#MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #SaveWater, #ThinkWater, #FeesMustFall. All powerful hashtags that have changed conversations and shifted cultures.
It’s safe to say hashtag campaigns are undeniably powerful. Spotify recently removed R. Kelly’s music from its platform due to the hashtag campaign, #MuteRKelly, enacting a “hateful content and hateful conduct” policy. Later, the music site admitted it went about it in the wrong way.
“A hashtag campaign creates awareness and it sparks discussions and debate,” says social activist, Yusuf Abramjee, “One can reach millions of people through these campaigns and it is often also used for good. The #SaveWater #ThinkWater drive in Cape Town for example reached tens of millions of people over three months.”
Head of the journalism programme at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Jude Mathurine, agrees with Abramjee adding, “Hashtag campaigns allow for the rapid organisation, aggregation, and mobilisation of expression and sentiment around any subject for purposes of engagement – this could be brand or awareness building, social activism or resistance (among others).
“The process of moving hashtags from digital margins to traditional media mainstream often amplifies the significance and relevance of particular campaigns. Consequently, hashtag campaigns are powerful in their own right but campaigns that are able to gain support of legacy based media are frequently more able to achieve their goals.”
Aware.org.za is an activist organisation that campaigns for the responsible consumption of alcohol in all its forms. The body’s CEO Ingrid Louw believes hashtags have become more than just a word or phrase that started life on Twitter.
“It has evolved into a multifaceted tool to tag and track content, emphasise a point of view or galvanise public support through a host of social media platforms (and in some cases, not). The hashtag is part of our contemporary vocabulary, occurring within everyday conversation,” she explains.
The key differentiators between success and failure
But what makes some hashtags stand out from the millions, if not billions, posted every day to Twitter?
Louw points to the youth as a critical and key driver of hashtag campaigns, believing they are vocal and have the power to change society. If a campaign manages to get buy-in from the youth, then it soars.
She identifies four characteristics that separate a successful hashtag campaign from an unsuccessful one. They are:
- A higher cause, something to believe in
- A cause that appeals to our better selves, with a real promise to effect social, behavioural, attitudinal change will propel us into action
- A cause that makes us feel “heard” – a voice in a throng of voices, joined by a common purpose
- Believable, definitive cause and effect, e.g. if I join this movement, then I have the ability to effect a positive change, or be part of a change that address a social ill, an injustice
Consistency is also key. “The power of repetition works and works well. Often, good comes out from # and this is when it’s a call to action or promoting activism. Awareness is crucial… You have thousands of hashtags and some work and others don’t. If you get traction and sustain it, it works. Many campaigns fail because they are not sustained,” comments Abramjee.
Another crucial element, says Mathurine, is, “Those that transition successfully from social media to legacy platforms that have greater political and elite significance tend to achieve their social goals more readily”.
Examples of hashtags that work
Asked which hashtag campaigns they believe are most successful, Mathurine names #MeToo. “Here, virality has wrought change as women have been emboldened to pursue action against rapists and harassers, workplaces began to revamp sexual harassment policies and women took their rightful place in Hollywood,” he says.
Abramjee touts local successes, including #SaveWater (which reached millions of people, ahead of Day Zero in Cape Town), #CITRobberies and #MakePeopleSafe and #MakeMoneySafe, which he says are currently talking points.
When hashtags go wrong
But there is also a polar opposite. As much as hashtags can go viral and effect real change, others could cause a negative backlash. The Kony2012 is a great example as “the video campaign failed in its object as the entire project crumbled when it was subject to intense media scrutiny,” explains Mathurine.
“This sounds a serious warning to organisations using hashtag campaigns and viral marketing to beware of the power of the backlash of the fifth estate (the public) if it feels that it is being manipulated,” he adds.
The other dishonourable mention that Mathurine points to is the #DataMustFall movement. “It was found that campaign leader TBO Touch instead used the campaign to advertise MTN’s revised data rates in 2016. The internet has a long memory and brands that manipulate popular sentiment face a severe backlash and damage to brand reputation when they are found to be piggybacking on hashtags or failing to be authentic,” he says.
This is an important point to reiterate, authenticity is crucial.
Amplified by influencers
A final action that boosts the chances of a hashtag campaign’s success is the incorporation of influencers into the conversation. The networked media economy that the world sees today works on the basis of links and connections. Influencers amplify the messages through expressions, retweets and shares.
As Abramjee says, “Influencers hold a massive sway over campaigns. It is incredibly powerful and the results are often seen. They must put their heart and souls into the campaigns. If not, they are likely to fail.”
Michael Bratt is a multimedia journalist at Wag the Dog, publishers of The Media Online and The Media. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelBratt8