Citizen Journalism: The Power of the Hashtags

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Jessica texted to her boyfriend.
There’s a gun. I love you.


Another student texted:
Mom I love you there is a shooting at my school if anything happens I love you so much.


On February 14, 2018, many more similar texts left the phones of students inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the span of roughly 82 minutes, former Parkland student Nikolas Cruz opened fire and killed 17 students while also injuring 17 more. He then proceeded to a Walmart and then a McDonald’s before finally being apprehended by police.

Among the Parkland students at school that day was senior and student journalist David Hogg. His first reaction after seeking safety was to interview and capture thoughts from fellow students about the unfolding tragedy. By doing so, he provided an unfiltered, immediate picture of the horrific reality inside the school.

During the shooting, survivors turned to various social media outlets to share their experiences and make their voices heard. From their efforts, new movements surfaced including MarchForOurLives and #NeverAgain. Hogg proved a prominent figure of both. Today, he regularly calls out politicians, companies, and groups that support gun rights or ignore the problem altogether, using hashtags to spread the message.

Social media plays a key role in people’s ability to tell stories in a real-time way, turning essentially every person in the midst of an event into a recorder of the news: a citizen journalist. During the Parkland shooting, students reported via social media and gave birds-eye information that no news outlet or anyone else could provide. In addition to students reporting events as they happened, such outlets also allowed students to discuss what was going on without the risk of leaving their hiding places before they knew it was safe.

“One of the things hashtags are good at is increasing visibility; they can serve as a meeting place for geographically dispersed people to contribute to the conversation,” observes SJMC Assistant Professor Brian Ekdale, who teaches conceptual and practical courses in digital and social media. “Even though there’s a shooting in Parkland, Florida, people can participate in a conversation about gun rights and school violence throughout the United States and around the world.”

Evidence of the power of hashtags can be found in the MarchForOurLives movement. Even though it originated from the Parkland shooting, the movement is reaching a far wider audience through hashtags that turn the title into an acronym or place a hashtag before the name (i.e. #MFOL or #MarchForOurLives). Such action spreads a specific movement’s mission to as many people as possible.

“The best movements figure out how to use the tools available—social media and public events—to achieve their
goals,” Ekdale says. “They use social media to facilitate online action, or they extend their activities by maintaining a community on social media. The intensity of that conversation can be evident in how trending the hashtag is when you log in to Twitter.”

Every social media platform has its perks. Facebook is good for connecting with friends and family; Instagram gives people a glimpse into different parts of the world; Snapchat lets users see in-the-moment reactions to current events;
and Twitter is wonderful for starting social movements through hashtags.

Fifteen years ago, hashtags were known more commonly as a pound sign. Word nerds called it the “octothorpe.” Today, it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. They’ve become synonymous with some of the most popular movements of the past decade, so it might be surprising to learn that hashtags were only first used on Twitter about 10 years ago. In that time, citizen journalists launched popular movements on  Twitter through hashtags, including #BlackLivesMatter, #WhyIStayed, and #MeToo.

“You can have a movement like #MeToo that started as a hashtag, but then can materialize in other, more concrete movements beyond visibility,” Ekdale says. “Movements that look to issues that push for greater gender equity in pay, and also push to get people who abuse their power—particularly when we look at sexual or gender abuse or sexual misconduct—out of their positions of power.”

Sydney Zatz, a UI junior and executive producer at Daily Iowan TV, had this to say on reporting about movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter:

“I see people and how they react and it makes me want to get a complete view of these issues,” says Zatz. “I want to make sure that people affected by the issue are well-reported, while also maintaining an objective mindset.”

Now more than ever, people no longer wait for news organizations to discuss current events. They take to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and more to consider the issues that matter to them. At times, it can be difficult to maneuver and post in meaningful ways that reach a wide-ranging audience.

“People flocking to social media to share stories was first evident in the Occupy Wall Street protests because the conversation on Twitter really predated the mainstream media coverage,” recalls Ekdale. “People participating in those
protests were able to use social media to amplify their voice, and then newsmakers started to pay attention. I think the same occurs in the case of Parkland, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter. These are opportunities that allow people from different geographies and social standings to contribute in a conversation.”

With individuals wanting to tell their stories through social media, reporters across journalistic mediums can tell impactful stories—and they don’t have to work for a big organization
to do so. Being proactive is key.

“Go onto your social media platforms. If you see a big conversation occurring, it informs you that’s a conversation you should be reporting on,” Assistant Professor Brian Ekdale says.

 “In terms of how media industries respond to hashtag campaigns more broadly, the organizations that have a lot of resources can use that as a great opportunity to find what’s going on.”

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have afforded almost anyone with a smartphone the ability to share and discuss what matters to them. While individual posts may not have enough resources independently, social media platforms assist in creating movements with momentum. Just over ten years ago, movements like MarchForOurLives might not have been possible. The creation of the hashtag changed that.

The following is a glimpse into the history of two of the more impactful hashtags of the past decade.

Nearly 10 years ago, Tarana Burke created the phrase “Me Too” as a vehicle of communication for women who had survived sexual violence. The phrase was reignited in October 2017 by a tweet from Alyssa Milano asking survivors to use #MeToo to share their stories. Her request followed a series of assault allegations against high-profile men in power such as media mogul Harvey Weinstein and head of Amazon Studios Roy Price. In less than a week, the hashtag was used nearly two million times in 85 countries.

Survivors took to Twitter to share their own #MeToo stories, calling out politicians, actors, and coaches for inappropriate and damaging behaviors. Soon, those voices moved from Twitter into action. Time Magazine named these “silence breakers” Person of the Year. In January 2018, more than 300 Hollywood women including Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon formed the anti-harassment coalition Times Up, quickly raising $15 million in a legal defense fund for survivors.


“I see people and how they react and it makes me want to get a complete view of these issues,” says UI junior Sydney Zatz. “I want to make sure that people affected by the issue are well-reported, while also maintaining an objective mindset.”


BLM photo courtesy of Johnny Silvercloud; #MeToo photo courtesy of  Mihai  Surdu

The phrase started as a small hashtag used by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi after the 2012 fatal shooting of unarmed Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, but it has become the universal tagline for a broader movement against police brutality and racial injustice. It has led to marches and rallies and organizations such as a Million Hoodies for Justice. The shooting deaths of unarmed African American men and women continue to force awareness as the #blacklivesmatter movement creates tangible, visible action.

Black Lives Matter is now a global movement, with over 40 chapters around the world that provide resources and avenues to communities to make positive change.