commitment to the cause and engaging with people, stakeholders and institutions on a deep level.
Though these goals might be harder to achieve, Neudert, for one, doesn't rule out the power of the Internet when it comes to creating social or political change. Disagreeing with the slacktivism hypothesis, she offers instead that "social media and the online space have enriched our participatory power as citizens, enriching citizens with options to vocalize their opinions much more frequently, and with a much more fine-grained focus, rather than every couple of years, when they are called to the ballot."
King echoes this view, too, citing recent moments in activist history as victories that started in the online space. "Tweets are not enough, I agree with that," he says. "But what we do when we organize people online is very, very real. It's a huge part of why Bill O'Reilly is off air right now. It's why sponsors just dropped the NRA. Online organizing fueled the Women's March and fueled airport protests after the Muslim Ban. Here in New York, our online activism had everything to do with our ability to fight for some very meaningful criminal justice reforms."
Burke also sees the value in social media sharing, with #MeToo being one of the most successful online campaigns to take off since the advent of the Internet, depending on how you measure success. She says that the movement's real-world roots, which she planted ten years ago when she first began working with young women and sexual assault survivors in non-profits, give it the foundation needed to sustain its momentum past a viral flash in the pan. "It's not hard for me to translate #MeToo into the real world because it didn't start online," Burke says. "It started in the real world. It's not a leap for me to say, How are we going to get this to the people?, because it actually started the other way around."
The unique ability of social media to traverse the boundaries of class, race and gender has also played a major role in keeping #MeToo alive past its use as a hashtag. "Maybe I'm jaded, but I don't have a realistic expectation that the media's going to pay attention to a black woman talking about sexual violence in the black community," Burke says. "Or marginalized communities or people of color. So I'm grateful for an opportunity to have an elevated platform and not have to sacrifice any part of the work that I've done or the message that I have."
"Movements are long, and they take time. They have to be strategic."
The current issue in front of us — gun legislation reform, put in center focus once again by the third worst school shooting in United States history — has mobilized a generation of students that grew up organizing their identities and lives online. As they surge forward with the goal of maintaining the nation's interest in a topic it's never been able to focus on for much longer than the length of a crisis, they are already taking a page out of Burke's activist playbook, building a sustained social media campaign of personal sharing combined with cold, hard facts to channel the wave of momentum. The NRA boycott hashtag, shaming of Betsy DeVos on Twitter and tweets comparing politicians' "thoughts and prayers" with the dollar amounts, often in the millions, they've received from the NRA are examples of the unique capability social media possesses to hold people in power accountable.
At the center of the campaign is a core group of students — survivors of the shooting — whose natural grasp of media both traditional and social is combined with a ready acknowledgment of the undeniable access to visibility they hold in both spaces. "We know that the reason that we're getting this attention is because we're privileged white kids," one of the students, Delaney Tarr, told New York magazine. "We just try to make a difference so that those who are not as affluent, as wealthy, as we are won't have to deal with this either. Because if you look at Chicago, there's such a high level of gun violence. But that's not getting the attention that this is getting because we're in such a nice area."
When people connect the dots between the interlocking issues we face beyond paying lip service to intersectionality on a surface level — like King's action plan to address criminal justice reform holistically in addition to spotlighting police brutality, or domestic workers and A-list Hollywood actresses joining together under the mantle of Time's Up, social media becomes a powerful tool rather than a performative gesture, and hints at the longevity a movement can sustain once its roots take hold of separate but adjacent cultural spaces, bringing them together.
Virality is no small feat in the fight against injustice. Burke knows best how even one moment online can change everything when you always have the endgame in mind. "Movements are long, and they take time," she says. "They have to be strategic, and they have to be well-planned. So this moment is not the defining moment, for me, of this movement. It's one of the defining moments, and it is a huge opportunity to advance the work, and that's just how I look at it."
Photography and floral design by Brittany Asch