One of the aspects that makes hashtag activism so powerful and compelling is that a hashtag is both individual and collective. Anyone can tweet their particular story, perspective, or concern under the hashtag, making it a deeply personalized form of protest. At the same time, the hashtag aggregates and networks these personal posts into a collective action. You can think of the hashtag as the digital version of a picket sign — I can write whatever I want on my sign and you can write whatever you want on your sign, but we’re all gathered here in the same town square, participating in one collective protest. That Twitter is a digitally networked, public-by-default, global platform amplifies the reach and strength of this collective but personal form of protest. Plus, launching a viral hashtag campaign requires a lot less time and energy and fewer resources than mobilizing an in-person street protest.
The hashtag’s ability to act as a personalized form of protest, however, is also one of its limitations. Some of the most virally successful feminist hashtags about sexual violence — #MeToo, #YesAllWomen, #WhyIStayed — are general enough to include a broad spectrum of personal stories. But this flexibility also leaves them wide open to cooptation. In the case of #HimToo, the hashtag itself does not place any constraints on the content of the tweet, aside from the fact that its use of a masculine pronoun directs attention toward men’s experiences. This makes it flexible enough to accommodate a number of different, even contradictory ideologies and messages, from the more progressive idea of supporting male survivors to the more reactionary notion that men are no longer safe in the #MeToo era. The networking functions of the hashtag make it easy for one person or a coordinated group of people to coopt a hashtag for their own purposes and trigger an entirely new cycle of diffusion for that hashtag built around a new message. As a testament to how easy and common this tactic is, public relations professionals even have a name for it — “hashtag hijacking.” Over the past several years, we’ve seen activists across the political spectrum use this tactic, including Black Lives Matter activists’ hijacking of the #MyNYPD hashtag and now men’s rights activists’ hijacking of #HimToo to spread rape myths about false accusations. Not only is hashtag hijacking fairly easy, but hashtag campaigns are often not backed by the traditionally structured social movement organizations that would be required to mobilize more conventional forms of protest. This means that the campaign lacks the organizational capacities to launch a coordinated response to the hijacking or reclaim its original message.
The lesson for activists is that hashtag activism is a double-edged sword. While its pairing of the personal with the collective can have powerful results, the flexibility of a hashtag campaign also leaves it open to any message, even those that directly contradict its original mission. The result can be a lack of a clear, unifying message at best or cooptation at worst.