Hobbes on Hashtags
by Caitlyn Beebe
In 1651, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published his most famous work: Leviathan. Though the book is renowned for its defense of absolute monarchy and its description of civil government, the lengthy treatise also lends insight to some uniquely 21st century issues. Hashtag activism has sparked change across vast distances, spurred action amongst diverse groups, and generated publicity with unprecedented ease. What would Hobbes have to say about the unforeseen influence of the hashtag?
Undoubtedly, Hobbes would have recognized hashtag activism as a “leviathan.” Although the metaphor originally described civil government, hashtag activism embodies the very same qualities that constitute a leviathan. Unlike the biblical leviathan, Hobbes’ leviathan is formed when enough people unite under one representative. In the case of hashtag activism, the chosen representative is a short, shareable hashtag slogan that summarizes their common cause. This hashtag allows social media users to search for all the posts that mention a particular hashtag, making it easier for a movement to gain publicity and for supporters to connect with each other. And with 72% of Americans using social media today, there is plenty of fuel for the fire. Additionally, because hashtags are so bite-sized, hashtag activism can grant unity to extremely diverse members. As Hobbes wrote, “it is the Unity of the Representer, not the Unity of the Represented, that maketh the Person One.” Regardless of otherwise insurmountable differences, members can stand together behind the hashtags of their choice. Because of its ability to both reach and unify a massive online audience, hashtag activism can harness immense power and influence, lending it the characteristic might of a true leviathan.
Hobbes would have immediately realized the benefits and potential of the hashtag leviathan. By analyzing the example of #ALSIceBucketChallenge, we can see the benefits of hashtag activism: it makes ideas portable and powerful. Every year, roughly 5,000 Americans are diagnosed with ALS, a deadly neurological disorder with scarce treatment available. In 2014, the ALS Association launched #ALSIceBucketChallenge, a viral challenge where participants dumped ice-water on their heads and donated to the Association. In a remarkably short timeframe, over 28 million people were somehow involved in #ALSIceBucketChallenge on Facebook alone. The ALS Association received $115 million in donations, which it immediately invested into combating the disease. The president of the ALS Association recognized that, thanks to #ALSIceBucketChallenge, “ALS researchers [are] closer than they have ever been to real breakthroughs in diagnosing, treating, and eventually curing this disease.” The example of #ALSIceBucketChallenge displays how a hashtag leviathan can harness the collective strength of millions to further a good cause and literally save lives.
Despite the positive changes hashtag activism can bring, Hobbes would also have warned of its dangers. First, hashtag leviathans can oversimplify intrinsically complicated issues or can even be maliciously misleading. As an example of the latter, take #SaveTheChildren. Originally a well-intentioned hashtag that raised awareness against child trafficking, it was later co-opted by outside parties to promote Qanon conspiracy theories in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. This turn of events led several platforms to, regrettably, ban mentions of #SaveTheChildren—both legitimate and illegitimate uses alike. Secondly, hashtag leviathans are extremely volatile, carrying the potential to force leaders’ decisions. In 2012, the Komen Foundation, which is a private charity dedicated to fighting breast cancer, withdrew its grants from Planned Parenthood because of ongoing government investigations into Planned Parenthood’s use of public funds. Regardless of the careful decisions and deliberations made by the Komen Foundation, the hashtag #IStandWithPP quickly forced a choice upon the leadership: reverse course immediately or suffer the outrage of the internet. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the Komen Foundation complied. These two examples show the darker side of hashtag activism—the side that can distract from noble causes and force the hands of sincere private charities.
In conclusion, hashtag activism is a true Hobbesian leviathan. Each hashtag can serve as the common banner for millions of distant internet users. Though its insuppressible might can be used to benefit all, its simplicity and volatility can cause significant negative impacts. Either way, it is important that both sides of hashtag activism are recognized, and that the fundamental right to freedom of speech is neither abused nor restricted. We mustn’t cave to the temptation to silence hashtags that are countercultural or that we personally disagree with. We also mustn’t allow hashtag activism to override the due processes and well-reasoned decisions of private organizations or of the government. And we also must realize hashtag activism’s effects on our youth. According to Pew Research survey, 45% of American teens use the internet “almost constantly,” and 89% use it at least several times each day. This practically guarantees that our youngest citizens will be quickly exposed to and impacted by hashtag activism. Whatever society decides to do with them, one thing’s certain: hashtag leviathans are here to stay. Be ready—for there is no creature on earth as fearsome as a #Leviathan.
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