Hashtag Activism: How Youth Activists have taken to Social Media to Popularize Campaigns

Hashtag Activism: How Youth Activists have taken to Social Media to Popularize Campaigns

Politics | May 5, 2018 / by Aayush Agarwal
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Asking a fundamental question as a precursor: what makes a democracy? The answer relevant to the context of this article is ‘the freedom to practice dissent; the power to question power’. A word from Martin Luther King Jr.’s wisdom goes, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is, in reality, expressing the highest respect for the law.” The current spate of protests by youth in India is a manifestation of this quote. These young students have shown that they do not fear any authority or comply without questioning the political structure. Higher education and agitation for their rights must go hand in hand for young activists of the 21st century.

A few significant movements that emerged directly from the youth include the 2014 Jadavpur University protests, popularly known as the ‘Hok Kolorob’ movement, which saw students peacefully demanding the investigation of a molestation case on campus, followed by police brutality inflicted upon them. Another youth movement that was covered extensively by the media was the ‘Justice for Rohith Vemula’ movement that sprang from the University of Hyderabad. Rohith Vemula’s suicide sparked a nationwide protest against the caste discrimination practiced at educational institutions. A third youth movement along the lines of the previously mentioned two is ‘Stand with JNU’, a predominantly social media-based movement that highlighted the restrictions placed on the students’ right to dissent by branding their activities as ‘anti-national.’

The three movements mentioned so far were similar in terms of their leverage of social media to spread awareness. As of 2017, 14% of the Indian population has joined some kind of online social network, and a majority of them are constituted by the student population (Kemp, 2017). These movements, therefore, tap into the widespread youth angst through online forums and drive supporters to their cause. These forums aim to incubate future political personalities and bring to light unaddressed issues. However, the success or a failure of a movement cannot be attributed to only gathering group members who share the same ideologies as the activists.

The underlying goals of any movement or protest can be boiled down to the following two:

  1. Gathering attention to generate awareness about what they’re advocating for (or against)
  2. Driving people to support their cause/recruiting members

However, there arise tensions between these two goals which hamper the success of any social movement. One of the major entities influencing policy making in a democratic society is the majority. Therefore, activists must generate awareness to raise the consciousness of the populace in favor of their own views. Failing to raise awareness may lead to the movement going unnoticed or seeming like it concerns itself with a minor issue. Publicity is, therefore, one of the key factors to the achievement of a movement’s ideals. In the 21st century, media coverage is the predominant form of publicity, consumed by almost all sections of society. However, Indian media tends to cover only those aspects of news that are dramatic, sensational, or controversial. Naturally, extreme behavior at the hands of the activists is warranted in order to be given attention by the media. Research also shows that taking part in extreme protest behaviors ensures widespread coverage of the attempt (see McCarthy, McPhail, & Smith, 1996).

Winning popular support is imperative because it directly translates into the long-term achievement of the movement’s goals. Popular support also implies a greater access to and leverage of physical, economic and human resources. A large support base also solidifies the movement and establishes its magnitude in the eyes of larger political or economic groups. Tajfel’s sociological concept, the ‘Social Identity Theory,’ also applies here. The theory argues that a person’s social identity is their sense of who they are based on their group membership (Ellemers, 2017). Individuals tend to separate groups into ‘us’ and ‘them’. These individuals prefer to align themselves with those groups whose members share similar attitudes, characteristics, values, and ideologies. Therefore, a movement needs to make the observers feel like they are already a part of the movement in order to make them involved.

However, in the case of extreme protest actions employed to gain media coverage, this very concept of social identity is eroded. An observer's sense of self may not overlap with the movement anymore, rather, the activists themselves may be perceived as outsiders or disruptors, based on their extreme actions. Also, those observers who hold more moderate stances, when confronted with the activists’ extreme ones, may feel disconnected from and unsupportive of the movement. Empirically, it has been seen that extreme actions reduce the bystanders’ support for that particular activist’s cause (Feinberg, Willer, & Kovacheff, 2017).

Those critics who denounce radical activism may, therefore, be sound in their argument that it is a disruptive force. The nation has seen radical measures such as the mobilization of strikes and rallies against government policies, disrupted movie screenings, vandalism, destruction of public property, among other such incidents. ABVP has repeatedly grabbed the media’s attention for its controversial political activism. However, on the other hand, the spirit of questioning authority is kept alive, and inclusion is advocated through the same activism. How to spread awareness without using disruptive measures while also directing popular support to their cause is hence the primary aim of youth activism. The solution or the path to attaining the quintessential democratic protest may lie in the power of social media.

The advent of the Twitterati, the Whatsapp circulators, and the Facebook activists has played a key role in generating awareness without having to resort to disruptive measures. Armchair activism may be less effective in producing any immediate change as compared to on-field activism; however, it stands as a convenient method to keep the issue under popular debate. The aforementioned Hok Kolorob movement exemplifies a successful case of ‘hashtag activism’, along with #JusticeForRohith and #StandWithJNU, with all of the hashtags being the top trending topics of their respective years of operation. Youth activism has therefore accomplished what traditional activism struggled to - it has managed to generate abundant awareness without resorting to radical moves to gain the primitive media’s attention, and without losing its supporters. By eliminating the arbitrariness associated with the traditional movements and reaching out to the masses using popular platforms, youth-led movements have created an atmosphere for themselves to thrive.


Ellemers, N. (2017, August 16).  Social identity theory. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/social-identity-theory

Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Kovacheff, C. (2017, February 3). Extreme protest tactics reduce popular support for social movements. Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 2911177. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2911177

Kemp, S. (2017, January 24). Digital in 2017: Global Overview. We are Social. Retrieved from https://wearesocial.com/special-reports/digital-in-2017-global-overview. Accessed May 3, 2018.

McCarthy, J. D., McPhail, C., & Smith, J. (1996, June). Images of protest: Dimensions of selection bias in media coverage of Washington demonstrations, 1982 and 1991. American Sociological Review, 61 (3), 478-499.

Header image courtesy: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/reasons-social-media-activism-affective

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Written By Aayush Agarwal

International Relations, Public Policy

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