The Power of a Hashtag

April 10, 2019

The origin of the social media hashtag dates back to 2007 when Twitter user Chris Messina tweeted “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]”, this caught on and soon evolved beyond the platform. Hashtags today are used across most social platforms especially  Instagram, where they are commonly used in hopes of reaching a broader audience. Beyond the vain attempts to gain more likes or shares, hashtags have shown their real power by pushing an agenda. Whether it’s for a social or political movement, to help spread awareness or to harass others (read more on this below!), the hashtag has proven to be a useful tool, and with movements such as the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, a lot of positive change has transpired as a result.

Recently controversy has been building around #LearnToCode, which started as a meme and turned into what is being described as targeted harassment. #LearnToCode started as a meme that was being directed at journalists from mainstream news outlets such as The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed News announced massive company layoffs. Due to both of these media outlets being left-winged, some conservative Twitter users started directed mocking messages at these journalists telling them to #LearnToCode. This was a direct response to previous media articles regarding the loss of jobs in the coal sector, with articles such as Can You Teach a Coal Miner to Code? Twitter was swift to act and called the barrage of tweets at these journalists, calling it targeted harassment and a clear violation of their terms of service. Twitter users who were targeting tweets at these journalists were receiving temporary bans for their actions. Where things began to get out of hand was when users would receive a ban just for using the hashtag altogether.

Global lead for legal, policy, and trust and safety at Twitter, Vijaya Gadde explained Twitter’s rationale behind banning users using the hashtag; “A lot of the accounts tweeting ‘learn to code’ were ban evaders, which means they’d previously been suspended. A lot of the accounts or tweets had other language in them like ‘day of the brick,’ ‘day of the rope,’ ‘oven ready’ — these are all coded meanings for violence against people. And so, in that particular case, we made the judgment call, and it is a judgment call, to take down the tweets that were responding directly to these journalists that were saying ‘learn to code’ even if they didn’t have a wish of harm specifically attached to them because of what we viewed as coordinated attempt to harass them … And we were worried that ‘learn to code’ was taking on a different meaning in that particular context.”

Whether you agree with Twitters actions regarding this controversy or if you find them biased or politically influenced, one thing is certain, the weight and power of hashtag are more than you might think. Hashtags have the ability to reach a large audience, unite us together, divide and isolate, inspire and encourage, and even raise awareness. Our actions online are not private and they do have an impact on whether it’s on ourselves or others, ultimately you’re responsible for your actions online and the consequences that follow.