SXSW 2016: How to use hashtags to support your cause

Now the media concedes that social media can change the world after all.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the past few years, we’ve seen a shift in nonprofits’ and the media’s perception of the role social media can have to activate social change. What used to be met with eye-rolls or sometimes panic is starting to be accepted … and now leveraged.

At the 2015 SXSW Interactive, we heard about the story and fallout from the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag; how Black Twitter evolved, and how that hashtag fostered a conversation around social justice. It was a “phenomenon” that supported a conversation around race in America.

But at the 2016 SXSW panel #Movements: When a Hashtag Breaks the News, we heard a panel of media and journalism professionals concede that social media has increased public participation in social change, and that hashtags are a key tool for social movements.

“Hashtag activism has become a way to raise organize in real time,” said Jade Floyd, director of communications for the Case Foundation. “That means editors and reporters are battling users to break the news and share it in a way that’s meaningful.”

So to her the question becomes, “How do we create a culture that’s more demanding of social justice?”

Jean Ellen Cowgill, president of Atlantic Media Strategies, said, “Any social movement is going to use the media of the day.” She brought up the Broadway musical “Hamilton” about the life of Alexander Hamilton. In it, the characters discuss (sing) how they must make and distribute pamphlets to organize their movement. “And today we have social media. And we’re going to see the same way we see it play out in social causes.”

While the conversation was around how the media should react to the fact that they’re not the ones in charge of the news anymore, nonprofits should tune in to what this means for them. Here are four takeaways that can help your next campaign:

1. “Hashtags are powerful,” said Rahimi, “but a hashtag alone does not a movement make. Change does not happen without strong organization and collective will.” Organizations need to see social media as a modern tool for organizing.

“I actually think social media is increasing civic engagement,” said Shadi Rahimi, deputy produce of Al Jazeera AJ+. “I think that’s really powerful and transformative. Social media is helping to evolve the American political system by being another way of checks and balances. I think Americans are much more smart, more engaged, and more civic minded because of it.”

2. The conversation around a hashtag can be different from one social media platform to the next. Note the findings from a Pew Study in which they tracked the hashtag #Ferguson.

“On Twitter the overwhelming majority of people used it to disseminate information about a specific event,” said Katarena Eva Masta, research associate at the Pew Research Center, “but on Instagram they used the hashtag around a more general theme of race,” posting photos and quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., for example.

3. Know that hashtags can help a local movement get seen beyond its geographic area. Rahimi noted that many believed the up-rise in Egypt was more of a “Twitter revolution,” but she said, “A lot of people participating in that don’t have access to technology,” so the hashtag was more or a beacon than the root of the movement.

Important to note, and again speaks to the fact that the hashtag is a tool.

4. If you want to encourage a real discussion around a topic, choosing a neutral hashtag can encourage people to weigh on from both sides. Rahimi described how her news team reported on the Baltimore riots but was hesitant to use the hashtag #BaltimoreRiots because the term “riots” is a judgment rather than a fact.

See more of our 2016 SXSW Interactive coverage here.

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