Mashable, December 2020
A lone hashtag might not look very mighty, but when used en masse, the symbols can become incredibly powerful activism tools. Over the past two decades — largely since product designer Chris Messina pitched hashtags to Twitter in 2007 — activists have learned to harness the symbols to form online communities, raise awareness on pressing issues, organize protests, shape digital narratives, and redirect social media discourse.
On any given day, a series of hashtags are spotlighted in “Trending” section of Twitter. The hashtags featured are those that have gained traction online and reflect topics being heavily discussed in the moment. More often than not, a trending hashtag’s popularity is organic, but a hashtag’s origin and initial purpose can become clouded when people partake in a clever tactic called hashtag flooding.
Hashtag flooding, or the act of hijacking a hashtag on social media platforms to change its meaning, has been around for years. But in 2020, particularly in the months leading up to the presidential election, activists and social media users looking to make their voices heard used the technique to drown out hateful narratives.
From K-pop fans flooding Donald Trump-related hashtags to members of the gay community putting their own spin on the #ProudBoys hashtag, the method of online communication dominated timelines this year and should be in every activist’s playbook.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the first time a hashtag was intentionally flooded, but Mashable spoke with several social media experts and activists, including Moya Bailey — an assistant professor at Northeastern University and co-author of the recently published book #HashtagActivism — who recalled past examples of the technique that date back to the early 2010s.