Hashtags against the Hydra: Challenges of Virality for Digital Resistance under Late Capitalism
As social activism has come to face the challenges of the postmodern world, digital natives have developed novel forms of resistance to oppression. Social media platforms have enabled new forms of connectivity, consequently facilitating new modes of activism. The primary advantage of digital activism has been liberation from the constraints of location—resources and interest can now be mobilized and channelled faster and through more complex networks than ever before. Hashtags have been key to this improved virality. Hashtags allow for posts to be hyperlinked under shared terms, which in turn improves the visibility not only of the salient content, but also of the popularity and social momentum of that content. When turned towards causes of social justice, this use of the digital is referred to as “hashtag activism.”
Nevertheless, with overuse hashtag activism has become a pejorative label for superficial, performative resistance. All too often, movements supported by a hashtag experience disproportionately low support relative to their digital popularity in terms of physical, social, or cultural changes. But while it is true that hashtag activism may not on its own suffice to enact social change, the utility of this novel digital tactic should not be constrained to traditional evaluative models. If we realign from the dominant results-based mode of thinking to a more ecologically-focused approach, the perceived efficacy of hashtag activism can be dramatically improved. Rather than being a Herculean hero in itself, hashtag activism is more accurately described as merely an initial component of more complex strategies of resistance required to address the hydra of increasingly complex forms of oppression of the postmodern world.
Hashtag activism works by allowing for the quantification of the momentum of social movements—the more a hashtag is shared and reposted, the stronger the public sentiment in its regard. Hashtag activism must also be localised as a phenomenon primarily within capitalist democratic contexts. The popularity of a hashtag thus can thus exert pressure through two primary axes. With regard to capitalism, popular hashtags represent market preferences. A viral hashtag campaign can secure a brand’s reputation when consumers tag who they wear, such as #nike or #adidas. However, hashtags have also become a preferred way to organize boycotts, as happened with #boycottnike and #burnnike, popularized after Nike endorsed the polemic Colin Kaepernick. With regard to democractic ideals, the popularity of a hashtag also manifests the will of the people. Functioning as an informal vote, hashtags such as #stopasianhate and #NoDAPL have indicated popular support of various social causes. Hashtag activism can therefore be summarized as a tactic of mobilization appealing to the ethics of democracy and of capitalism to prompt action through quantifiable social pressure. The pejorative associations of “hashtag activism” have followed the failures of popular hashtag campaigns to affect real-world political and legislative actions. However, I argue that this dynamic relies on too simple a view of activism—one in which a single agent fights against a single problem. Instead, the messy nature of oppression in the postmodern world under late capitalism calls for a more nuanced analysis.
The causes espoused by hashtag activism can typically be categorized within one of three labels: the cultural (#MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter), the corporate (#BoycottNike, #noDAPL), or the global (#BringBackOurGirls, #ClimateChange). As documented by many scholars, the cultures and corporations of the 21st century have become decentralized, and they are therefore less sensitive to the pressures of all kinds of activism, not just the digital. While some have praised digital activism for itself decentralizing—thereby learning from the shortfalls of the figure-led movements of the 1960s—this analysis is less often applied to the equal diversification of oppression, which has taken the form of the mythical Lernaean Hydra. Within this metaphor of the hydra, any individual instance of hashtag activism is helpfully conceptualized as a single swipe of Hercules’ sword. When activism is able to achieve its ostensible goal, one can consider a “head” of oppression to be severed. Yet in the classical myth, the hydra regrew ever more heads unless the wound was cauterized by Hercules’ helper Iolaus. In the same way, hashtag activism is capable of achieving meaningful but impermanent action unless accompanied by radical social change. And as Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow, the regrown ideology is often more insidious than its predecessor.
The nature of the hydra’s regeneration varies by issue but stems from the fact that both corporations and cultures of the 21st century are founded in complex social webs. Attempts to boycott companies are stymied by transnational globalization, through which a select few companies have wrestled near monopolies over entire industries, rendering them nearly immune to consumers’ and advocates’ attempts to shift demand at the local or even regional level. Oppressive cultural norms are similarly protected by ideological state apparatus—noted by Antonio Gramsci to be remarkably resilient despite changes in their cultural manifestations over time. Against these defenses, hashtag activism only wields its aforementioned appeals to democratic and capitalist ideals based via popular support. The social awareness that hashtag activism generates is a necessary precursor to political action, and it is mechanically able to do so quite well due to the mechanics of virality. However, problems arise when hashtag activism is expected to also be able to exert forms of influence better achieved through other forms of resistance.
An unlikely precedent for this examination comes from Jacques Rancière’s musings on art. In contemplating the efficacy of art, Rancière notes that critics of the mimetic tradition hold to an antiquated expectation from classical times that art should function as an ethical “magnifying glass, inviting spectators to view the behaviour, virtues and vices of their fellow men and women in the form of a fiction” (143). Underpinning this expectation is the logic that “what the viewer sees... is a set of [semantic] signs… that will engender resistance,” a model Rancière dubs “the pedagogical model of the efficacy of art” (143-144). By this logic, the representation of circumstances through art then prompts the common man to align his behavior with a common set of ethics. Such also seems to be the expectation of the awareness campaigns characteristic of hashtag activism. If the ethics of a case can be convincingly argued—as attempted by the #NoDAPL campaign—the witnessing public will shift their behaviour accordingly, thus applying the social pressure necessary to achieve the change. Yet by the 18th century, this assumption had been called into question by critics such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As summarized by Rancière, “the problem with representation,” for Rousseau, “is not that it is evil as such, but that it entails a separation between doing and seeing” (145). In the same way, the representation of oppression through awareness campaigns only rarely manages to bridge the very same separation between seeing and doing that it facilitates. Positivist logic notes that awareness almost always must precede action, yet the expectation that awareness consequently leads to action ignores the critical separation noted by Rousseau and Rancière.
If the primary strength of hashtag activism is its efficiency in generating awareness due to the mechanics of internet virality, the ineffectiveness of awareness in producing pressure on corporations and cultures in the 21st century must equally be acknowledged. Take perhaps the two most famous examples: #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. In these cases, hashtag campaigns successfully raised awareness of sexual violence against women and state-sanctioned violence against African Americans. Analysis through social psychology provides reason to optimistically presume that the prevalence of these two hashtags provided sufficient environmental priming to prompt cultural identification with narratives of victimhood (Jacobson), thus prompting non-negligible outpourings of support for the salient demographics. Nevertheless, the metaphorical hydra was merely beheaded, not slain, by these efforts, and the root causes of misogyny and racism were not directly or sufficiently challenged in the wake of the campaigns—Iolaus was not able to cauterize the wound. In other examples, #BringBackOurGirls was widely successful in raising awareness of the presence of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, yet the campaign lacked any follow-up by which to incentivize governments to intervene in West Africa. Popular demand and appeals to ethics similarly meant little in the attempt to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline with #NoDAPL. Given the lucrative prospects of the pipeline and the impossibility of Americans to extract themselves from the systems of profit supporting the oil industry, #NoDAPL could only rely on appeals to ethics, which have proven increasingly ineffective as late stage capitalism and transnational corporate interests come to speak only the language of profits.
In addition to the limitations on its efficacy, hashtag activism is limited in the topics it can successfully address because it is dependent upon the conventions of internet virality. In order to gain viral momentum, a hashtag must espouse a cause that is sympathetic and yet does not too strongly challenge the foundations of the global hegemony. Consequently, inspirational stories about charitable acts for the homeless can garner significant support through platforms like GoFundMe, yet significant challenges to the economic conditions that lead to homelessness have not been witnessed since #OccupyWallStreet, which failed for the same reasons as #NoDAPL; it could not leverage its social pressure meaningfully upon the class elite—Hercules’ sword could not pierce. The issues of greatest concern within academia are similarly absent from the viral landscape, as complex issues such as the exploitation of the Global South cannot be condensed with integrity into a single hashtag. The issues of global import that do manage to go viral again tend to be superficial, as with the reduction of pollution awareness down to #SkipTheStraw.
#SkipTheStraw and its variants emerged from a concern over the effect of plastics on ocean ecology, riding on the momentum of 2014’s Proposition 67 in California, which banned the distribution of single-use plastic bags in the state. The anti-straw movement was strongly motivated by a viral video of the removal of a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose first published in August of 2015 (currently with more than 34 million YouTube views at the time of writing). Nevertheless, according to the Ocean Conservancy, straws and stirrers only account for approximately 2.5% of the trash collected by coastal cleanup efforts, and only twice that amount of plastic bags collected. Both types of items are however are significantly outnumbered by bottle caps (8%), bottles (11.5%) and cigarette butts (13.7%; TIDES), yet the virality constraints of hashtag activism only allow for straws to be targeted and acted upon due to a unique constellation of cultural and media factors.
A significant cause for the success of straw bans in America comes from the promotion of an action that is both individual and minimally inconvenient. Milo Cress—credited as among the first to encourage a straw ban as a 9-year-old in Vermont in 2010 (Basu)—was first inspired to reduce straw waste when he noticed drinks in a local cafe were being served with straws that were being removed unused, therefore wasted. Along this tack then, hashtag activism has tried to harness collective individual actions to tackle other global environmental issues. In response to the 2018 edition of what seems to now be a perennial panic report on #ClimateChange, CNN both tweeted and published an article on individual actions that could be taken to help meet carbon emission goals, such as reducing meat consumption and utilizing public transit (Miller). Other news sources were quick to join the bandwagon emphasizing individual action through reduced meat consumption—British newspaper The Guardian alone published at least seven separate articles on the subject in the last quarter of 2018. However, critics of such optimistic propositions countered with a study demonstrating that just 100 corporations were responsible for over 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Griffin), a reality which renders individual action statistically ineffective in the shadow of corporate policies. Advocates of individual vegetarian efforts did not account for the fact it is not meat consumption that drives agricultural carbon emissions, but rather meat production. And while consumer demand can influence producer supply within simple capitalism models, the demand itself can and has been regularly manipulated by corporate interests since at least the 1980s (Prashad). Activism in the name of reducing global agricultural emissions must additionally account for factors such as food waste and the cultural preference for visual plenty in grocery stores within a recognition that individual and even collective actions are absorbed by transnational capitalism. By this point, the hydra has grown so many heads that the individual activist begins to lose track of them all, and the task of resisting oppression seems to indeed become Herculean.
Despite digital activism’s inability to slay the hydra of postmodern oppression on its own, there remains reason to continue beheading the beast. When combined with fundraising efforts, awareness campaigns can redirect significant resources to areas in need. One of the first viral hashtags, the #icebucketchallenge, which challenged people to have ice water dumped on them to mimic the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also encouraged participants to donate towards ALS research. This campaign combined individual humorous prompt (having ice dumped on you) with a minimally inconvenient proposed action (donating funds) in the name of a sympathetic cause (research of a rare disease). When the ALS Association received over $100 million in donations (more than 36x its average for comparable times in previous years), the campaign’s impact far surpassed the charges of superficiality generally leveled at hashtag-based activism. On a smaller scale, hashtag campaigns have also been orchestrated to resist other forms of oppression, with several notable examples resisting patriarchal ideology regarding expectations for women’s bodies. #EffYourBodyStandards and #BreakingTheStereotype, for example, have championed the body positivity movement, encouraging participants to not just passively consume hegemonic ideology idealizing thin women, but to actively shape the discourse and imagery of women’s bodies through posting their own photos.
In the end then, hashtag activism must be approached with a degree of optimistic skepticism. It is neither as blandly superficial as its critics contend, nor as revolutionary as its advocates hope. By the mechanics of its positioning within late capitalist democracies, its primary efficacy is in generating awareness and education, not in prompting radical social change. But this does not warrant a dismissal of hashtag activism—Iolaus could only cauterize the wound after Hercules’s sword had done its work. A more optimistic interpretation of hashtag activism might celebrate its cut, by which the public consciousness may have the opportunity to more permanently behead the hydra through additional forms of activism.
“The ALS Association Expresses Sincere Gratitude to Over Three Million Donors.” ALSA.org, www.alsa.org/news/media/press-releases/ice-bucket-challenge-082914.html
Basu, Tanya. “This Kid Single-Handedly Ignited the Plastic Straw Ban Movement.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 24 July 2018, www.thedailybeast.com/this-kid-single-handedly-launched-the-plastic-straw-ban-movement?fbclid=IwAR0Jb3-LK1HEYBpeFSu9SxPFsUl9qASq67-E7lWtVQotnGkIw5-23cDsAHk
“It's Been a Year since California Banned Single-Use Plastic Bags. The World Didn't End.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 18 Nov. 2017, www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-plastic-bag-ban-anniversary-20171118-story.html
Griffin, Paul. “The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017”. CDP, 2017. https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/002/327/original/Carbon-Majors-Report-2017.pdf?1499691240
Miller, Brandon. “Planet Has Only until 2030 to Stem Catastrophic Climate Change, Experts Warn.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Oct. 2018, edition.cnn.com/2018/10/07/world/climate-change-new-ipcc-report-wxc/index.html
Prashad, Vijay. The Poorer Nations: a Possible History of the Global South. Verso, 2014.
Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2015.
Sea Turtle Biologist. “Sea Turtle with Straw up Its Nostril - ‘NO’ TO PLASTIC STRAWS.” YouTube, YouTube, 10 Aug. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw
TIDES. Report on Coastal Cleaning Efforts. https://www.coastalcleanupdata.org/