Pound-Sign Politics: What Government Agencies Can Learn From Hashtag Activism

Opinion: Hashtags have proven an effective tool for communication in today’s sociopolitical landscape

The hashtag—formerly known as the pound sign—has been around long before the advent of Twitter. But it was the social media platform that gave birth to the symbol’s modern-day function as an organizer, aggregator and, at times, political mobilizer. In fact, it was Twitter user Chris Messina who tweeted the original suggestion to use # to help group conversation—thus making topics more searchable and changing the use of both the symbol and the platform forever.

Once users could identify trending topics, finding others with shared interests and ideologies was easier than ever before. It wasn’t long before people began to see the power of the platform as a way to organize and rally those with common beliefs around various political and social movements.

While current political conditions have raised Twitter’s visibility in this capacity, the idea that the social platform could be used to spark social movements first emerged in 2011 with communication surrounding the Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East. As Twitter’s platform has become more powerful and its user base has grown, the seeds sown in 2011 are coming to fruition for sociopolitical groups today.

Over the years, and especially in recent months, we’ve seen several examples of groups using Twitter to organize boycotts and protests. But these movements are not something for governments to fear; in fact, government organizations of all sizes can use learnings from this so-called hashtag activism to improve their own digital communication.

Listening to the voices of the people on Twitter—and how they find each other, organize and evangelize around an issue—can give governments an insight into the beating heart of the issue at hand and a better understanding of how to address it.

Here are three examples of powerful social movements that began with a hashtag and what local, regional and even national governments can learn from them to better serve their communities.


Ever wondered what it feels like to dump a bucket full of ice cold water on your head? According to Facebook, about 1.2 million people can tell you—that’s how many videos related to the #IceBucketChallenge were posted to the social network from June 1 through Aug. 13, 2014. But this was no arbitrary dare: These people braved the cold in an effort to help raise awareness and funding for the research of ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease.

The challenge drew criticism at times for catching on as more of a trend than genuine activism. But by August 2014, the ALS Association had raised approximately $31.5 million in donations. By comparison, the group raised just $1.9 million during the same time period the year before. What started with just one video quickly became arguably the most successful social fundraising movement to date.

Key takeaway: Government is often viewed as a faceless entity rather than a collection of people working for a shared cause. Sharing something your employees care about is an opportunity to put human faces on the work you do every day. Whether that means joining a social movement and supporting a good cause, or simply sharing everyday photos of your team out in the community, showcase efforts the collective group honestly believes in. In some cases, as in the #IceBucketChallenge, this may mean putting your money where your mouth is and actually donating to the cause.


In celebration of World Press Freedom Day (May 3, 2017), veteran White House correspondent April Ryan teamed up with @TwitterDC—the official branch of Twitter in the nation’s capital—to host a live Twitter question-and-answer session. Questions were submitted via tweets using #AskAprilRyan, and Ryan answered a selection on video.

Topics ranged from her experience as a black, female White House reporter to her advice on identifying credible news sources and recognizing fake news. Ryan posted responses from her own account, directly addressing those who asked questions by their usernames. While this hashtag didn’t go viral or get retweeted 1 million times, it was successful in opening up a direct dialogue between Ryan and her fellow citizens, enabling them to be heard through the platform.

Key takeaway: Continue to break down the perceived barriers between government and citizens by increasing your accessibility and availability on social media. Not only will you be able to convey accurate and honest information to your constituents, but you’ll also be able to learn more about them and their needs. Show them that their voices are being heard and, in turn, be transparent in your responses. Both will go a long way in earning their trust and respect.


2014 brought with it the travesty that was the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls by militant Islamic group Boko Haram, seeking to sell the innocent girls into slavery. Initially, the story drew little attention outside of Nigeria. What started out as a relatively unknown call to action by a Nigerian corporate lawyer spawned a worldwide movement, due largely in part to a hashtag.

#BringBackOurGirls was used by approximately 6.1 million people, including countless celebrities and other influential leaders, most famously, first lady Michelle Obama.

The movement awakened the entire international community. Several countries including the U.K., U.S. and France offered assistance to locate the girls; three regional summits on the situation were held in Nigeria; and a multinational group including Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad was formed to combat Boko Haram.

And even though only a small fraction of the girls has been returned in the three years since their abduction, the hashtag has consistently served as a rallying cry to help bring awareness and aid to the situation.

Key takeaway: Don’t underestimate the power of influencers and the visibility they can provide for your cause. Michelle Obama’s post featuring #BringBackOurGirls was retweeted 57,000 times—the most retweeted use of the hashtag throughout the entire movement. Of course, you don’t need a celebrity to make an impact—advocacy comes in many forms. Find local citizens with influence or even tap your own employee advocates to help amplify your social efforts. The power of authentic influencers comes from their belief in what you’re trying to do and willingness to partner with you to help spread your message.

Whether it’s to rally behind an existing cause, create awareness around a new one or simply to serve as a conversation-starter, hashtags have proven an effective tool for communication in today’s sociopolitical landscape. And although not every single movement goes viral or achieves 100 percent of its goal, a lot of good has come out of that little pound sign. And a lot of good can still be achieved if government agencies can tap social’s power to mobilize in their own civic engagement strategies.

Lizz Kannenberg is director of content at social media solutions provider Sprout Social.

Image of hashtag courtesy of bubaone/iStock.