How hashtags are driving social change

How hashtags are driving social change


How Hashtags are Driving Social Change Blog.png


When Chris Messina became the first person to use a hashtag in August 2007, you probably thought they were stupid (disclaimer: so did I), and we weren’t alone. Twitter founder, Evan Williams, actually told Messina that he didn’t think hashtags were going to be very popular because of their overly technical approach. As you all know, he was wrong.

Hashtags are created by the people and for the people. They’re made to discuss specific events and relevant issues. They’re categorically arranged so that other online users can easily search for a certain topic and participate in the conversation, no matter where they are in the world.

I’ve looked at my phone in dismay after seeing hashtags like #tidepodchallenge and thought, is this really what social media has become? In a sense, it’s always been a little foolish. Youtube is full of cat videos, Instagram is flooded with food pictures, and Twitter often appears to be a dumpster for 2 a.m. thoughts. Once in a while, though, the digital world reminds me of the power a hashtag can yield. The latest realization came after learning that Facebook news coverage of #metoo was more popular in November than #fakenews.



On October 15 at precisely 5:21 PM, Alyssa Milano tweeted this:

At noon that day, #metoo was used a total of 295 times. By 10 PM, more than 83,000 tweets contained the now-famous six-character staple. The movement was first sparked in 2009 by activist Tarana Burke, but it never gained traction. With a simple push from Alyssa Milano - who has more than 3 million followers - a storm emerged, one that very few could have predicted.

Fast forward three months, and you have more than six million mentions across Twitter, 120 million posts, reactions an comments on Facebook, and 21 million individuals who have either liked, commented, or posted about #metoo on Instagram. While much of the data surrounding impact of the movement isn’t public yet, the few that we can see are pointing towards an immediate surge.

Data released by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest American anti-sexual violence organization, received an influx of calls late 2017. In fact, they received more calls in 2017 than any other year since its inception in 1994. In November, the hotline saw a 26 percent increase in calls compared to November of the previous year, and a 32 percent increase in December from the year before.



We’ve also seen a number of survivors of sexual assault speak out against their perpetrators. In Hollywood, names like Kevin Spacey, James Franco and Louis C.K. have led headlines. Larry Nassar, Michigan State’s former gymnastics trainer, was recently convicted to 40 to 175 years in prison after more than 150 women testified or submitted victim-impact statements. Three prominent Canadian politicians stepped down from their positions within a week after allegations of sexual misconduct.


This makes me wonder, did a hashtag really do all of this? Not entirely, but it sure plays a role.


For years, hashtags have been a way to follow a topic and engage with others. Whether it’s a niche interest like #dogbuns or an event like #Grammys, hashtags serve as a tool that bring people together in a digital space. For #metoo, it serves as a mobilization tool. It’s a ‘place’ where survivors of sexual assault feel understood and supported. Survivors are sharing their stories with the world, and the world is embracing them.

The #metoo case is unique. There wasn’t a planned campaign, just one tweet that continues to shape our world. A world that isn’t afraid to speak up, a world that talks.



In 2011, Bell launched its #BellLetsTalk day. Once a year, the company donates 5 cents for each text message, mobile and long-distance call made by Bell Canada, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS customers. They also donate five cents for each tweet, Instagram post and Facebook post using #BellLetsTalk, and every use of the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. The money goes to community-based organizations that work to improve access to mental health care, support, and services for people in Canada. Since the campaign’s inception, we’ve seen nothing but growth.

As of 2017, Bell’s total donation to mental health programs stood at more than $86 million, and they’re on their way to donating at least $100 million through 2020. On top of using the digital world to generate discussion, they’ve also supported 212,260 individuals through technology-based mental health programs.

Their Community Fund provides grants in the range of $5,000 to $25,000 to mental health-related projects across the country. The fund supports Children and Youth organizations, Indigenous communities, and military families.

January 31, 2018 marked the eighth #BellLetsTalk day. It should come as no surprise that once again, we reached a new #BellLetsTalk Day record with more than 138 million messages of support for mental health. This means Bell will invest another $6.9 million in Canadian mental health. In addition to teaming up with influencers, Bell received some support from a few names you might be familiar with.

The power of hashtags

Both #metoo and #bellletstalk are making waves on social media, and rightly so. They’re initiating digital discussions around critical societal issues, discussions that are making their way to the workplace, in homes, in the news, and in education. Thanks to social media analytics, we’re able to see how much people are talking about these issues. Outside of social media however, these hashtags are impacting the world in different ways.

On one hand, Bell’s meticulously planned campaign is structured in a way that allows us to clearly measure the benefits. The Bell Let’s Talk website is transparent, and allows us to see how much money is being donated and where that money is going. There’s no debating the fact that #BellLetsTalk is having a real impact.

On the other hand, we’ve got an influencer who bravely sparked a discussion with no agenda or strategy. The result? Well, we aren’t quite sure yet. It will take dedicated researchers to gather data from a variety of sources before we can truly quantify #metoo’s impact on the world. We do know that there’s an increasing number of public figures being denounced for allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. That being said, it’s challenging to prove a direct correlation between the hashtag and people speaking up.


Final Thoughts

Whether or not you agree with the marketing behind the #BellLetsTalk campaign or #metoo’s approach, you can’t deny that they have a real effect on real people. Hashtags are the force behind social movements, and they’re being felt across the world.

We’re sure to continue seeing typical hashtags like #ManCrushMonday, but it’s imperative that our society focuses on using this tool for the greater good. Let’s keep the conversation going. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s talk.