The important conversations about police violence and systemic racism happening right now are happening around hashtags. This isn’t a new phenomenon, #MeToo has become shorthand for the movement against workplace sexual harassment, but in the days since George Floyd’s murder, a critical mass of social media content has seemed to mobilize around a few slogans, and it’s worth it to parse out what exactly they’re doing.
#BlackLivesMatter has become synecdoche for the current fight against police brutality, from protestors carrying signs with the slogan to the mayor of D.C. painting it on a street near the White House. The term was coined in 2013 by black community organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, in response to the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his murderer, George Zimmerman. The phrase sought to bring attention to the statistic that black Americans are twice as likely to be killed by police officers, and condemns a system that values white comfort over black life. Since 2013, there have been countless protests under the umbrella of #BlackLivesMatter, across cities and countries, and the phrase has remained relevant as cases like Martin’s have arisen again and again. BLM It is now a multi-pronged organization dedicated to eradicating white supremacy, but it began with a hashtag.
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) June 5, 2020
#AllLivesMatter sprung up as a response to #BlackLivesMatter, and has come under immense criticism since it first came to popularity in 2015. The backlash against the term is palpable. Seth Rogen recently told those who use the slogan that they “don’t deserve [his] movies,” and Sacremento Kings commentator Grant Napear was recently fired after using the term on Twitter. The resistance to the saying is crystal clear: all lives can’t matter until black lives matter, and it’s nonsensical to think that everyone is equally threatened. Critics of the hashtag are sure to clarify that it’s not to insinuate that other lives don’t matter, but that drawing equal attention to those who aren’t under attack is to obscure the real, immediate danger that black people are in. America is already built to protect white people’s safety and property, and the phrase works to universalize the movement into oblivion. #AllLivesMatter has become a way to identify those who are blinded by privilege, unable to see the realities of structural racism in our country.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the hashtag #SayHerName works to specify the message of #BlackLivesMatter. On March 13th, plainclothes Louisville police officers killed Breonna Taylor in her own home, after following a “no-knock” warrant concerning a drug lead that potentially involved Taylor’s home address. The officers fired at her at least eight times while she slept. Some outspoken activists have since claimed that Taylor’s story has been sidelined in the current discussion of police violence in favor of more high-profile cases involving male victims. #SayHerName was resurrected in response to this marginalization, aiming to uplift and validate the long legacy of black women in civil rights. The hashtag has since filled up with the names and stories of black women who were victims of police violence.
One of the most fascinating cases of hashtag activism, though, came to a head on Tuesday, and if you’re on Instagram, you likely already know what this refers to. #TheShowMustBePaused was the creation of Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, black music industry executives who sought use the day as a chance to “take a beat for an honest, reflective, and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community.” On the website, Thomas and Agyemang provide a list of actionable links to bail funds and petitions for justice.
Quickly, though, #TheShowMustBePaused evolved into #BlackOutTuesday, which became posting a black square to one’s Instagram page with accompanying hashtags. Feeds were clogged for almost the whole day, with over 28 million posts under the hashtag, and the trend came under scrutiny for drowning out valuable resources in a sea of blank images. In an article for Hyperallergic, Kambole Campbell described the craze as a show of “narcissistic half-hearted self-flagellation of white liberals and corporations.”
It is no accident, though, that the original creators of the movement were so thoroughly drowned and that solidarity was so immediately conflated with action. Hashtags have a history of functioning this way. In her book “Trick Mirror,” New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino explores notions of performativity on the internet, especially as it relates to activism. In reference to #YesAllWomen and #MeToo, she writes that “A hashtag is specifically designed to remove a statement from context and to position it as a part of an enormous singular thought […]”. Hashtags collapse the variety of experience into one slogan. They’re designed to collectivize and show power in numbers, but can often serve to erase nuance, and in the case of Black Out Tuesday, can actually be hijacked to erase the vital voices of community leaders. Tolentino goes on to note, “It’s telling that the most mainstream gestures of solidarity are pure representation, like viral reposts or avatar photos with cause-related filters, and meanwhile the actual mechanisms through which political solidarity is enacted, like strikes and boycotts, still exist on the fringe.”
The now popular #SilenceIsViolence feeds into this discussion of online activism. The slogan aims to call into criticism everyone from the cops who stood idly by when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd to white social media influencers that refuse to use their platform to promote justice. The idea behind it is to inspire those who might feel their best course of action is to stay out of the conversation to awaken from their complacency and join the difficult discussions. But again, the function of the hashtag can flatten the demands of this sentiment, and creating an environment where simply flagging solidarity is enough.
The problem of hashtags comes down to a question of action. Is it enough to wordlessly signal to your followers that you care by posting a black square? No. But is it something? Maybe. Is there something touching on the surface-level about scrolling through your feed and to see that your friends/peers/mentors are paying attention? Perhaps, but the effect of that something becomes defeated when it serves to drown out the voices of those who are going beyond the hashtag- those who are organizing mutual aid funds, compiling reading lists, and calling their senators. It can also serve to give non-black people a false sense of fulfillment. A few taps on Instagram and morality is signaled, the compulsion to enact personal and societal change quelled. Hashtags only work when there is more to the story, and when a revolution gets essentialized to a sound bite, the simple act of reposting of which is considered action, the status-quo remains unchallenged.
None of this is to say that social media is unilaterally ineffective in the organizing of social and political movements. Social media feeds are full of meaningful graphics, resources, and on-the-ground reporting, connecting movements across cities and countries, and giving space for marginalized voices outside of traditional media. Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok are the languages of today, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge these platforms as the powerful tools of mass communication that they are, but failure to see beyond the hashtag and allowing activism end at reposting is to fail those who are dedicated to tangible change.