BY KAT WILLIAMS

MIT PressMIT PressA Review of #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice by Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2020, 250 pp.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd––a 46-year-old Black man from Minneapolis––was murdered after police arrested him for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd, unarmed and handcuffed, was tackled to the ground where officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for approximately nine minutes. Despite Floyd’s cries that he could not breathe, he was ignored and quickly suffocated to death.1 Righteously outraged by the extrajudicial killing, protests erupted around the nation demanding accountability for his death. Also in the spring of 2020, many institutions and businesses in the United States began taking seriously the COVID-19 pandemic. Because thousands of people were dying each day, official lock-downs or work-from-home orders were issued, and many Americans found themselves relegated indoors.2 Those looking to participate in efforts seeking justice for Floyd (as well as a long list of others) but unable to break quarantine had to find ways to aid the cause without being physically present at protests. Thus, the co-occurrence of these two events spurred what several news outlets have called “the year of digital activism,” as Americans across the country utilized social media platforms to spread movement information and make their voice heard.

A year later, the trend of digital activism has continued throughout 2021 with no indication of fading out. As such, #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice is a timely work that any scholar studying social movement rhetoric or social media networks stands to learn from. The book is co-written by three authors––Sarah J. Jackson, Presidential Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania; Moya Bailey, Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies at Northeastern University; and Brooke Foucault Welles, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University––and looks at a variety of viral Twitter hashtags aimed at addressing the gendered and racially-motivated violence rampant in the United States. By studying hashtag activism, or “the strategic ways counterpublic groups and their allies on Twitter employ [hashtag] shortcut[s] to make political contentions about identity politics that advocate for social change, identity redefinition, and political inclusion,” the authors make a convincing case for “the importance of the digital labor of raced and gendered counterpublics” (p. xxviii). Together, they have carefully researched the origins, collected data on the usage, and reflected on the effects of hashtag activism to show that ordinary people, excluded from the high-profile media spaces of the elite, have used social media to their advantage in speaking truth to power (p. xxv).

The first half of the book focuses on gender, and Chapter 1: Women Tweet on Violence, “consider[s] the way women use hashtags to center and legitimize their experiences with violence” through the study of five Twitter hashtags: #YesAllWomen, #SurvivorPrivilege, #TheEmptyChair, #WhyIStayed, and #MeToo (p. xl). Contrary to mainstream narratives that frame violence against women as an individual problem––where individual women “had it coming” based on their dress or alcohol intake and individual men are simply “bad apples” unrepresentative of a larger problem––the millions of tweets in these hashtag networks show, vividly and painfully, “the realities of a culture that systematically and institutionally enables gendered violence” (p. 1, 2). The authors explain in detail how, for example, #YesAllWomen “worked ideologically to illustrate the connection between everyday sexism and violence,” whereas #WhyIStayed “highlighted toxic relational behaviors as a form of public awareness” (p. 6, 15). Though each hashtag was created from different circumstances and did different work, all five critiqued the broader cultural practice of victim blaming as ordinary women used online storytelling to raise consciousness, build solidarity beyond geographic boundaries, and articulate demands for change––all while taking less physical risk and without the need for help from the elite.

Chapter 2: Visions of Black Feminism extends the previous chapter’s discussion of violence against women but specifically shines a spotlight on the often-ignored work that Black women contribute to gender equality activism. Here, Jackson, Bailey, and Welles look at three hashtags––#FastTailedGirls, #YouOKSis, and #SayHerName––to examine the ways “Black women challenge gatekeeping tactics both inside and outside their counter-public groups and insist on a politics of intersectionality” that can speak to their “unique experiences of ‘double jeopardy’ as subordinated to both Black men and white women” (p. 31, 32). To illustrate Mikki Kendall’s point that “all [women] experience #rapeculture [but] we don’t all do it the same,” Black women utilized these hashtags to tell their stories of sexualization and objectification, either specifically within the Black community or in the face of larger “white supremacist [tropes] that have constructed Black women and girls as ‘always available’” (p. 38). However, Black women are not only victimized in interpersonal circumstances and in public spaces, but also through the abuse and neglect of state actors. While police brutality against Black men has increasingly gained mainstream attention, the especially sinister targeting of Black women has remained brushed to the side. Thus, these hashtags also demonstrated the importance of Black sisterhood and solidarity through promoting bystander intervention and collectively eulogizing the Black afterlife of those lost to such violence, demanding visibility of their stories and always contending that “Black women are valuable” (p. 61).

In the final chapter specifically devoted to gender, Chapter 3: Trans Feminist Advocacy and Community Building, the authors discuss trans worldmaking online primarily through the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs but also offering comments on others like #FreeCeCe, #RedefiningRealness, and #TransIsBeautiful. Despite the (agonizingly slow) normalization of trans women, they continue to face “unique threats to life and health” such as physical violence, cultural stereotypes that paint them as “disruptive and dangerous … hypersexual trickers,” and even bathroom bills that “call on trans people to make an impossible choice between risking their safety and breaking the law” (p. 67, 69, 94). Tweets part of the #GirlsLikeUs network emphasize trans women as beautiful, capable, and relatable by giving them a space to connect with one another, advocate for trans rights, celebrate the accomplishments of trans women (both ordinary and celebrity), share information that serves to educate others, and “preserv[e] trans histories that would otherwise remain untold”––all “without the fraught, incomplete, and transphobic mediation of mainstream narratives” (p. 70). Most importantly, these hashtags have helped bring awareness of injustice into the mainstream (like high profile news media covering CeCe McDonald’s incarceration case) and “played an indispensable role as part of a larger cultural shift that centers sex, gender, and civil rights” (p. 95).

While still approaching their work from an intersectional position, Jackson, Bailey, and Welles focus more specifically on issues of race in the second half of the book. In doing so, Chapter 4: Racial Violence and Racial Profiling digs into the early origins of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Here the authors focus on two hashtags in particular, #OscarGrant and #TrayvonMartin, to document the evolution of social media as a tool for racial justice activism. After Oscar Grant was killed by police in 2009, eye-witness footage of his brutal murder was circulated on YouTube, and community members used his name as a hashtag to communicate important updates on police reactions during the protests that followed. Then in 2012 after Trayvon Martin was attacked and killed by neighborhood watch vigilante George Zimmerman, Twitter hashtags were used in similar and more sophisticated ways to publicize Martin’s story, stay up to date on the details of Zimmerman’s trial, protect Martin’s legacy from narratives based in racial stereotypes, and comment on the miscarriage of justice that was Zimmerman’s acquittal. Importantly, nearly a decade later, #TrayvonMartin continues to appear on Twitter in commemoration of Martin’s birth and death dates, and “in combination with other victims of anti-Black crime” (p. 115). The authors argue that “the ongoing visibility of the hashtag is an example of how the narratives constructed by particular publics are lasting and how particular stories carry symbolic weight even when the events lie in the past” (p. 119).

Building off of the previous chapter, Chapter 5: The Networked Case for Black Lives continues with a deep look into the Black Lives Matter Movement by focusing on hashtags like #Ferguson, #EricGarner and #ICantBreathe, #TamirRice, #FreddieGray, and #PhilandoCastile. Though “Alicia Garza’s first digital utterance of #BlackLivesMatter occurred on Facebook in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman,” the movement did not become an unavoidable force until a year later, particularly after the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent Ferguson uprising in 2014. This chapter is quite detailed and discusses a number of topics including (among others) how these hashtags created a greater network that spanned several social media sites; how the hashtags’ popularity forced the mainstream media to cover anti-Black violence and “question the necessity of the militarized police force” (p. 125); who used the hashtags and for what purposes; how the hashtags linked various cases of injustice over space and time; how “anti-Black racism denies childhood to Black children” (p. 135); how users “mourn with, praise, and express concern for” the loved ones dealing with loss after police murder, especially the Black women who often have to remain strong for their families in the face of incredible pain (p. 144); and the rise of celebrity activists and their controversial contributions. Ultimately, this chapter illustrates the profound ways Black people have used networked social media to bring attention to their suffering and demand justice.

In their final chapter, Chapter 6: The Utility of Digital Allyship , the authors return to a broader conversation encompassing both gender and race to consider the ways allies may authentically or performatively engage in hashtag activism. On one hand, #AllMenCan successfully added to the #YesAllWomen movement to the extent that some tweets offered concrete suggestions for bystander intervention and other actions that “men can engage in to dismantle ideologies and behaviors that further violence against women” (p. 164). However, many also “reproduced problematic ideologies of chivalry” and framed “masculinity in ways that are … exclusive” (p. 163, 164). On the other hand, #CrimingWhileWhite could be read as an attempt to bring attention to the unequal treatment of Black Americans as white people face little, if any, repercussions for violent criminal behavior but Black folks are punished severely for minor infractions. Yet, even as the hashtag attempted to recognize the existence of white privilege, its lack of any calls for action left white allies idly standing by, unsure of what to do with their privilege. Thus, the authors argue that ally involvement in digital counterpublics is limited at best, as it may “welcome new audiences into conversations about power and privilege” or appropriate attention away from the marginalized groups and systemic problems that should be front and center (p. 183).

Overall, #HashtagActivism provides an in-depth look at a variety of digital protest rhetoric to argue that hashtags have become increasingly effective in “aiding progressive efforts as ordinary people and those without access to traditional forms of power create compelling, unignorable narratives” (p. 185). While they do not disagree that “social change [also] requires coordination action that extends beyond the internet,” Jackson, Bailey, and Welles make a convincing case that the narratives behind those direct actions and their movement through the digital sphere are just as important in our modern era of political and social activism (p. 186). Of course, limitations of time and space meant that the authors had to make tough decisions about which hashtags to include and, moreover, they readily admit that the ones “examined in [the] book exemplify a survivorship bias” (p. 196). Even so, despite their two brief mentions of #IStandWithStandingRock and #NoDAPL, given that all of the hashtags examined in the book were United States-centric I would have liked to see a chapter dedicated to indigenous digital counterpublics. Indeed, during the years that their study was conducted (2012-2017), hashtags like #IdleNoMore, #NotYourMascot, and #MMIW (an acronym for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) also promulgated through Twitter and other social media. I hope that this thread can be picked up by Jackson, Bailey, and Welles or other communication scholars in the near future.

Regardless of any critiques, the authors’ intent to approach this work ethically does not go unnoticed and I consider it one of the book’s primary strengths that social media users and content creators were not viewed as objects to be studied, but as collaborators worthy of being heard on their own terms and, when necessary, guaranteed privacy (p. xl). Indeed, my favorite aspect of the book is that most chapters include direct contributions from influential members of each hashtag network, like Wagatwe Wanjuki (creator of #SurvivorPrivilege), Jamie Nesbitt Golden (co-creator of #FastTailedGirls), and Janet Mock (creator of #GirlsLikeUs). This inclusion is crucial in ensuring these cultural laborers maintain power over their narratives and avoiding the potential obfuscation that often accompanies translational practices (p. xxxix). Ultimately, #HashtagActivism is an invaluable contribution to rhetorical studies and broader social justice work. Despite attempts to minimize digital activism as mere “slacktivism,” the authors show that hashtag activism “leads to material effects in the digital and physical sphere” and offers “radical possibilities [for] contemporary democracy” (p. xxxii). In particular, readers will appreciate Jackson, Bailey, and Welles’ interdisciplinary and mixed methods approach to research. From network analytics and algorithmic criticism, to the implementation of feminist and critical race theories, #HashtagActivism has something to offer quantitative and qualitative communication scholars alike.

 

Notes

1. Paul P. Murphy, “New video appears to show three police officers kneeling on George Floyd,” CNN, June 3, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/29/us/george-floyd-new-video-officers-kneel-trnd/index.html.

2. The New York Times, “The Coronavirus in the US: Latest Map and Case Count,” https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-cases.html.

 

  • Kat Williams is a Graduate Research Fellow for the Media Ethics Initiative at the Center for Media Engagement. She is pursuing a graduate degree in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

  • Image: MIT Press