Following the terrorist attacks in Paris we all saw the hashtag #charliehebdo across social media and its symbolic presence at rallies across the world. From protests demanding social, cultural and political change in Hong Kong, New York, Paris to London social media has given people a hub to join forces in the pursuit of a common cause, but does it actually create real change or does it stay online?
In 2015 it would be fair to say that much of our political activity whether it's signing a petition, RSVP on Facebook to attend a rally, registering to vote, or just expressing our opinion about what is happening in the world has moved online. If something happens in the world that strikes an emotional chord with us it doesn't take long for it to spread across social media.
The ideological stance that the big news corporations take is increasingly becoming irrelevant. It's the hashtags, popularised by Twitter generated in response to an event that people latch on to as they seem to convey an overall feeling shared by the majority.
When 300 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria the hashtag #bringourgirlsback became a worldwide phenomenon. From Michelle Obama, P.Diddy, Alicia Keys to David Cameron, highly influential people with cultural and political power posted pictures online of themselves holding a simple white piece of paper with the hashtag #bringourgirlsback written with a black maker pen, but how effective is it in actually creating social and political change?
Since the #bringourgirlsback campaign less than half of the 300 girls have been returned to their families, the Israeli Palestine conflict continues, black men are still being disproportionately targeted by the police, and terrorism is still rife. Perhaps it would be naive to assume that a hashtag shared on social media will bring world peace but as people match for justice it's hashtags like #icantbreath that are bringing global attention to the issues which might have otherwise been overlooked.
At a time when people are feeling disillusioned with political figures that once were looked at to provide hope and leadership in times of despair, people are now turning to social media. It might seem farfetched to make this statement but perhaps hashtags like #charliehebdo which became one of the most popular hashtags in Twitters history have now become our new leaders in as much as they represent our hopes, our ideals, and our vision for the future.
During a time of such social and political upheaval in which political leaders are seen more as being the problem than the solution, hashtags have given people something to believe in. In the absence of effective political leadership hashtags have created a space in which people can connect, unite and march side by side.
Last November the Million Mask March, organised by an anonymous internet activist group brought together thousands of protesters to Parliament Square in London. Described as a social rebellion against oppressive government and growing austerity the campaign started on social media. After the hashtag #millionmaskmarch spread across Twitter people decided to take to the streets attracting public figure heads like Russell Brand.
While it would be hard to say that these hashtags have directly brought about social and political change they are now becoming the main catalyst for it. Not every hashtag that trends on Twitter is going to be effective in mobilising people in to action, but they are fast becoming the driving force behind the recent spate of demonstrations, boycotts, and sit-ins which will surely have a ripple effect.