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In the wake of the August shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., many media outlets used a provocative, unsmiling photo of the 18-year-old in their news reports. In response, many African Americans took to Twitter, using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown paired with a two photos to present how their life might be portrayed by the media. One snap might show them glaring for the camera, along with another, softer, image showing them, say, in a cap and gown at graduation, smiling proudly. Or wearing a service uniform. Or reading to a group of children.
This hashtag was born after 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara, Calif., in May, leaving six dead and more than a dozen wounded, before taking his own life. Rodger had previously published a chilling YouTube video and a 141-page manifesto in which he explained he was motivated by his hatred of women, who he felt had always rejected him. It was a chilling revelation in an already horrific crime.
In response millions of women took to social media to share their own personal experiences, not of rejection, but of misogyny and of violence at the hands of men and of men feeling entitled to their bodies. Connecting the tweets was the hashtag #YesAllWomen, a play on the phrase “not all men,” often viewed as the knee-jerk reaction some men make when a woman shares such a story. The story shifted from one of horror at a seriously disturbed man’s rage into one of solidarity.
When video of NFL running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in the face was released in September, the sports world reacted with shock. Rice was promptly dropped by the Ravens and the NFL soon announced he was indefinitely suspended. Yet it wasn’t long before people began to question why Palmer, who was the victim in such a brutal attack, had gone on to marry Rice.
To many women who had experience with domestic violence, the questions were distressing. Beverly Gooden, a writer, was particularly bothered by the questions over Palmer’s decision, which prompted her to share her own sobering story on Twitter using the hashtag #WhyIStayed. Soon thousands of women were joining in, sharing the various reasons they too had stayed with an abusive partner. Reasons for staying ranged from fear, love, religion, denial, children, financial dependency, intimidation and more. The tweets not only allowed thousands of women to share their own stories of domestic abuse, but the hashtag also painted a complicated picture of domestic violence and how it affects women.
#GazaUnderAttack vs. #IsraelUnderFire
As tension between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip erupted this summer, so did the social media battle for public opinion. During the seven-week conflict Israel conducted air strikes on targets in Gaza, while Palestinian fighters fired thousands of rockets into Israel. The war, which claimed an estimated 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis, was launched after the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June. Israel blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and murders. For much of the summer, the world watched with alarm — and many took sides.
Using the hashtags #GazaUnderAttack or #IsraelUnderFire, social media users shared opinions, images and reports of the conflict. As of July 22, the pro-Palestinian hashtag #GazaUnderAttack had been used some 4.3 million times, according to Al Jazeera; meanwhile, the pro-Israel hashtag was shared some 200,000 times in that same time period.
In the Nigerian town of Chibok, more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped while taking their final exams in April. They were abducted by the extremist group known as Boko Haram (which roughly translates as “Western education is sinful”), who had disguised themselves as soldiers and forced the girls up into the back of trucks. A groundswell movement began and Twitter users in Nigeria, frustrated about the lack of official response to the girls’ kidnapping, began using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
The hashtag took off around the world and soon the story was a prominent focus in international media – and on the agenda of several international leaders.
The hashtag’s origins are rather complex: essentially, a conflict between a video game developer and her former boyfriend erupted when the latter publicly accused the former of cheating on him with a game journalist in exchange for positive reviews of her games. The accusation was unsubstantiated but led to a swift and brutal backlash against the developer from the online gaming world. Much of that backlash was dizzyingly misogynistic and included rape and death threats.
Since then, the #gamergate hashtag has come to mean two things, depending on who is using it. For supporters of #gamergate, the hashtag centers on concerns about ethics in gaming journalism. For critics, the campaign is a specious one and what is truly at stake is the male-dominated gaming world’s misogynistic treatment of women. Other women, such as Anita Sarkeesian, who has criticized the sexist stereotypes found in many video games, and Brianna Wu, a game developer, have also come under attack from the movement.
Though #gamergate supporters continue to crusade for ethics in gaming journalism and women who are speaking out against misogyny in the gaming world are still being bombarded with abuse, the hashtag has started a long, drawn-out conversation about the culture of gaming.
#somostodosmacacos (we are all monkeys)
International soccer has long battled racism, but this year a hashtag proved to be a potent tool. When Barcelona soccer star Neymar witnessed his teammate Dani Alves get a banana thrown at him during a game against Spain, the athlete knew he couldn’t stay quiet. Within hours of the incident, Neymar tweeted a photo of himself and his son David Lucca, both of them holding bananas with the hashtag #somostodosmacacos (which translates to “we are all monkeys”). Soon fans, celebrities and fellow players were retweeting Neymar and sharing their own images.
Though the tweet seemed like the impromptu defense of his teammate, Neymar had actually been working with his PR people on a way to combat the derogatory use of the word monkey, which is often lobbed at black players in Europe. The hashtag had already been conceived and when Neymar saw Alves with the banana, decided it was the moment to launch the campaign. The timing was perfect and soon the hashtag, along with the cheeky pose with a banana, became a powerful statement against racism.
There are times when the hashtag is mightier than the platform. In March, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to block Twitter, following allegations of corruption against him and his government, backfired. Announcing the ban, the disgruntled politician stated, “The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is.”
Soon after the hashtag #TwitterisBlockedinTurkey started to spread across the world. Yet it wasn’t just the international community who was tweeting about Erdogan’s bold move; many social media users within Turkey were also taking to Twitter, circumventing Erdogan’s block by logging in via proxy servers or sending tweets via text message, and using the hashtag to flout their defiance. Even Turkish President Abdullah Gul took to Twitter to publicly register his disgust with the ban, further highlighting what little power Erdogan’s move had. Ultimately, the block was lifted in early April after Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that it breached freedom of expression.
After months of tension and the annexation of Crimea, Russian troops once again moved across the Ukrainian border in August. Ukraine’s official foreign ministry Twitter account announced the invasion with a tweet and two hashtags that served as a notice to the rest of the world: “#UkraineUnderAttack #RussiaInvadedUkraine RT PLZ.”
Social media users around the world heeded the request, retweeting the post thousands of times and using the hashtags for their own updates hundreds of thousands of times. Though Russian officials denied any organized presence in Ukraine and many world leaders refrained from using the word “invasion” outright, the hashtags acted as a reminder of what was taking place on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
First we were trying to solve the crime and the meaning of the Yellow King. Then we were arguing whether the show’s overt machismo and sexism was meant as a celebration or a condemnation. Then the hashtag #TrueDetectiveSeason2 popped up and all anyone seemed to care about was casting the next season of HBO’s murder mystery anthology series with increasingly bizarre pairings. Suggestions ranged from Oprah and Gayle to the Olsen twins to Romy and Michele, with many fans finding a way to playfully poke fun at the first season’s controversial gender dynamic. The hashtag also helped fuel casting rumors about the series’ sophomore season, though some fan favorites, like Jessica Chastain and Elisabeth Moss, turned out to be false starts. Now that Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn and Taylor Kitsch have actually landed leading roles for the second season, it likely won’t be long before #TrueDetectiveSeason3 becomes a trending topic in 2015.