In 2007, Chris Messina pitched the hashtag (a pound sign) to Twitter as a way to organize content. Twitter rejected it, saying it was too nerdy. In October of that year, a friend of Chris’ started tweeting about a San Diego wildfire and at Chris’ suggestion, added #sandiegofire. It quickly took off. In 2009, Twitter added a search option for users using hashtags. Instagram followed in 2010 and Facebook in 2013. Hashtags are everywhere now and a common tool for activists. The term is “hashtag activism.” Using certain hashtags shows solidarity, raises awareness about an issue, and connects Internet users to a sense of community. The success of hashtag activism varies, but there’s no doubt that this simple symbol matters in our world today. Here are five examples of human rights hashtags that made history:
In 2016, construction workers dug up a section of land sacred to local tribal nations in Iowa and the Dakotas. The workers’ purpose? Build the Dakota Access Pipeline, an underground oil pipeline. Tribal leaders and activists were also concerned about how the pipeline would affect water quality. Protesters near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation gathered, drawing international attention. Security workers unleashed attack dogs. The incident was filmed on social media, where several million watched. Tokata Iron Eyes, a teenager, and her friends are credited with coining the #NoDAPL hashtag. Millions of Twitter and Facebook users spread the hashtag. Near Standing Rock, protests grew to nearly 15,000 people from all over the world. It became the largest gathering of Native Americans in a century. Police eventually cleared the camp, inflicting hundreds of injuries. The pipeline was completed in 2017, but legal proceedings – including an order for an environmental impact review – continue.
Activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” on Myspace in 2006 to empower women who had survived sexual violence. In 2017, in response to the first accusations against Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged survivors to write #MeToo on social media. She was not aware of the origins of the phrase. The hashtag spread quickly across social media platforms and in the next few weeks, it appeared more than 12 million times. The world became aware of Burke and the community she’d started expanded globally. #MeToo exposed the prevalence and scope of sexual violence and harassment in every corner of society, including in the workplace. It’s no longer possible to deny how common it is or that systems protect perpetrators.
In 2014, terrorist organization Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls. This extremist group is active in Nigeria and has displaced millions due to conflict. Boko Haram often conducts mass abductions. According to the BBC, lawyer Ibrahim M. Abdullahi was the first person to tweet #BringBackOurGirls. It started trending and soon went international. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie participated, as well as activist Malala Yousafzai and then-First Lady Michelle Obama. However, while more people became aware of Boko Haram and their actions, not much changed. #BringBackOurGirls is notable because it shows the limits of hashtag activism. Most of the attention came from outside of Nigeria and many in the country felt like hashtag users didn’t understand the context of what was going on. It wasn’t like they had cared much about Nigeria before. Local politicians were able to dismiss the hashtag. Some of the girls were released in 2016 and 2017, but most are still missing. Boko Haram continues to terrorize the region.
In 2012, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager. Grief-struck, Alicia Garza posted on Facebook with the phrase “Black lives matter.” Her friend Patrice Cullors, a community organizer, replied with a hashtag version of the phrase. It spread from Facebook and Twitter. Garza, Cullors, and activist Opal Tometi created a network of activists and community organizations and named it Black Lives Matter. The hashtag trended following the deaths of other Black Americans like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The movement grew and in 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, the hashtag became a global symbol for racial justice. According to PC Mag, #BlackLivesMatter was used almost 50 million times between May 26 and June 7, 2020.
Created in 2014 by the African American Policy Forum and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, #SayHerName draws awareness to the intersection of race and gender. It addresses the fact that in conversations about racial justice and police brutality, BIPOC women are often neglected. Since 2015, AAPF has hosted a #SayHerName Mothers Weekend where women who have lost daughters to police violence gather and build community. AAPF also has specific demands associated with the hashtag, such as sharing the stories of women killed by police; holding police accountability; ending no-knock warrants; and diverting police resources to education, mental health services, and more. #SayHerName has been used to draw attention to women such as Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, and Atatiana Jefferson.