Twitter didn't change the world, but it did change us.
The social media platform turns 10 this year. It's a big milestone for several reasons, but here's one you may not hear much about: When it comes to activism and controlling the stories that are told about certain communities, Twitter gave activists long left on the margins direct access to their supporters, the media and the broader public.
Before 2006, activists communicated their stories the way mostly everyone else did: through posters, public meetings, traditional news outlets and word-of-mouth. Sure, email was useful, listservs were around and social media was in its infancy. But few platforms existed for activists to broadcast their stories to the world.
For activists of color, the barriers to getting their stories, their actions and their fights out to the rest of the world were especially fraught due to the institutional racism that's long kept the lives of people of color outside of the mainstream. In New York City alone, local news stations are still representing three out of four criminals as black, even though people of African descent make up only two out of every four arrests, according to a report from ColorofChange, an online civil rights group.
Thanks to Twitter, activists now had a direct line of communication to people who cared about their causes, and even some who didn't, inciting a level of urgency to key news moments.
Here is a list of some of the best moments of hashtag activism.
What began as an impromptu love letter to black people on Facebook following George Zimmerman's acquittal in Trayvon Martin's death quickly turned into a national rallying cry in cities across the country that were fed up with the seeming disposability of black life. #BlackLivesMatter has since evolved into an epic hashtag, an informal call to action and a formal network with dozens of chapters in cities across the United States and in Canada.
The story of this hashtag has become the stuff of legend since organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi first crystallized the phrase on Facebook in July 2013. George Zimmerman, a local neighborhood watchman, had just been acquitted for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, and the three women felt an affirmation of black life was in order.
The impact was explosive: Over the past three years, Black Lives Matter has not only become the definitive rallying cry against racial injustice in the U.S. and shorthand for a protest movement that's galvanized North America, but a leading justice organization as well.
Hollywood refuses to accept the fact that an increasingly multiracial America wants to see films that reflect their realities. Year after year, Oscar nominations reflect this fact, as most of the major nominees and winners are white. In 2015, April Reign started #OscarsSoWhite to make the point:
The hashtag soon went viral. Eventually, Jada Pinkett Smith announced a boycott, which forced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' hand to announce an ambitious plan to diversify its membership.
Halloween has become an annual trauma for people of color, especially on college campuses where racist frat parties make national headlines each school year. In 2011, a group of students at Ohio University decided to speak out against the geishas, the Fridas and the blackface that has become the norm on Halloween. They started a campaign that raised awareness of the fact that their cultures are not costumes, one that included both pointed posters and morphed into a hashtag that has resurfaced every year.
"I can't breathe" were the last three words Eric Garner spoke as he was put in a chokehold by NYPD Officer, Daniel Pantaleo. After Garner's death, a grand jury chose not to indict Pantaleo and Garner's famous last words became a rallying cry for the movement online and offline. The cast and crew of Ava DuVernay's Selma wore shirts with the phrase to the New York premiere of their film in 2014, days after the jury decided to let Pantaleo go scot-free.
After a May 2014 shooting at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the killer's video manifesto showed the shooter's extremely misogynist beliefs. However, when the media chose to cover the killer as an anomaly rather than an outright misogynist who targeted women, women on Twitter spoke out about the misogyny they face every day with the hashtag #YesAllWomen. The often horrifying tweets recount everything from casual sexism to outright groping and assault.
When Twitter user Feminista Jones saw a woman with a stroller being accosted, she asked her three words that became an online movement: You OK, sis? While all women are subject to street harassment, the hashtag campaign sought to highlight the experiences of women of color, who are often left out of conversations around harassment. When #YouOKSis planned its first Twitter chat, it was even trolled by men online who felt the conversation was divisive.
Twitter users who felt that the white gay community actively marginalized other groups — trans women, people of color, women — brought attention to the relative privilege of white gay men with this hashtag. Queer people of color also used the hashtag to express feelings of invisibility and erasure within the LGBTQ community. While many took offense to the tweets, it started a larger conversation about racism in the gay community that is still sorely needed.
On a Tuesday in December 2015, Hillary Clinton's campaign posted an article on her official campaign website titled "7 Ways Hillary Clinton Is Just Like Your Abuela" — which has since been renamed to "7 Things Hillary Clinton Has In Common With Your Abuela." The response to the piece was swift and birthed the #NotMyAbuela hashtag, which Twitter users used to highlight the vast differences between Clinton and each cherished Latina grandmother. The stories were often funny and heartfelt, but made a larger political point: Don't pander to Latino voters, engage with them and focus on the issues. And no one can stack up to an abuela.
While thousands of people took to the streets after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Mike Brown, considerably fewer people called attention to the deaths of black women who are also targeted by police and subjected to excessive violence. Some of those women's names did make headlines, thanks to activists who pushed their stories forward: Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland and Renisha McBride. The African American Policy Forum released several studies that showed just how at risk many black women are for violence and incarceration. All of this action pushed the White House to devote some of its resources to better supporting black women.
What started as an attempt to allow Asian-Americans to share their stories evolved into an active confrontation of Asian stereotypes thanks largely to controversial Korean-American activist Suey Park. #NotYourAsianSidekick put Asian voices front and center to make a more inclusive movement for justice.
While the Black Lives Matter movement was jolting America into reckoning with its legacy of anti-black violence, a different phenomenon was being overlooked: Native Americans are killed by police at higher rates than almost any ethnic group in the country.
#NativeLivesMatter emerged as a way to draw attention to this tragedy — lending a much needed voice to those whose deaths weren't getting recognized in the mainstream, or by other activist communities.
Until the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Canadian government had proven extremely neglectful toward one of its aboriginal population's biggest concerns: An estimated 4,000 indigenous have disappeared on been murdered since 1980, accounting for 16% of victims despite being just 4% of the country's female population.
Tired of being ignored, indigenous women took to Twitter in September 2014 and posted photos of themselves with the hashtag #AmINext? — a question to then-PM Stephen Harper asking how many more of them needed to die or go missing until he decided to take action.
Since then, Harper has been ousted and Trudeau has announced a full-blown government inquiry into the missing and murdered women.
After a white New York Times writer published a controversial piece claiming a growing number of Hispanics in the U.S. were identifying as "white," Hispanics on Twitter clapped back. Using the hashtag #WhatLatinosLookLike, people from across the Latin American diaspora shared selfies celebrating the beautiful, complicated and often messy diversity of Latino identity — and in many cases, its proud rejection of whiteness.
Chicago activists used this hashtag to draw eyes to their efforts to oust Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state's attorney who waited 400 days to charge a police officer for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
At the height of the hashtag's popularity, Alvarez was handily defeated by Kim Foxx in the March 15 primary election — due in no small part to the attention and organizing efforts of these activists.
Bigger battles lie ahead and the fight for visibility continues. Women are still routinely harassed on social media, and especially on Twitter, and that fight continues. But in the last 10 years there has been an uptick in how our stories are told, both due to a changing American demographic, a more global citizenry and new media tools such as Twitter.