Hashtag Activism: A Timeline

From #OccupyWallStreet of 2011 to today’s #IfIDieInASchoolShooting, a look back at the movements that trended—and whether they make a difference.

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(Image credit: Allie Holloway)

If you didn’t get a bucket of ice-cold water poured down the back of your neck during the summer of 2014, you definitely weren’t doing social media right. Millions of people found themselves wet, cold, and tagged in posts with the hashtag #IceBucketChallenge, all with the end goal of raising money and awareness for ALS. It's just one example of the power of the internet. This weekend brought us another: #IfIDieInASchoolShooting, one college student's response to Friday’s school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, that quickly went viral.

The term “Hashtag activism” was coined by The Guardian in 2011 to describe the Occupy Wall Street protests and the corresponding hashtag campaign, #OccupyWallStreet. Since then, hundreds of hashtags have been created to build communities of activists eager to share information and raise their voices.

Hashtags get a lot of flak, often typecast as frivolous symbols used by lazy millennials, but a deep dive into the hashtag activism of the past few years proves that they can be more impactful than you’d expect—just ask the Parkland survivors, or the women of the #MeToo movement. From funding breakthroughs in research to bringing down serial predators, to encouraging potential gun reform, we can’t wait to see what these hashtags and their courageous users accomplish next.

Here, we present a timeline of the most prominent hashtag activism campaigns since #KONY2012 shook the nation. Get ready for a walk down #memorylane.

#KONY2012 (MARCH 2012)

On March 5, 2012, a nonprofit called Invisible Children, Inc. released a documentary short entitled, KONY 2012. Soon, it was everywhere. The video was disseminated with the intention of raising awareness about Joseph Kony, a Ugandan cult and militia leader who forced children to become child soldiers, and a mission of capturing Kony by the end of 2012. The video garnered over 101 million views on video-sharing sites, and the hashtag #KONY2012 was born. Social media enabled the campaign to spread like wildfire. Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of all Twitter conversations from March 5 to March 12 were in some way related to KONY 2012. The attention it received was truly mind blowing...that is, until people just stopped caring and the film’s director, Jason Russell, was hospitalized in March 2012 for a temporary psychotic breakdown. Update: Kony is still alive.

#BlackLivesMatter (JULY 2013)

The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was created by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen in Florida. The Black Lives Matter movement raises awareness about systemic racism, and condemns police brutality and racial profiling. A month after Zimmerman was acquitted the hashtag had been shared 52,000 times on Twitter, and by June of the following year, that number had skyrocketed to 41 million. The movement, which started on Twitter, has shifted to the streets; Black Lives Matter holds regular protests following acts of police brutality and murder against black citizens, such as in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and Eric Garner in New York City. The movement has garnered mainstream media support, but has also received much criticism. The counter-hashtag #BlueLivesMatter, for example, was created by critics who argue that violence against police officers should count as hate crimes.

#BringBackOurGirls (APRIL 2014)

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign was created by former FLOTUS Michelle Obama, in response to the horrific kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram, a radical Islamic terrorist group based out of West Africa. The hashtag campaign was intended to keep the story in the media, and raise awareness on an international scale. It was also directed at the Nigerian government, urging them to do more with their resources. Currently, 113 of the girls are still missing—the rest managed to escape or were released—and the hashtag has been retweeted over 2 million times.

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#YesAllWomen (MAY 2014)

The #YesAllWomen hashtag was a response to the 2014 Isla Vista killing spree, in which a 22-year-old man killed six people and injured 14 near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. The killer was found to have a painfully misogynist social media presence. He uploaded a video to YouTube before the massacre explaining that he hated and wanted to punish females because they always rejected him and he could never find a girlfriend, and men because he was jealous of those who had sex with women. Soon, people took to Twitter with the hashtag #NotAllMen, arguing that sexism is not to blame, because not all men would commit a crime like this. An anonymous female on Twitter shot back at #NotAllMen with #YesAllWomen, urging women to share personal stories of sexual harassment and discrimination. The hashtag campaign showed that misogyny is not only incredibly prevalent, but that it is often committed by friends and acquaintances. @SophiaBush (yes, that Sophia Bush) tweeted “I shouldn't have to hold my car keys in hand like a weapon & check over my shoulder every few seconds when I walk at night #YesAllWomen” and Representative Jackie Speier from California tweeted “Because women serving in the military shouldn’t fear getting raped by their colleagues more than they fear the enemy #YesAllWomen.” Within four days of the hashtag being created, it was used more than 1.2 million times on Twitter alone.

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#IceBucketChallenge (JULY 2014)

The #IceBucketChallenge, or #ALSIceBucketChallenge, was the tag of summer 2014. Created to raise awareness and funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the rules were as follows: soak yourself (or have someone else soak you) with a bucket of ice water, whilst being filmed. Then, nominate someone else to do the same with 24 hours to complete the challenge—or they could forfeit by way of a donation to ALS research. The game was created by pro-golfer Chris Kennedy, and many celebrities took part, including Justin BieberLebron JamesDonald Trump, and George W. Bush. It raised $115 million in 2014, and over $1 million in 2015. In July of 2016, the ALS Association announced that the University of Massachusetts Medical School had found a third gene associated with the disease thanks to funds raised as part of the #IceBucketChallenge. This breakthrough has allowed them to further target their research for drug and therapy development, in hopes of finding a cure.

#WhyIStayed (SEPTEMBER 2014)

In September 2014, security footage showing NFL football star Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée, Janay Rice, in an elevator earlier that year was released. Cue the victim-blaming: The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article titled, “Why does Janay Rice keep standing by her man?” with the snarky aside, “Nothing says ‘Be Mine’ like a left hook to the face, does it?” Writer and domestic abuse survivor Beverly Gooden created the hashtag #WhyIStayed on Twitter to change the tone of the conversation. The hashtag and associated tweets were used to inform people that it’s not always easy to leave abusive relationships, and that staying can sometimes seem safer than leaving. Five hours after Gooden first put out the hashtag, it began trending nationally, and by the end of the day it had been used more than 46,000 times.

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#ShoutYourAbortion (SEPTEMBER 2015)

Created on September 19, 2015 by feminist activists Lindy West, Amelia Bonow, and Kimberly Morrison, the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign was a response to Congress' plans to defund Planned Parenthood, leaving many American women without crucial, affordable care. The hashtag encourages women to share their abortion experiences, in order to destigmatize the topic and create a sense of community. The hashtag has since been used hundreds of thousands of times on different social media platforms. For example, @gogreen18: “before abortion was legal, 5000+ women died every year. anti-choicers have no business calling themselves ‘pro life’. #ShoutYourAbortion,” and @softmush: “I could not have given that child the life it deserved. I would not have been the mother I want to be. #ShoutYourAbortion #IStandWithPP.”

#IStandWithAhmed (SEPTEMBER 2015)

Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested at his high school in Irving, Texas, after creating a clock that a teacher mistook for a bomb. The incident drew accusations of racism, specifically Islamophobia, as Mohamed was taken away in handcuffs, confused, over an invention he was proud of. Tech blogger named Anil Dash tweeted #IStandWithAhmed alongside a photo of Mohamed being escorted out of the school by police, wearing a NASA t-shirt. The hashtag spread rapidly, and many scientists, engineers, and bloggers tweeted their support for Mohamed, along with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Mark Zuckerberg. If there is a silver lining to the story, it’s that Mohamed was offered a scholarship to U.S. Space Camp in Alabama.

#OscarsSoWhite (FEBRUARY 2016)

All the 2016 Oscars nominees for best lead and supporting actors were white—for the second year in a row. Industry professionals and at-home movie watchers alike were furious about the lack of diversity in the nominations, as many deserving actors of color were noticeably excluded. See: Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation,” Michael B. Jordan in “Creed,” and Will Smith in “Concussion.” The hashtag campaign, #OscarsSoWhite, was created in protest, first used by April Reign, a managing editor at broadwayblack.com, when she tweeted “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” Within a week of the nominations being announced, the hashtag was mentioned over 256,000 times on Twitter. Many celebrities chose to boycott the Oscars that year, such as Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee, and Michael Moore. Many called for Chris Rock, the host of the year, to boycott as well. Instead, Rock addressed the controversy in his opening monologue, joking: “I'm here at the Academy Awards—otherwise known as the White People's Choice Awards. If they nominated hosts I would never have gotten this job. You'd be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.” The next two Oscars saw more diverse nominations, perhaps in response, but they were still far from equal, and far from perfect.

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#NODAPL arose out of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests; it was created by a group of about 30 young people from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas, who wanted to make known their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, an underground oil pipeline beginning in North Dakota and ending in Illinois. The campaign was intended to draw attention to the fact that the pipeline was to be built on sacred burial grounds, and that it could negatively impact the water quality in the area. Millions of tweets have since used the hashtag #NODAPL, and the protest is commonly referred to simply by the hashtag.

Efforts to stop the pipeline began increasing with celebrity involvement. Shailene Woodley and Riley Keough appeared at a march on Washington, and A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Rock, and Pharrell Williams showing their support on Twitter. In December, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would seek an alternate route for the pipeline, and the Twittersphere erupted in celebration. Chance the Rapper tweeted: “The people that defended Standing Rock are American Heroes. God bless you,” along with Kehlani who announced, “My sister just called me from standing rock and said "twin I think we did it" I'm crying in the middle of apple bees.” Unfortunately, in January 2017 Donald Trump signed two executive orders reviving both the DAPL and the Keystone XL pipeline.

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#MeToo (OCTOBER 2017)

The #MeToo social media movement gained popularity in October 2017, not long after sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein were brought to light. But the hashtag was first created ten years ago by feminist activist Tarana Burke, with the intention of allowing other people to share personal stories of sexual harassment and assault, especially in the workplace, in an effort to display the magnitude of the issue. For example, @500daysofMary tweeted “I was 13, he was 19. He lied to me and said he was 17. I was a child, but I was told it was my fault. #MeToo” and @DanielleMuscato tweeted “#MeToo. And the cops tried to talk me out of pressing charges, because everyone would know I'd been raped, & how embarrassing would THAT be?”

Actress and survivor Alyssa Milano used the hashtag following the Weinstein news, and it was re-popularized. It has since been used by other high-profile celebrities including Jennifer LawrenceGabrielle UnionLady Gaga and Gwyneth Paltrow. In December, the #MeToo campaign “Silence Breakers” were named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Today, #MeToo has become shorthand for a cultural revolution in which women are raising their voices against sexual harassment and fighting for respect in the workplace.

#NeverAgain (FEBRUARY 2018)

The teenagers who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—where 17 people were killed by a shooter with an AR-15 style gun on February 14, 2018—are refusing to stay silent on the issue of gun control. #NeverAgain was first posted on Facebook by Cameron Kasky, a junior at the school, one day after the massacre. The students, and associated hashtag campaign, are arguing for tighter gun control laws, and denouncing U.S. lawmakers who receive financial support from the NRA. The students’ hope is that no child, teacher, or family will ever have to experience their same trauma.

Parkland students organized the March for Our Lives on March 24, 2018. The march lit a flame and sparked a full-fledged revolution; over 800 sibling events took place in the U.S. and across the world on that same day. Thanks to the social media outcry, many major corporations have cut ties with the NRA; Florida Governor Rick Scott raised the minimum age for gun purchases to 21, created a three-day waiting period after purchases, and banned bump stocks; and advertisers have pulled funding from the Laura Ingraham Show after she was found taunting survivor David Hogg on Twitter.

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#IfIDieInASchoolShooting (MAY 2018)

On May 18, Santa Fe, Texas, became the latest American town to suffer a massacre. A shooter opened fire at Santa Fe High School, killing 10 students and faculty members and wounding 13. As of publication, 42 school shootings have occurred in the U.S. in 2018 alone, set to surpass the 65 reported in 2017. As these numbers rise, the fear of being in a school shooting is a justified concern for many students across the country, despite being something no child should ever have to consider.

Andrew Schneidawind, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Mary Washington, cites this fear as the reason he began the hashtag #IfIDieInASchoolShooting. His initial tweet reads “#IfIDieInASchoolShooting I will never be able to finish my animated TV series, I'll never be able to see my sister again, and I will have to become a martyr.” He urged other fearful students to join him, tweeting what they think would—and what they would want to—happen if they became the next victims of on-campus gun violence. Join him they did. The hashtag has already been used over 53,000 times. Many of the Parkland survivors have taken part, including John Barnitt “#IfIDieInASchoolShooting dump my body in front of the White House,” Alex Wind “#IfIDieInASchoolShooting remember my name. Not the murderer’s. #NoNotoriety” and Emma Gonzalez “#IfIDieInASchoolShooting I’d get to see Carmen again.” Schneidawind plans to send print-outs of the tweets to Republican politicians like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Something tells us he’s going to need more envelopes.