THE BLOG

Why Hashtag Politics Is A Positive Trend

08/12/2015 15:03 GMT | Updated 08/12/2016 10:12 GMT

It was one of those jobs rumoured to exist that they never told you about at school: Head of Soap Opera Summarisation in Downing Street. We know the job existed because we saw the pointers, Tony Blair casually saying he supported Deidre Rachid - otherwise known as The Weatherfield One . It's hard to not to look at contemporary politics and speculate whether today's occupant of Number 10 isn't keeping an eye on Twitter's trending topics. Superficially David Cameron's espousal of #YouAintNoMuslimBruv is allying himself with a grittily East London diss. Scoff all you might but increasingly hashtag politics seem to be a meaningful way to check the pulse of what the nation is thinking.

This week Twitter unveiled the site's biggest trends for 2015. A tougher year and more politicised than last. The most tweeted moments of 2014 seem spritely and joyful in hindsight - the World Cup, One Direction galloping to pop domination at The Brit Awards. Almost as if they belonged to a simpler time. 2015 has been an altogether more sombre affair. At the top of the chart is #JeSuisParis/#JeSuisCharlie. As we struggle to interpret acts of unintelligible savagery we do seem increasingly drawn to social media - and especially to Twitter - to come together to interpret and respond to them. What can the average person do when presented with such a jumble of grief and fear. When faced with a similar mess of emotions when Princess Diana died crowds of people assembled a vast carpet of flowers outside Kensington Palace - a sight that even on recollection now makes you reach for the Piriton. On Remembrance Day each year we each wear a poppy. In the social media world increasingly when we witness something that moves us we make an equally empathetic gesture - even if only a hashtag and words.

While the name of Aylan Kurdi will be unfamiliar to most of us, the image of his 3 year old body washed up on the Turkish shores in the summer will be one of the most enduring images of our lifetime. Bent double as if in supplication, his body achieved what insistent news articles hadn't achieved - an outpouring of public empathy for refugees. #RefugeesWelcome was one of the biggest Twitter trends of the year - and it brought a perspective to political debate that had until then been largely absent. A surge of feeling - and again there was a Downing Street response.

When it comes to interpreting the significance of these actions, we often value the tangible more highly. Flesh and blood, bricks and mortar seem more substantive - but pixels have an impact too. Younger generations no longer make an artificial separation between online and real-life - everything is real life. Of course it's easier to grasp that someone can express empathy by leaving a bunch of flowers for someone - or writing a letter. There's a collective reticence to agree that the same emotional impact can be conjured with pixels. The £8m raised by #NoMakeUpSelfie show this new approach can have a massive impact.

The delight of this weekend's #YouAintNoMuslimBruv - which had reached 125,000 Tweets in about five hours on Sunday - was that a uniquely British voice of dissent was being aired and amplified by real people. The voices on the hashtag are life affirmingly positive - remarking on the joy of British multiculturalism for most of is that we are different and the same at the same time. We all know that Islam can't be slandered by such unrepresentative abuse.

Reflecting on more distant history, we've always known that for previous generations going to church and being with other worshippers didn't actually summon God into our presence - but it did seem to make us feel more collectively part of a single movement. By being together people felt stronger, felt part of something significant. And so it is today with social media. In a tough year of news social media is doing the same for us. As we evolve into Internet adulthood hashtag politics could be one of the greatest ways for us to be together. Laughing, applauding, standing firm knowing that others out their share our views. Politicians recognising that might seem jarringly uncomfortable - but it does demonstrate that our voices - and Tweets - are being heard.