Hashtags alone aren’t enough to make lasting societal change

February 6, 2018 — by Kevin Sze

Although hashtags such as #MeToo and #TimesUP have raised awareness, long-term action and solution has seemingly plateaued; tougher laws are needed

The 75th Golden Globe Awards seemed to be as typical as could be. Host Seth Meyers provided a monologue  and running commentary, and prominent entertainers awarded actors, directors, movies and TV shows for their accomplishments in 2017.

Yet, compared to past years, there was one notable difference: Nearly every entertainer at the event wore black.

The reason for this wardrobe choice dates back to 2006, when social activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” on the then-popular social network MySpace.

Burke’s campaign aimed to promote “empowerment through empathy” among women of color who had experienced sexual abuse but failed to gain much traction early on.

But in the beginning of October 2017, an article published in the New York Times by investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey catapulted the hashtag MeToo into prominent.

In an article that was headlined “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades,” the reporters exposed the Hollywood icon for violating women Weinstein hired and then paying them to keep quiet.

The first #MeToo was tweeted by American actress Alyssa Milano in an attempt to prove how big of a problem sexual harassment truly is.

In Milano’s now viral tweet she wrote, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Milano said the resulting snowball effect was much larger than she had expected, and combined with the Kantor’s and Twohey’s article and other revelations, #MeToo Movement instantly gained momentum.

Women took a stand against sex offenders and exposed icons and moguls of the entertainment industry for decades of sexual assault through a multitude of social media platforms using the #MeToo hashtag.

In late December and early January, #MeToo gave rise to another trending hashtag, #TimesUp, which originated from the organization, Time’s Up.

The organization consists of 300 women in the entertainment industry and is designed to help women overcome systemic power imbalances due to gender.

To raise awareness for their campaign, the group decided to wear black to the Golden Globe Awards, inspiring many entertainers to follow suit.

The result was a huge success.  

But the question still remains: Do hashtags truly have any impact besides awareness?

The answer seems to lie in analytics. The wide usage of various hashtags has undoubtedly raised awareness for their causes, but has struggled to make a noticeable impact against perpetrators of the crime.

According to CBS, Twitter confirmed that over 1.7 million tweets included #MeToo, with 85 countries that had at least 1,000 #MeToo tweets.

Social media platforms have also made hashtags easier to follow. Recently Instagram added a feature that enables users to follow hashtags, as opposed to individual people who have used the hashtag.

With this feature, popular movements that involve hashtags, such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, are able reach to a wider audience and can educate others more efficiently.

But when assessing impact, hashtags alone aren’t enough to make lasting societal change. As awareness has risen dramatically, long-term action and solution has seemingly plateaued.

Fifty plus famous men, including Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Russell Simmons, have been ostracized and disgraced for their actions, losing various job positions along the way. But none of these consequences provides an everlasting solution to the overall problem.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), cases of sexual assault fell dramatically between 1994 and 2007 but have levelled off ever since.

Telling a story and raising awareness is always helpful and important, but ultimately, hashtags alone will not slow down sex offenders. When all the hype around the movement dies, something more substantial is needed to keep offenders from targeting victims

For one thing, there needs to be tougher laws  and penalties for sex offenders. Think of the slap-on-the-wrist punishment for Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was convicted of three charges of felony sexual assault and then sentenced to a mere six months confinement in the Santa Clara County jail to be followed by three years of probation.

Six months of confinement is nothing compared to the embarrassment and trauma his victim, “Emily Doe,” had to go through.

More importantly, six months of confinement shows that sexual offenders have a chance of getting less time than thieves who are sentenced to 10 years for a burglary of a building.

Without beefing up laws and punishments, the efficacy of a hashtag will always be limited. The hashtag can be credited with exposing the actions of serial offenders, but there are undoubtedly countless of others who have committed sexual assault and have escaped scrutiny, much less punishment.

Wearing black at an awards show is a start, but if America is truly going to make sexual assault a thing of the past, hashtags must translate to real action.

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