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.
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The early days of hashtag flooding
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.
With #HashtagActivism, Bailey and communication studies professors Sarah Jackson and Brooke Foucault Welles explored the ways in which marginalized groups have utilized social media platforms to amplify their voices and leveraged hashtags for online social justice movements. They began with the hashtag #IranElection — which was used to organize post-2009 election protests — and worked their way up to present-day hashtags including #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.
When describing what inspired the trio to tackle this topic, Bailey explained that the writers joined forces after seeing serious commonalities in their individual areas of hashtag research.
“Sarah and Brooke were looking at the hashtag #MyNYPD,” Bailey said, recalling a powerful hashtag flooding effort that made headlines in 2014. “The New York Police Department initially thought this would be a wonderful PR campaign to get people to post their experiences with the department. But of course, once the hashtag took off, people were using it to talk about the violence they had experienced as a result of interacting with the NYPD.”
“That flipping of the hashtag from its intended purpose to highlight some of the abuses of the NYPD really gave an opportunity for hashtag activism to be mobilized,” she said.
While Bailey’s co-writers were looking into the NYPD campaign gone wrong, she was researching an example of unintentional hashtag flooding that took place after author and transgender activist Janet Mock launched the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs in 2012. The hashtag was initially created by a media company working to adapt the Sheila Weller book Girls Like Us, a biography of musicians Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King. But later that year #GirlsLikeUs took on a new meaning when Mock used it to create a safe space on social media where trans women could support one another and foster online community.
Though the hashtag takeover wasn’t done to drown out mention of the Girls Like Us biography, that was the end result, and the new hashtag use turned out to be an extremely powerful conversation starter.
“[The hashtag] really became a space for trans women to talk amongst themselves about what was going on in their lives,” Bailey said. “It was such a wonderful network of creation [because] people who were interested in being allies to trans women could also see that conversation taking place in the public space of Twitter.”
Over the years, people have employed hashtag flooding to organize protests, amplify unheard voices, draw attention away from distressing political narratives, and unite in the face of tragedy. But as we’ve learned from watching Russian bots flood social media with harmful misinformation ahead of the 2016 election, hashtags can also be detrimental to a news cycle.
Similarly, depending on how it’s used, hashtag flooding has the potential to help or hurt. But ahead of the 2020 election people actively set out to use it for good.
When it comes to flooding hashtags, one community consistently delivers: K-pop stans.
Fans of the musical genre lead efforts to overtake a number of racist, right-wing, and pro-police hashtags. And after George Floyd was killed in May, K-pop fans swooped in to flood hashtags including #MAGA, #QAnon, #WhiteLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, #WhiteoutWednesday, and #AllLivesMatter with K-pop TikToks, fancams, photos, and memes to distract from hate-fueled conversations and troll those partaking in them.
In 2020, the online K-pop community didn’t limit themselves to social media, though. They took their flooding to creative new heights and platforms.
In June, after the Dallas Police Department asked people to send videos of “illegal activity” from protests against police brutality to the iWatch Dallas app, K-pop fans spammed the app with so much band content that it crashed. When the Kirkland Police Department later requested people use the #CalmInKirkland hashtag on Twitter to give them similar protest information, K-pop fans showed up once again.
The K-pop community was also credited with spearheading an online movement in June that aimed to give Trump’s team unrealistic crowd size expectations for his Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally. After Trump’s campaign tweeted to let followers know they could register for free tickets, groups of TikTok teens and K-pop fans registered without any intention of attending.
KPop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too 😌
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 21, 2020
Thanks to guidance from K-pop stans, more people are starting to feel comfortable testing out flooding techniques. November saw two especially noteworthy efforts following the election. The first was when people flooded Trump’s election fraud hotline with fake tips and prank calls, and the second was inspired by actor and comedian Shea Depmore, who encouraged people to flood Trump’s #MillionMAGAMarch hashtag with photos of pancakes.
Hashtag flooding isn’t all fun and games, though. Takeovers are also used in informative, progressive, and serious ways.
One of the year’s most earnest hashtag takeovers took place in October, shortly after the first presidential debate at which Donald Trump refused to denounce white supremacy. After Trump told members of the far-right, Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group called the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” members of the LGBTQ community decided to flood the hate-filled #ProudBoys hashtag with messages of gay pride, odes to their partners, and photos promoting acceptance and positivity.
I wonder if the BTS and TikTok kids can help LGBTs with this. What if gay guys took pictures of themselves making out with each other or doing very gay things, then tagged themselves with #ProudBoys. I bet it would mess them up real bad. #ReclaimingMyShine
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) October 1, 2020
The floodgates opened after actor and activist George Takei, who is gay, issued a call to action. And for many who participated, including Igor Volsky — a writer, activist, and co-founder/executive director of Guns Down America (a non-profit formed in 2016 to combat America’s gun violence crisis) — the takeover was incredibly meaningful.
Volsky tweeted a photo of him and his partner (taken by their photographer friend Shelly Pate) that he felt perfectly embodied the message of the takeover.
While Volsky, who has 168,000 Twitter followers, wanted to help lift up the LGBTQ community with his tweet, he also felt that taking part was a way to rebuke Trump’s actions.
“Part of my work deals with how to address the rise of armed militias, armed insurrectionism, and armed right-wing extremists in our society. And so when I was watching the debate, and I heard [Trump] basically give a permission structure to this particular breed of extremists to act on his behalf, frankly I was horrified, because I knew that he was speaking to a large audience, and that he would be inspiring some level of violence and action from that group,” Volsky said.
Volsky is no stranger to social media activism; he got involved with gun control work by taking over not a hashtag, but an idea on Twitter.
“It was this idea of sending thoughts and prayers after mass shootings,” he explained. “After the San Bernardino mass shooting in December 2015, I went on a Twitter tear and pointed out how much money Republican lawmakers who were sending thoughts and prayers took from the NRA.”
When Volksy’s tweets began gaining thousands of likes and retweets and news outlets started covering his effort he started to feel that social media campaigns like these are capable of leaving a real impression.
Why hashtags hold so much power
There are a number of reasons why hashtag flooding can be impactful, but Volsky feels a hashtag’s ability to help people reclaim a narrative is one of the strongest.
“I think the way social media is structured is to reward the loudest most obnoxious, most controversial voices out there, and that’s part of the reason why particularly hateful and incendiary language kind of floats to the top,” Volsky said. “The power of taking over hashtags, I think, comes from the sense that most Americans have, which is to say that those kinds of hateful messages don’t represent us and don’t represent what we believe. And we’re going to use our power — the power of numbers — to flood and overtake those hateful messages with messages of love and hope.”
“Black women, women of color, and other people who are on the margins have really used these tools in unique ways…”
When doing research for #HashtagActivism, Bailey also saw that members of marginalized groups often utilize a hashtag’s power to help amplify their voices. “Black women, women of color, and other people who are on the margins have really used these tools in unique ways that have advanced their particular issues,” she said.
“Some of the hashtags that we’ve looked at in the book are also from communities trying to talk to or go through some of their experiences,” Bailey said. She points to #YouOKSis, which Feminista Jones launched to address the issue of street harassment and let people know how to support someone who’s experiencing street harassment — as an example.
Similarly, the #MyNYPD hashtag flooding effort, which gave people the opportunity to highlight instances of police brutality in a very public way, was a great example of how hashtag flooding can be used to rally around an issue and amplify voices that might have previously gone unheard as well.
While hashtags can be extremely powerful tools for sharing personal experiences, Bailey also noted that they can also give allies a way to advocate for others.
Bailey gave the example of comedian Elon James White, who used the hashtag #EmptyChair to create a safe space on Twitter after New York Magazine released a cover of the women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault.
“There was one empty chair [on the cover] so Elon opened his DMs, allowed different people to submit their experiences anonymously, and retweeted them,” she said. “It gave people who felt like they couldn’t say what happened to them with their name or Twitter handle [attached] some cover… it just really opened a portal and raised the visibility of a lot of the sexual assault experiences that people have had.”
Bailey believes that the anonymity hashtags like #TheEmptyChair and hashtag flooding efforts like the #ProudBoys takeover provide — a safe sense of community and a feeling that you’re surrounded by people who have similar shared experiences or a desire to fight for the same cause as you — is another reason why they’re so impactful.
Does hashtag flooding work?
We know hashtag flooding can help promote togetherness and boost morale, but to gain some insight as to how successful some of these efforts are numbers-wise, Mashable spoke with John Murphy, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and the director of the Social Media Analytics Center.
To see if there were any noticeable spikes around the flooding dates, Murphy pulled data from June 1 on three hashtags that were flooded this year: #QAnon, #ProudBoys, and #MillionMAGAMarch. The data showed that while hashtag flooding efforts rarely exceed an original hashtag’s popularity, they can definitely help a hashtag maintain relevancy.
Murphy found that the #ProudBoys hashtag started gaining popularity on Sept. 21, days before a Proud Boys rally was scheduled to take place in Portland, Oregon. The hashtag’s highest peak occurred on Sept. 28, the day before Trump’s debate comments. And the hashtag continued to trend the following week as the gay community executed their takeover, ultimately going quiet on Oct. 12. That means the flooding efforts trended for a week.
“Most last only a day or a week,” Murphy said. “If it’s a really important cultural or entertainment-related moment, hashtags are very effective. They get a lot of play and a lot of engagement, but they don’t last a long time.”
As for the #MillionMAGAMarch hashtag, which received 939,000 mentions since June, it peaked on Nov. 9, shortly after Joe Biden was elected, and trended for a week until the march took place on Nov. 14. Though pancake pictures may have flooded the hashtag after Depamore’s call to action on Nov. 11, the effort was ultimately unable to surpass peak mentions. And with 13 million #QAnon mentions in the United States since June, and K-pop fans flooding the hashtag while it was already trending, it was too difficult to say how many of those were related to flooding.
Still, while hashtag flooding might not always bring about sizable, lasting change, its impact — no matter how short-lived — is undeniably encouraging to those who participate or even just observe.
“The fact that this keeps happening — this overtaking of negative things and turning them into something positive — gives us hope that all of the vitriol and hate that we see online really represents the opinions of a small number of people,” Volsky said. “I think every time you see this kind of swarm, it should kind of renew our faith in the goodness of humanity, which these days may be a little hard to find.”
The future of flooding
Just because people excelled at hashtag flooding in 2020 doesn’t mean the method is flawless.
After the police killing of we saw the online struggle with Blackout Tuesday — a day of action during which Instagram users attempted to show solidarity with Black people by posting a picture of a black square on their profiles. Though the squares were well-meaning, critics said they wound up unintentionally flooding the #BlackoutTuesday and #BlackLivesMatter hashtags — burying crucial information about protests, donations, and more. Bailey recalled a similar controversy around hashtags relating to Breonna Taylor.
“Her death and the activism around it was both intensified and obscured by the way people hashtagged #SayHerName. I’m thinking of the recipes people posted with the ingredient ‘Arrest the cops that killed #BreonnaTaylor’ or the celebrities who thought they were helping by posting thirst traps with a similar message,” Bailey recalled.
Bailey, and many others, felt that lighthearted memes about Taylor’s death not only insensitively disparaged her memory, but also downplayed the very serious issue of police brutality. Bailey ultimately felt the memes were “a strange and ultimately unsuccessful campaign,” but she does think that all the added discourse — no matter how misguided — helped raise awareness and amplify public outrage.
Though these problematic hashtag floods were unintentional, they still convey how flooding — if not executed properly — can be harmful.
“At some point in time, if you want the story to last or to keep going… there’s got to be something that keeps it alive and moving.”
As for the future of hashtag flooding, there’s clearly still room for improvement. And though the effort does make online statement, hashtag flooding is ultimately a small, often fleeting action that’s meant to be part of a larger activism toolkit rather than a person’s only tool.
“At some point in time, if you want the story to last or to keep going, you’ve got to create some news. There’s got to be some content, there’s got to be something that keeps it alive and moving,” Murphy said.
Bailey also noted that hashtag flooding efforts may change as social media platforms develop, like if Twitter were to actually become a subscription model.
“If people have to pay for Twitter at certain levels I really think that’s going to affect what hashtags are able to accomplish… it’s going to limit who’s able to use them and it’s going to create different tiers of people being able to use Twitter that will impede the ability of hashtags to do the work that they do,” Bailey said.
“I trust that activists are savvy. They’ll find a new way to use something and they’ll find a new platform, but that means the tools are always going to be shifting and we just have to pay attention to where people are moving to keep that fire going,” she concluded.