Lauren Taylor

Hashtag activism was first coined by the Guardian in 2011 and it is used to describe social media advocacy. Hashtag activism allows people to support causes by liking, sharing and creating posts with the relevant hashtag. From #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter to #BringBackOurGirls we have seen a variety of discussions about many different social and political issues take place online.

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Over the last few years, there has been a rise in celebrities becoming involved in hashtag activism. Some argue that celebrities shouldn’t involve themselves in politics and that entertainers should stick with entertaining, leaving politics to the professionals. But aside from this, how exactly are celebrities involved in hashtag activism and could their involvement be damaging?

Our society is saturated by celebrity culture and social media allows celebrities to communicate directly with their fans. It creates a heightened sense of intimacy for followers as they are given a glimpse into the lives of their celebrity idols. Although celebrity activism is nothing new, social media has given them a platform to speak to their fans while hashtag activism means they can easily involve themselves in political and social issues.

Just like everyone else who uses social media, celebrities use theirs as a highlight reel. It is just another marketing tool where they can put themselves out to the world and show their followers what they want them to see. It could mean that celebrities only involve themselves in hashtag activism to frame themselves as politically engaged and caring people, a kind of “woke-washing”. 

‘Slacktivism’ is a term that’s generally thought of negatively. It is defined as “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.” Celebrities who involve themselves in hashtag activism are often accused of this. They are simply posting using a trending hashtag or sharing other posts that include the hashtag and they are not doing anything physical to support the campaign.

‘Slacktivism’ suggests that celebrities do not understand or care about the issue that they are sharing with their followers which could be damaging, because they are often looked up to and can influence their fans by sharing their political views on social media. This may encourage their followers to try to develop the same values as their icons leading them to blindly follow without truly understanding or caring about the issue themselves.

By just sharing or taking part in hashtag activism without researching and understanding the issue means that real change might not happen and the campaign is in danger of becoming just another fleeting trend on Twitter.If celebrities do have such a strong influence over their followers to the extent that they follow like sheep could this make hashtag activism ineffective? 

Hashtag activism creates an online space for social and political issues to be shared, discussed and brought to the attention of the wider public. People create an online community where they can come together to campaign for issues they believe in and provide the voiceless with a platform. Hashtag activism is also thought of as an accessible form of activism because most people have internet access and they can take part in the campaign regardless of where they are or what they are doing.

Technology has meant the way we communicate has changed. Even more so now due to Covid-19 as many people have become reliant on their mobiles and social media to stay connected and informed. If hashtag activism, or even social media activism, didn’t take place there’s a chance that so many issues would never be discussed. There would be no platform for people to come together and share their stories and those who suffer may never have the chance to speak out.

Hashtag activism cannot be dismissed as an ineffective form of activism when it has helped so many movements and has brought a variety of issues to the attention of the wider public. Hashtags that go viral often receive a great deal of media attention which then strengthens the cause – when discussions move from social media to mainstream media then there’s a chance that politicians and those in power are held to account. This can also lead to physical campaigns being organised and perhaps the issue will even end up being discussed by the government resulting in change being implemented. 

During the first UK lockdown we witnessed the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gain momentum after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery led to viral discussions about police brutality in America. Around the world people, and celebrities, became involved with #BLM and the conversation online led to global physical protests forcing politicians to address issues of systemic racism and violence.

The UK Parliament discussed suspending exports of riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets to America and talked with the US government about support for the protests. BLM resulted in British parliament planning to include Black Lives Matter in UK policy and discussions on how they should address systemic racism, discrimination and injustice experienced by people living in the UK. According to the Guardian Black Lives Matter UK raised £1.2 million in donations following the protests last summer, and has recently announced it will be giving £600,000 to grassroot groups across the country in support of the cause. 

During the protests, many celebrities became involved with social media activism, donated to various funds and even attended protests. They used their social media platforms to raise awareness about what was going on and the different funds people could donate to through multiple hashtags.

It is unfair to assume that celebrities are uneducated about political issues or that they simply don’t care about them. Despite their power, fame and idolisation, celebrities are human at the end of the day. They have thoughts and feelings and passions just like the rest of us. 

Celebrities may have the power to influence their fanbase, but this could mean that by involving themselves in hashtag activism they educate their followers about the issue. By publicly supporting a cause it may help to bring it to the attention of many more people and might just rally more to join the movement leading to change. When someone has a platform and a chance to make real, positive change should they not be able to use it responsibly and have the freedom of speech to do so?

There’s no real evidence suggesting that celebrity involvement in hashtag activism directly leads to change, but that also doesn’t necessarily mean that it is damaging.    

Ultimately, we are subjected to a number of influences every day whether that is through celebrities, social media, politicians, bosses, or even family members. Hashtag activism may bring an issue to your attention, but I think it is still your responsibility to research the issue and make your own informed opinions and decide whether you want to take part in the discussion or more.

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Last Update: March 12, 2021