On Friday, Elliot Rodger murdered six people in Santa Barbara. We know — from documents and videos — that Rodger, who took his own life, was motivated by misogyny. He made it very clear: These people were injured and killed because women didn’t want to have sex with him.
In the coming days and weeks, we’ll no doubt learn more about Rodger’s mental health, but less than 24 hours after the murders, the world had already learned that Rodger’s motivations are not all that unique. On Saturday,#YesAllWomen, a hashtag started by two friends, spread through cyberspace like wildfire. Women from all over the world shared personal stories of sexual abuse, street harassment and everyday examples of gender-based hatred.
Online tracking service Topsy reports that more than 1.8 million tweets have been sent using the hashtag. The general theme of the tweets is simple: Not all men hate women, but all women have been hated by men. The 140-character stories are relatable, empowering and appalling all at the same time. Take a look:
#YesAllWomen Because I was told my dress would look better on his floor when I was 12.
— Leslie Hoxworth (@HoxieMarie) May 28, 2014
Because I can't take a walk around my neighborhood without some guys hollering out their car windows at me #YesAllWomen
— Morgan Huneycutt (@chromaticgray) May 28, 2014
#YesAllWomen is not the first hashtag to delve into deep political and social issues. #BringBackOurGirls recently garnered more than three million tweets (and a lot of celebrity support) in response to the hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. On a lighter note, #CancelColbert trended earlier this year in an attempt to get the controversial comedian’s show taken off the air after an unpopular joke.
Hashtags are a powerful tool for storytelling from multiple points of view and they can be invaluable in shedding light on important issues. In some ways, #YesAllWomen, #BringBackOurGirls and every other trending hashtag are the ideal examples of what social media was designed to do: Give individuals a voice. Connect like-minded people. Start conversations about relevant topics. Build communities.
But the problem is that for many tweeters, that’s where the advocacy stops. If there’s no follow up, tweeting with the hashtag #YesAllWomen is the modern-day equivalent of slapping a peace sign bumper sticker on your car. You’ve publicly told the world that you support a cause — but you haven’t really done anything to help.
To be clear: Empowerment — both of individuals and of large groups — is important. Finding peer support can be the first step that many activists need before making moves that ultimately change the world. But the Internet is — among many things — a place for self-congratulation. The humble bragging of people who champion #YesAllWomen — or any online cause — without taking any action can be just as detrimental as silence on issues that matter.
Think of it this way: Congratulating yourself for ending the Vietnam War when all you did was drive around with a peace sign on your bumper seems a little misguided. Same logic applies to people who feel they’ve impacted women’s rights by writing 140 characters on a social network. If, as the cliche states, "actions speak louder than words," then all 1.8 million #YesAllWomen tweets are just tiny whispers.
Hashtag activists need to figure out the next step before cheering about the efficacy of their work. Whether it’s writing letters to politicians, canvassing for causes or donating money to relevant charities, there has to be more than a few tweets — or even a few million tweets — to actually make an impact.
A good example of hashtag activism done right also comes from the recent tragedy in Santa Barbara. On Tuesday, Richard Martinez, the father one of Rodger’s victims, gave an emotional speech decrying the sympathy of politicians.
“Today, I’m going to ask every person I can find to send a postcard to every politician they can think of with three words on it: ‘Not one more.’ People are looking for something to do. I’m asking people to stand up for something. Enough is enough,” he declared. Almost instantly, individuals began to tweet with the hashtag #NotOneMore.
If they really want to help, they’ll take the next step and write the postcard, too.
Follow @errrica on Twitter.