Searching social media for viral messages of empowerment begins with a simple phrase — #leanin, #heforshe, or #womenshould, #checkyourself, among others — and pulls up a virtual world of striking photos, evocative quotes, and personal insights. Here, entire movements explode, united by a hashtag.
Feeling inspired? Click the “like” button — according to a study, more than half of Americans use social media to talk about issues they care about, and believe it’s an effective tool to voice advocacy or support. Millennials especially are on board, with 75 percent using their online networks to discuss issues important to them.
In celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), a time to celebrate the progress that’s been made and reflect on advancements yet to come, we’re taking a look at how followers are becoming more globally connected through online activism — and channeling it into real change offline.
The rise of hashtag activism
Thanks in part to the dramatic increase in the use of smartphones, social media is now the go-to destination to share and communicate. “It has become an integral part of our daily habits—we want to check in with our world, and see what’s happening in other people’s worlds,” says social media thought leader Mari Smith. However, she notes its greater purpose: “There’s a lot we can do on social media to shift our perspectives from what I’m having for breakfast or another picture of my cat. We can ask ourselves: What is my deepest intent? And that could be to uplift and inspire and change someone’s day.”
For advertising executive Madonna Badger, co-founder of the New York-based agency Badger & Winters who has worked closely with Avon, the intent was to call attention to the practice of objectifying women in advertising. #WomenNotObjects, an impactful two-minute video, got people talking—from the organization UN Women that tweeted the link to its more than 1.6 million YouTube viewers, an audience spanning more than 180 countries (and counting).
“In 80 percent of advertising, women feel that the message doesn’t speak to them at all,” Badger told Beauty for a Purpose. “It was one thing to say internally that we weren’t going to objectify women, but it was about coming out and taking a stance to say it causes a lot of harm, and we’re not going to do that anymore.” Perhaps part of it was hindsight: “Working with and knowing so many of the real women behind Avon’s campaigns, and their interpretation of beauty, has certainly empowered our message,” Badger says. And now, the message of her video has certainly hit a nerve: “People are sharing it like crazy – it’s not just giant social organizations; it’s one woman and one man at a time,” she notes.
Also highly shareable: Levo League, a millennial-focused career site, implemented the #ask4more campaign to empower women with the tools they need to advocate for more equitable salaries, an initiative tied to April’s Equal Pay Day. “A lot of our members didn’t understand why it was so important,” explains Kathleen Harris, Levo League’s vice president of content. “But the more we pushed, we found that 60 percent of women aren’t negotiating their first job offer.” Powerful videos featuring candid stories from a range of celebrities and accomplished women, infographics, and online workshops got women everywhere discussing pay equity. Women could share the message and join the conversation no matter their age, background, or location.
How to power a hashtag
To make a message go viral, a hashtag should be memorable, easy to spell, and positively phrased, Smith says. Badger agrees: “All great hashtags are three words or less,” she notes. “Ours fit that bill: It was succinct, and describes the message we wanted to get out in the simplest way.”
But perhaps the best way for cause-minded citizens to be effective is to simply join the conversation. “The most important thing people can do is be positive. If you like it, tell them,” Badger suggests. Re-tweets, re-grams and re-pins are taking center stage as activism explodes in a matter of hours, not months. “You see so much passion and devotion to causes because everyone is talking about it,” Harris says. “You don’t have to be in the same room, and it’s public so you can see the support.”