In the last week, for very different reasons, two particular hashtags got a lot of attention on Twitter.
During the run-up to Thursday’s UK local and European elections, the UK Independence Party tried to drum up visibility (though why they thought it was needed given the relentless media attention…) by pushing the use of #WhyImVotingUkip. The goal was to get supporters sharing their motivations, presumably to open up a wider audience to the attractions of the party’s position.
I could be wrong, but I get the sense that Ukip’s communications people don’t really get what a tech-savvy userbase is able to do to a hashtag campaign by a controversial brand. Either that or they have uncommon faith in human nature – which is unlikely, given they rely so heavily on bringing out the worst in people.
Were they, I wonder, surprised when the hijack happened?
#WhyImVotingUkip because I heard they were going to take Britain out of Europe, so I'm hoping they move us somewhere hot like the Caribbean
— Dominic McGregor (@DominicMcGregor) May 22, 2014
#WhyImVotingUkip because Dracula was from Romania and we need to keep vampires away
— Carlos Adama (@Carlos_Adama) May 21, 2014
Because I want any child in Britain whose parents aren't the same race is Nigel Farage to live in fear #WhyImVotingUkip
— Tony Grew (@ayestotheright) May 21, 2014
#WhyImVotingUkip because if I don't we'll all be eating romanian gay-bombs while the EU makes my nan wear a burkha. Or something.
— Jason Cook (@jasonmarkcook) May 21, 2014
Obviously in the early stages there were a number of very earnest Tweets by actual supporters delivering their personal viewpoint on why Ukip was going to be good for the country. But it was the sarcastic and undermining thread of messages that quickly dominated the hashtag and its media coverage, many using the opportunity to highlight the more extreme positions stated by the party’s supporters.
It’s astonishing that a brand almost defined by the extreme division between its followers and opponents should throw something like this out into the world with no thought as to how it could backfire. No doubt Ukip could argue that given the results it didn’t damage their campaign, but given this is a party whose own spokeswoman acknowledged their difficulty in getting their message across to the “more media-savvy, educated” sections of the populace, you’d think someone would have flagged that giving that audience another stick with which to beat them wasn’t necessarily the brightest idea.
At the other end of the scale, and showing how a hashtag that emerges organically is often more effective than a manufactured one, was the #YesAllWomen wave.
When multiple-murderer Elliot Rodger’s videos and online manifesto were discovered, his misogynistic attitudes and goal to target women who had not given him what he believed he deserved were quickly seized upon. (The complex system of motivation and circumstance that tipped Rodger over the edge is far beyond the outsider’s ability to judge – here I’m only discussing the statements he made and the response to them.) It’s common when male violence against women happens for some men to jump to their gender’s defence by pointing out that “not all men” carry out these acts, which while true has become something of a clichè. The broad goal of #YesAllWomen is to counter that: Not all men behave like this, but all women have to live in a world where they could be a victim of this. Under the hashtag, women and men alike offered viewpoints and experiences highlighting the reality of their world:
#YesAllWomen because I was told "don't wear that, guys will look at you" but my brother wasn't told "don't look at girls like that"
— Whats Good, Miley!? (@avonsloveaffair) May 26, 2014
#YesAllWomen started in response to a mass shooting in CA but it's trending worldwide b/c harassment of women is a problem everywhere
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) May 27, 2014
#YesAllWomen because Taylor Swift gets more hate from singing about her life experiences than Robin Thicke did for making a song about rape.
— lexi? (@lexirxe) May 25, 2014
The cops who asked me "Well, what were you wearing?" when I reported an attack and attempted rape. #YesAllWomen
— Aimee Mann (@aimeemann) May 25, 2014
Unsurprisingly, many of the users employing the hashtag were attacked, which in many ways only served to illustrate the need for it in the first place. Even these responses only served to broaden the reach of the hashtag though, leading at least a couple of tools I’ve seen calculate its reach so far as over one billion impressions.
A hashtag like this explodes because it taps into a very real experience shared by huge numbers of women, but sometimes it takes a catalyst, even a terrible one, to bring that experience into the open.
If there’s one thing that the stories of each of these hashtags illustrate it’s that very little beats passion and spontaneity when it comes to giving social media an impact. Which is why I suspect I’m not the only one who took the story of 45 days to plan and execute a single Tweet as satire when I first read it.