Last week another hashtag went awry. In an attempt at levity, FOX & Friends launched a campaign to ring out the old year using the hashtag #Overit2014. And while many of us in the social media world already know to be wary of backfiring hashtags if you are a controversial organization, the wiz-kids at FOX & Friends apparently do not. In response to their hashtag, Twitter erupted with tweets that blasted FOX News and the conservative movement it champions (and a week later, the eruption continues, still). This prompted me to take a deeper look at the political and advocacy hashtags of 2014 to see what they reveal about the year that was.
Before digging a little deeper into the other hashtags, let's spend a moment pushing the discussion about #OverIt2014 towards more nausea, because I am not over it yet. The fact that this hashtag backfired on FOX & Friends shows that not only do they live in a bubble where everyone loves FOX News, but they don't learn from other hashtag failures within their bubble (remember #AskJPM?). The lesson, as I have written before, is to be sure to anticipate backlash and protect yourself against it by 1) doing advanced PR work to ensure your perspective already has some traction and 2) prepare a response strategy in the event of a backfire. Otherwise, don't do it!
Now, let's get on to the real story about hashtags in 2014. What struck me most about the biggest political and advocacy hashtags of the year was their focus on three of the most vexing issues facing the polity. Sure, there were a few isolated flare ups that made a big impact, like the #IceBucketChallenge, which netted ALS Association about $100 million to help in its fight against Lou Gehrig's Disease. But the real hashtag story of 2014 is how a clear pattern emerged highlighting our persistent problems with bigotry and violence, especially regarding race, sex and religion.
Early in the year, we saw the launch of Zerlina Maxwell's #RapeCultureIsWhen hashtag, highlighting our unacceptable acceptance of rape as part of our society. This hashtag was just the opening salvo for a year highlighted by several explosive hashtags including #BringBackOurGirls, #YesAllWomen, #MyDressMyChoice, #GamerGate and #StopGamerGate. These hashtags highlighted the harsh realities women confront in daily life. What we learned is that violence against women is a global problem, where women are subject to threats and attacks from terrorists (#BringBackOurGirls) for getting educated; from street gangs imposing their own moral code through immoral actions (#MyDressMyChoice) against women wearing dresses that they consider too short; from misogynistic gamers (#GamerGate) who threaten feminist critics with rape and murder; and from some (too many) men sprinkled throughout the population who force women to be ever-vigil against the threat of rape and other violence (#YesAllWomen).
With respect to religion, in addition to the asserted religious conflicts found in the #BringBackOurGirls and #MyDressMyChoice hashtags, we saw a strong backlash to the President's call for Muslims to renounce the actions of extremists cloaking themselves in Islam. What started as a campaign using the hashtag #NotInOurName gave way to a counter-campaign using the hashtag #MuslimApologies. While not denying the serious challenge of extremism, umbrage was taken for mainstream Muslims having to apologize for it. Imagine if we called on Christians to apologize for the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church or for the violent actions of the KKK, which often cloaks its actions in Christian garb. The double-standard revealed by #MuslimApologies even made its way into discussions about #MyDressMyChoice, when some asked why it was some girls' choice to wear short dresses, but it was not the right of other girls to choose to wear a hijab?
And then there is the convergence of abusive police tactics and race. It all started in 2014 with the hashtag #MyNYPD. Instead of getting nice pictures of NYC residents smiling arm-in-arm with New York's finest, they got pictures of NYPD officers crossing the line against citizens protesting during the Occupy Wall Street protests. And while those pictures were from a previous administration and the policies had been changed in NYC, reaction to the hashtag spawned copycats in Los Angeles, Phoenix and other cities across the country. What started as a PR campaign ended up launching a national conversation about police violence. And then we got #Ferguson and #EricGarner, which begat #ICantBreathe, #CrimingWhileWhite and #BlackLivesMatter. These hashtags took the conversation about police on black violence to a whole new level, even to the point of mobilizing long-dormant professional athletes to activism. Which brings us right back to FOX News and Geraldo Rivera's mis-stepping deep into the morass with some very racist advice for pro athletes who had stepped up to protest police abuse.
Unlike typical top hashtags of the year articles, which give you a list of hashtags with descriptions in a "one-off" fashion, my goal here is to look at patterns. Hashtags can explode at any time, but whether they impact society depends on their staying power and ability to ignite a sustained national and international conversation. Before we will ever see meaningful policies enacted to address these issues, before we will ever see cultures shift behavior to eliminate these problems, we have to talk about them. People have to understand how prevalent these problems are. They must see how much these problems affect the people around them. But because we still tend to live in our own bubbles, we do not get to see the full extent of how these issues affect people beyond our bubbles.
Thankfully, we now have hashtags to pop our bubbles and force us to open our eyes to the realities of the world. The next step is to do something about it!