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Can a hashtag change the world?

When hashtags first emerged, I remember questioning what the point of them was – to be honest, what is there really to get about #like4like? At twelve years old, it just seemed like a way to seek attention for pouting selfies. However, I’ve since discovered their intended purpose. Hashtagging essentially opens you up to a community of people who share a common interest, value, opinion or social media content.

Generally, most of us will only follow either people we already know or famous figures on platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Through the hashtag feature, social media allows us to engage beyond these ordinary social groups. For example, fitness blogs use hashtags such as #fitness4me and #strengthfeed to build a community of like-minded people. Hashtags are an incredibly simple way to discover more people in the world and connect with them.

A hashtag is a way to bring about a sense of community without forcing victims to come forward in person

As we have seen from the recent emergence of the hashtag #MeToo, a response to the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood powerhouse Harvey Weinstein, hashtags can connect people based on a much more serious political or social meaning. Especially for something that can feel as isolating and terrifying as sexual assault, a hashtag is a way to bring about a sense of community without forcing victims to come forward in person.

The hashtag has brought awareness to the sheer amount of women and men who have suffered from sexual assault or harassment, and demonstrated that these incidents are not isolated. The value of #MeToo for the individual victim can’t be underestimated, as it allows them to open up about the trauma they have experienced and find support in others. Survivors can offer solidarity to one another and talk through their experiences together. For those who have not experienced sexual assault, the hashtag is still hugely important, rendering them aware of the magnitude and gravity of the issue. Through one simple hashtag, problems that are rarely discussed are forced onto the surface of conversation. In the case of sexual harassment, it is certain that the more people talking about it, shaming it, and pledging to change it, the more likely it is that these acts will cease to occur with the frequency that they currently do.

Because many people contribute to hashtags such as #MeToo, it can be easy to think that this is an accurate representation of the extent of the issue. However, it is worth bearing in mind that we only read the stories that can bear to be told. Sharing such traumatic experiences requires an immense amount of strength and determination. It means re-opening up a wound, recounting one of your most painful stories. Some individuals are simply not ready to do this. The onus should not be on survivors to be the source of support for others. The #MeToo thread can make those who have experienced sexual assault feel pressure to share their experiences, as they see potentially triggering content all over their newsfeeds. Somebody’s individual trauma may have occurred long before Weinstein’s story overtook the news, and no one should have to align their story with this specific perpetrator’s acts. When we come across a #MeToo hashtag, it is absolutely key to admire, respond positively, and offer support to those who have revealed their suffering. However, it is just as in important to recall that nobody owes you their story. A survivor is a survivor, and inner strength is as valuable as outer strength.

A hashtag confession is not the same as a confession in a court of law

Hashtags have also been a form of uniting people at Warwick itself. Almost two years ago, the hashtag #WeStandWithFara emerged following an incident of racism in first year halls. The hashtag not only supported Fara, the undergraduate who was the victim of the abuse, but also showed that Warwick would not tolerate this kind of behaviour. Others shared their stories of racism in higher education, and Warwick Anti-Racism Society used it to spread a petition for the university to take action against racism, which was signed by over 2,000 people. While the racist incident made national news and served to show that the most virulent of microagressions can take place in the most respectable of institutions, the hashtag helped people to realise that racism can and will be counteracted. #WeStandWithFara certainly helped to foster a sense of community among university students across the UK.

The question really now is whether these hashtags serve the purpose of evoking social change, or simply raise temporary awareness and a sense of community. My first instinct would be to say that the latter. How much can two simple words really change the world? Hashtag campaigns are also constricted to social media platforms, which means both that they can only reach a specific audience, and that they do not always translate into the real world. A hashtag confession is not the same as a confession in a court of law, which can have more solid repercussions. Furthermore, simply sharing the hashtag #MeToo, as many have done, may not be enough to convince those already inclined to disavow sexual abuse allegations. Ella Whelan from Spiked writes: “As with all social-media trends, it’s hard to know what is true and what is exaggeration.”

Social change is a gradual process

Despite its shortcomings, it would be wrong to dismiss the significance of this campaign. Social change must always begin with awareness of the issue, and #MeToo has certainly helped to raise this. According to Facebook, in less than 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world had engaged in the #MeToo conversation, with more than 12 million posts, comments, and reactions. The company revealed that more than 45% of people in the United States are friends with someone who’s posted a message with the words ‘me too’. Social change is a gradual process; ideologically, things are going to take some time. But even talking about it, as opposed to keeping it under wraps, is encouraging men to question their behaviours and women to speak out against the abuse they have experienced. It’s a small impact, but an impact nonetheless, and any voice of strength among such tragedy is important.

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