Hashtag Activism vs. Hacktivism

Curator's Note

#BringBackOurGirls. #Kony2012. #YesAllWomen.

A fairly new movement has erupted on social media, and it’s called hashtag activism. The point of the hashtags are to draw attention to a problem going on in the world in a quick and searchable way, with the hopes that it will spread and people will take action. But is change occurring?

Hashtag activism started with the Occupy movement in 2011. #OccupyWallStreet started as an online campaign and later moved into a number of in-person protests around the world. Many other hashtags emerged after the Occupy movement with varying results. On a recent PBS Twitter chat, followers talked about the good and bad points of hashtag activism. Hashtags can raise awareness and communicate an idea very quickly, but more often than not, they don’t seem to change anything. Is hashtag activism mostly “slacktivism”?

Ferguson is a recent example of an issue that spawned a lot of hashtags. However, when the shooting took place in August, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a more popular topic. The issue wasn’t completely resurrected until the grand jury hearing of Darren Wilson was over. If there had been more conversation before the trial, it’s easy to wonder if things might have been different in November.

So, hashtag activism doesn’t always spur change, but hacktivism, especially involving Anonymous, seems to change a lot. Anonymous has protested and hacked the Westboro Baptist Church website, put a child pornography site out of business, and helped link the Chinese military to U.S. cyber attacks, among other things.

Why does hacktivism seem to create more action than hashtag activism? Whether it’s the anonymity, skill set, personalities involved in the group, or a combination of the three, Anonymous is converting online outrage to protests in the streets. Maybe it’s something about the inconspicuous nature of Anonymous’ philanthropy - most hackers will never take credit out of fear of legal backlash, so it can be argued that they’re doing it more out of desire for change than for personal recognition. Whatever the case, hashtag activists should take some pages from hacktivist groups if they want their protests to move to “IRL” settings.


I'd be really interested to hear any thoughts you might have on the Sony Hack and the idea of hacktivism. While it is easier to "support" hacktivism that attacks dubious and dangerous organizations, like the Westboro Baptist Church, what do we make of hacktivism that releases the personal information of thousands of employees? It is relatively easy through the hashtag activism to berate giant corporations, but it is more difficult to square with the idea of individual employees of these corporations losing all of their private information.

I worry about this exact same issue. It can be easier, depending on your views on society and power, to cheer on hacktivism that seems deeply rooted in old school hacker culture from back in the day (here's the hacker's manifesto for reference http://phrack.org/issues/7/3.html). Here, we can think idealistically of rebels attacking powerful institutions (and the status quo) as being aligned with radical political activism that we might support. So, Anonymous hacks while Occupy ... occupies ... and we might find those attacks on the "dubious and dangerous" laudable. But, when state agents hack Sony? Or the DNC? When corporations are hacked in the name of harming capitalism, but individuals have their private information released or stolen? Or trolls hack and dox feminist activists? The techniques of hacking/hacktivism are themselves dangerous - and I would argue are far more often used for nefarious purposes than for any kind of social progress/change/good. I study celebrity culture and spent quite a bit of time analyzing Angelina Jolie's career, including the film Hackers ... which singularly glorifies noble young hackers. Hacktivism can seem cool and counterculture, I'm not convinced the benefits of hacktivism can outweigh the potential for real harm.

Hi Eleanor, I think "We Are Legion" talks about the differences between hacktivists in a nice way. Many hacktivists that do things "for the luls" come out of the same dark corners where these more "righteous" hackers originate. Any good that can be done with an ability can be turned on its head to be bad as well. Some people can use hashtags to spread hate as much as they spread awareness - think about the #jadapose hashtag. However, I don't think that any form of activism should be discouraged due to bad eggs.

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