Power Through Hashtags: Investigating Hashtags in Activism (and Reflecting on How to Do So)

Written by Casper Frohn

Opening Reflections: An Unnerving Journey

In this blogpost we will take a journey into a world of abstract ideas and concepts, such as democracy and activism. These concepts are so far-reaching that most people are likely to have an opinion of what they mean or entail. They are vast and complex, and they pose a challenging task for a researcher in trying to conceptualize their intricate nature in a manner that do them just. As the pandemic has hindered me in doing thorough empirical research, this task of conceptualization has proven to be even more challenging. While theory is partly what I strive to generate through research, it has become clear to me that without the initial steps of being in contact with the designated field, discussing theory poses challenges.

Although theory can be derived from many places, I generally enjoy a grounded approach where theory is partly founded in inductive work with empirical material. I am fond of exploring empirical data to see what it can tell me before decidedly laying out a theoretical framework. It has advantages, in that it allows for chances of discovery beyond that which theory can already explain. Therefore, it has proven especially challenging to me (although interesting) to somewhat turn this process upside down.

The very process of writing this blogpost has proven a valuable lesson in itself, not only in terms of the challenge of navigating complex ideas from a mainly theoretical point of departure, but just as well regarding the responsibility one takes on when trying to convey them to an audience. I experience a strange an unsettling feeling when theorizing without constructing this from empirical work – and I am curious as to where this (to me) unusual journey will take me along the way. Nevertheless, having now warned you of the theoretical predominance in this blogpost, I invite you to venture with me out into this abstract world.

Activism: A Democratic Necessity?

I am fascinated by the social forces of democracy, thinking beyond the mere democratic institutions to entailing what makes people and organizations participate in political debates. It has been my working assumption that activism exemplifies this sort of participation, and that activism’s role in democracy is a central element. History has however continually shown us how this far-reaching sphere of devoted debate is not inherently all-inclusive. Rather, the right and the very possibility to participate in such essential parts of a democratic society has proven to be a battle of its own (which activism also exemplifies). Formal organizational channels such as news media have continuously been key actors in facilitating and controlling public sphere agendas (and thus discussions) (Boje, 2020), insinuating a centralization of agenda-setting power within these institutions.

In his comprehensive work on theorizing democracy, Robert A. Dahl (1989) exactly pinpoints the people’s control of the agenda as one of five basic – although idealistic – criteria for democracy as a just ongoing process of social organization. Dahl’s notion of democracy as a process, rather than merely a presence, speaks to me. It resonates with my own understanding of democracy as ongoing acts of devoted coexistence. However, one might question the consequences of the power dynamics in agenda-setting just described, and what they mean for a democratic process in terms of inclusion and acknowledgement of less predominant ideas – especially as we are increasingly recognizing the complex composition of our societies as inherently heterogeneous and multicultural (Boje, 2020). As shall become clear, activism inherently suggests that other ideas and agendas exist out there – and if one subscribes to Dahl’s criterion on the people’s control of the agenda, it becomes clear that activism not only exemplifies democratic participation, but equally plays a part in articulating that alternatives must not be undermined nor ignored.

These observations have led me to consider the intensifying role of social and networked media in contemporary democracy. The capacities of these new platforms have expanded the means of reaching out to the public sphere in a way that might challenge the agenda-setting power dynamics (ibid.). This is nevertheless not necessarily equal to reaching the ideal of the democratic agenda-setting that Dahl has described, as new structures of power reside within the very nature of these platforms and how they are governed.

It is my aim to explore these power structures particularly through the mobilization of hashtags, and what power can be uncovered within these seemingly identifiable, yet simultaneously strangely uncontainable ‘entities’. To do so, I will on this journey not only critically assess hashtags, but also the very agendas they take part in mobilizing.

Hashtags in Activism: Conceptualizing a Misconception

Activism has proven to be a notion that is hard to define in a way that encompasses its vast qualities. When I initiated my project, I first took for granted the immense complexity that activism entails on multiple accounts. For one, I had assumed – as cultural research scholar May Ien Ang (2011) would say – a simplistic dichotomy between so-called traditional activism and hashtag activism. In this initial way of thinking, I was blinded by public critique of the latter, where the notion on hashtag activism was discredited as being ‘lazy’, ‘pointless’, ‘selfish’, and ‘unreal’ – even going by the name slacktivism (for examples, see Frost, 2020; Mbabazi and Mbabazi, 2018; Lodewijckx, 2020) – as opposed to the ‘real’ efforts of traditional activists who roamed the streets.

Having witnessed several hashtag campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, I was provoked to criticize this critique, and in my frustrations, I found myself taking up the torch and continue thinking in this simplistic dichotomy. I wanted to demonstrate that hashtag activism might be just as real as traditional activism, while unconsciously reducing the complex phenomenon of activism into an either-or classification – either you were a traditional activist roaming the streets, or you were a hashtag activist roaming social media. Such rendition left no room for a more fluent relationship between hashtags and activism. On another level, I had also taken for granted the very idea of activism – initially thinking that the concept was self-explanatory as what I defined coordinated campaigns with clear and pre-defined goals. ETHOS Lab, being a community of wonderfully critical thinkers, helped me realize that such narrow conception did not necessarily equate with how others saw activism – and I was soon taking my first step towards embracing activism’s complexity as an inherent quality deserving attention.

Nevertheless, one must not just stop at this recognition, but rather work through and simplify this complexity to productively work with it. As Ang (2011) suggests, there is a significant difference between reductionist simplistic renditions, where complexity remains unacknowledged, and the openminded simplifying conceptualizations that emphasizes the inherent necessity of limitations in understanding complexity. To help me out in this quest, I utilized the ETHOS Lab community once more, employing a method called concept mapping, which I have encountered as a student at ITU, and later utilized myself as a TA. It is a method that I find extremely useful in exploring just how vast a concept might turn out to be, and I find that it helps emphasize that a one liner rarely encompasses the entirety of a given concept. In this case, the concept I wanted to explore was of course activism.

Picture: An example of some of the initial inputs from the concept mapping session (for more context see: https://ethos.itu.dk/pitch-play/ ).


What I was left with was a much richer appreciation of what activism entails. The concept mapping workshop left me with a working definition of activism as necessitating, although not limited to, a set of basic characteristics. Firstly, in activism a cause can be identified. The nature of this cause varies, but it serves as a driver for engaging in activism in the first place. An important discussion that took place centered around the normative assessments of such causes. Who defines whether a cause is ‘good’? How do you distinguish activism from terrorism or conspiracy? While these are certainly questions that we ought not ignore, I have (given my primary focus on hashtags) allowed myself not to dwell too much on this. My scope lies in exploring how activists mobilize hashtags and the power structures hashtags become a part of, rather than the inherent nature of activist causes.

Secondly, actions must be taken to further that cause. This is probably still the hardest aspect of the concept to grasp – as action in itself is hard to define – and this is an example of where I miss empirical material to induce a more grounded understanding of the matter at hand. Empirical material would have allowed me to identify and delimit various actions from the bottom up, rather than having to delimit them theoretically in the abstract. However, grasping the nature of ‘action’ was instead carried out by asking a set of questions in the ETHOS Lab community. Does action necessitate intention? Does action require physical interaction? Does action have immediate, visible, or in other ways obvious effects? The very notion of speech-act theory might help us recognize that action works on several levels (Torfing, 2020). I have so far allowed myself not to strictly limit what I consider ‘valid’ actions, although a study that concerns itself more directly with the actions of activism might consider exploring the various forms of action that take place. The concept mapping also led to an important discussion centered on who actually has the capacity, or the privileges to act? And what are the consequences of this? These are questions that are central to activism and democratic participation.

Lastly, activism also implies some sort of organization. Whether people who engage in activism for the same or similar causes know each other or not, organization needs to take place to mobilize the actions of people. Community, it seems, was a common theme discussed in the concept mapping workshop, and the aspect of organization helps realize this sense of fighting for a common cause. In general, activism is, if we return briefly to the discussion on democracy, necessary to demonstrate that there are alternative agendas to those of the people in power – and that in heterogenous societies these agendas ought not to be forgotten.

With this conceptualization, I have tried to simplify the notion on activism to productively utilize it to think critically about what power lies in hashtags, and what such power dynamics can mean in matters of activism and agenda-setting. It is but a working definition situated to this particular project to help me assess not activism, not hashtag activism, but hashtags in activism. It is a temporally simplified construction created to help me explore hashtags, their capacities, and the power structures they become a part of.

Interconnecting Actors: Hashtags as Networks

Hashtags may seem to be easier identified and conceptualized, however the capacities and power dynamics of hashtags remain a much less trivial matter. For the remainder of this blogpost, I present my theoretical point of departure, which is considering hashtags as networks, while I leave out analyzing and discussing their power and capacities for another time.

There are two main qualities to hashtags that make me think of them as networks. The first of these qualities is that hashtags are inherently relational. In their study on social media’s role in configuring counterpublics, Anke Wonneberger, Iina Hellsten, and Sandra Jacobs (2020) describe this characteristic. They argue that hashtags produce hypertextuality by interlinking texts, actors, and perspectives – ultimately creating interrelationships between these. In this sense, hashtags have an essential functionality, in that they serve as a tool of curation (Twitter, n.d.), and through their continuous use they help in indexing and ultimately creating visibly traceable, although complex, relations between actors and topics (e.g. individuals, organizations, posts).

This leads me to the second quality, namely that hashtags by doing so becomes virtual spaces of semantics. As part of her chapter on hashtag activism, Caroline Dadas (2017) draws on rhetoric and composition scholar Liza Potts in arguing that hashtags become spaces of ongoing stabilization, where different meanings are put into the space the hashtag constitutes. Through continuous interaction with a given hashtag, actors take part in co-defining the overall meaning of the space. As such, hashtags serve as semantic ‘arenas’ where subscription and contestation occur.

When tying these two qualities of hashtags to the more general ideas of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), we can see how they demonstrate some of the foundational observations that ANT is famous for highlighting. It becomes clear that relationships are not stable – they appear, disappear, or transform in various ways based on the work of actors who becomes part of and engage in a network (Law and Callon, 1992). When utilizing a hashtag, one is inevitably drawn into the hypertextuality it facilitates – and the contribution one provides ultimately affects the semantics of the space the hashtag constitutes (e.g. by strengthening or weakening discourses).

As John Law and Michel Callon (1992) argues, networks become an abstract organizing construct that potentially has productive outcomes and distribute agency. However, the stabilization of these networks and the various interests and interpretations of the actors and their relations have a tremendous effect on what a given actor-network can accomplish. As they demonstrated, networks are by nature subject to ongoing change, which might ultimately cause them to break down entirely. Likewise, hashtags and their potential for organization, mobilization and hence productive outcomes rely greatly on the internal work of actors, and the ongoing subscription and contestation to the semantics of a given hashtag.

I feel compelled at this point to draw on an empirical group work done last semester – also on hashtags – as my theoretical journey feels strangely out of touch without real world examples, and it produces an almost theoretical anxiety. One key finding from this project was the internal uniformity within specific hashtags (what I would define as stabilization), while internal disagreements or tensions took place within other hashtags (a lack of such stabilization). If we return to the three characteristics of activism, the matter of stabilization ultimately affects how the hashtags were utilized in terms of cause, organization, and action. One particular discovery demonstrated how a hashtag that was initially aimed at mobilizing a protest against the outcome of the 2020 American election was eventually counter used by opposers to such protest. By disrupting information flows about the protest within the hashtag, these opposers ultimately weakened the intended mobilizing effects of the hashtag.

Hashtags can thus be mobilized to serve causes – such as protesting election results – where the nature of these causes become apparent through the discourses in the semantic spaces hashtags provide. If stabilized, the hashtags can afford organization. However, stabilization is no guarantee, and this potential may not be realized. These are analytical points that I hope to return to.

The last characteristic of activism – action – can be understood on two levels in relation to hashtags. One level of action is the very interaction with the hashtag, and through this interaction the co-constitution of the hashtag as a semantic space (e.g. the acts of supporting or countering the mobilization of a protest). Another apparent level of action, which I aim to analyze further, relates to the prospects of mobilization across the actor-network if the hashtag stabilizes. An important question this raises is whether, and if so how, hashtags play a role in enabling and constraining action – and how this affects the potentials of agenda-setting?

Closing Reflections: An Epistemological Realization

In this blogpost I have taken you through the first steps of my explorative journey in understanding the role of social and networked media through hashtags in activism in relation to political discussions within a democracy. Considering democracy not only as a set of formal prerequisites, but as a way of devoted coexistence, I have showcased how activism plays a part in this type of societal and political coexistence through agenda-setting efforts. Simultaneously, I have reflected on how to productively assess the complexity of a concept such as activism. And lastly, I have tried to theorize hashtags as networks, so as to help me make sense of how they take part in intricate agenda-setting power structures in a world that we increasingly recognize as heterogenous and complex.

I started this blogpost by reflecting upon the (to me) unaccustomed way of doing research in a world where real life contact is limited. Until this point, I have felt strangely uncomfortable, feeling a lack of empirical data to help me reach and build up the arguments. It suggests an epistemological tension within me in terms of how I think research ought to be produced. The very experience of writing this blogpost has helped me in rediscovering my appreciation of inductive research design, and the sense of empirical authenticity that I find it provides. While theory in general seeks to explain (aspects of) the world, I have rather found abstract theorizing as a means of raising new questions – questions which empirical material might give tentative answers to. But the questions in and of themselves are powerful and also deserve space to be unfolded.

The future course of my journey will hopefully encompass a possibility to generate empirical material, as I set out to explore further what role hashtags play in the power structures that I have presented, and what they mean for activism and the agenda-setting that is essential to the process of democracy.

List of References

Ang, May Ien (2011). Navigating complexity: From cultural critique to cultural intelligence. In Continuum 25, no. 6 (1 December 2011): 779-94.

Anke Wonneberger, Iina R. Hellsten & Sandra H. J. Jacobs (2020): Hashtag activism and the configuration of counterpublics: Dutch animal welfare debates on Twitter, Information, Communication & Society.

Boje, Thomas P. (2020). Kapitel 29: Civilsamfund, medborgerskab og social kapital. In Heine Andersen and Lars Bo Kaspersen (Eds.) Klassisk og Moderne Samfundsteori, 6th edition. Hans Reitzels Forlag: Copenhagen.

Dadas, Caroline (2017). Chapter 1: Hashtag Activism: The Promise and Risk of “Attention”. In Walls, Douglas M. and Stephanie Vie (Eds.). Social Writing/Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies. The WAC Clearinghouse: University Press of Colorado.

Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics. Yale University Press: New Haven.

Frost, Amber A’Lee (2020). The Poisoned Chalice of Hashtag Activism. Catalyst. Available at: https://catalyst-journal.com/vol4/no2/the-poisoned-chalice-of-hashtag-activism [accessed 21.03.2021]

Law, John and Michel Callon (1992). The Life and Death of an Aircraft: A Network Analysis of Technical Change. In Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law (Eds.) Shaping Technology, Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press: Cambridge.

Lodewijckx, Ilona (2020). ‘Slacktivism’: Legitimate Action or Just Lazy Liking? Citizenlab. Available at: https://www.citizenlab.co/blog/civic-engagement/slacktivism/ [accessed 21.03.2021]

Mbabazi, Donah and Joan Mbabazi (2018). Hashtag activism: Powerful or pointless? The New Times. Available at: https://www.newtimes.co.rw/society/hashtag-activism-powerful-or-pointless [accessed 21.03.2021]

Torfing, Jacob (2020). Kapitel 10: Diskursteori. In Heine Andersen and Lars Bo Kaspersen (Eds.) Klassisk og Moderne Samfundsteori, 6th edition. Hans Reitzels Forlag: Copenhagen.

Twitter (n.d.). How to use hashtags. Twitter. Available at: https://help.twitter.com/en/using-twitter/how-to-use-hashtags [accessed 23.03.2021]