The 9 Hashtags That Defined 2014

There is something about the fact that Twitter is primarily designed for speech—for short, strong, declarative utterance—that makes it an especially powerful vehicle for activism, a place of liberation. —Sasha Weiss, The New Yorker


Twitter is not a perfect medium. It rewards users who write passionately and frequently, flooding the feeds of their like-minded followers with pithy, 140-character commentaries on the world around them. Sometimes, it seems, Twitter can be a better tool for self-promotion than for bringing about change.

Yet this oft-made argument no longer seems relevant in a year that witnessed stirring national dialogues about police brutality, immigration reform, systemic racism and domestic abuse, all of which took root on social media. Popular outrage forced mainstream outlets and politicians to address issues they once could have downplayed or ignored outright. In some cases, like Obama’s executive order protecting 4.3 million immigrants from deportation, these conversations led to concrete results.

In 2014, Twitter no longer needs to prove its importance; everyone is already listening, and tweeting back. With that in mind, here are some of the hashtags that exploded into the popular consciousness this year.

#Not1More

While hitting the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama assured captivated audiences he would pass comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office. Six years later, the prospect of such a bill passing our gridlocked Congress is unthinkable and over 2 million undocumented immigrants have been deported. As his former ally, Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, put it in one frequently cited speech, “For us, this president has been the deporter-in-chief.”

In an effort to force Obama’s hand, activists launched the #Not1More campaign, a national movement involving hunger strikes, protests and aggressive social media messaging. Their demands were clear. Not one more family would be broken apart by a Homeland Security sweep; not one more father would languish in an overcrowded detention center, unable to communicate with his loved ones on the outside; not one more law-abiding, taxpaying, long-term resident of the U.S. would be sent away, never to return.

While their goal remains elusive, immigration activists succeeded in forcing President Obama to take unilateral action. Days after Republicans regained control of the Senate, rendering comprehensive immigration reform a distant dream, Obama announced that he was issuing an executive order that would allow 4.3 million more unauthorized immigrants to remain in the U.S.

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#SochiProblems

This year’s Winter Olympics were held in Sochi, a subtropical resort town on the shores of Russia’s Black Sea. The fact that a winter sporting event was hosted in a city with an average temperature of 65 degrees was only one of many head-scratching aspects of the ceremony. The region had been destabilized for months, with political unrest escalating in neighboring Ukraine, and has long been a hotbed of terrorist activity. But President Vladimir Putin was determined to market the games as a lavish testament to Russian nationalism, constructing an elaborate infrastructure of hotels, athletic venues and public transit for the cool sum of $51 billion, the most money ever spent on an Olympics ceremony.

The Games received a good deal of negative press in the months leading up to the event, but things really got going once journalists touched down in Sochi for the Opening Ceremony. Within hours, the hashtag #SochiProblems was trending on Twitter, as reporters posted photos of dilapidated hotel rooms, tap water running brown and dangerously high ski jumps. These embarrassing incidents highlighted the skewed priorities of the Russian government, but they also spoke to the broader problems with the extravagant, notoriously corrupt sporting events that are put on every four years. International sporting spectacles like the Olympics and World Cup rely on forced labor, encourage the criminalization of dissent, devastate the environment, and do nothing to help the communities where they’re held. But, you know, on the other hand, people really love watching sports. 

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#CancelColbert

Sarcasm does not translate well to social media, as late-night satirist Stephen Colbert learned earlier this year. Back in April, the official Twitter account for The Colbert Report posted a joke lampooning NFL owner Dan Snyder for starting the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. The tweet read: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Though it was meant as a parody of Snyder, who has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that his team name is offensive to Native Americans, the tweet ignited a firestorm of controversy on social media, where Colbert was accused of racism.

Twitter activist Suey Park led the charge, starting the hashtag #CancelColbert and sending out a stream of posts saying that white liberals shouldn’t get carte blanche to make comments about race. In response, thousands of Colbert fans wrote back, claiming that those using the hashtag couldn’t take a joke. Angry exchanges volleyed back and forth, with people painting Park’s campaign as a prime example of political correctness gone mad, and Park and her defenders claiming she was trying to start a dialogue about the insidiousness of racial humor, not actually cancel the show. Needless to say, the Report remained on the air. Colbert addressed the controversy in a segment: “The dark forces trying to silence my message of core conservative principles mixed with youth-friendly product placement have been thwarted!”

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(Original tweet deleted)

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#YesAllWomen

The college town of Isla Vista, Calif. bore witness to one of the most savage, senseless crimes in recent memory this summer, when 22-year-old Eliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage through downtown, murdering six people before killing himself. Before his death, Rodger released a 137-page autobiographical “manifesto” detailing his intense hatred for women and recounting every perceived slight and rejection he had ever experienced. The hate-filled document is shocking in its misogyny and narcissism. Calling women “vicious, stupid, cruel animals” and “a plague that must be quarantined,” Rodger vowed to “make them all suffer for rejecting me.” Then he acted on that promise.

In response, women took to Twitter to share the countless ways misogyny has hurt them, unified by the hashtag #YesAllWomen. Their tweets recounted rapes and acts of sexual violence, slurs, domestic abuse, job discrimination, and stalking. They told of the everyday aggressions every single woman experiences. Soon after, the hashtag #NotAllMen—a defense that male commentators often use to deflect feminist arguments online—began to trend. While it is true that many men (most men) do not physically or emotionally abuse women, this response was seen as defensive railroading that ignored the larger cultural issues at hand. If anything, Rodger’s manifesto serves as proof that there are men in the world who hate women purely for the arbitrary assignment of their gender—and that those attitudes can kill.

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#IfTheyGunnedMeDown

One afternoon this August, on the sun-scorched streets of Ferguson, Missouri, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. The shooting of an unarmed African American teenager by a white man with a gun—a scenario that has become painfully familiar to American readers—spurred days of riots and protests in Ferguson and across the U.S. Though the sequence of events, now collectively known as “Ferguson,” received extensive coverage in the national and international press, much of it was profoundly off the mark. When pundits weren’t dismissing the protesters as “lawbreakers,” they were conducting a full-blown character assault on Brown, trying to create a reasonable justification for why an officer of the law would murder a teenager. (Note to these reporters: smoking pot and being 6'4" does not qualify). 

On Facebook and Twitter, users voiced their frustration with the media’s unfair portrayal of Brown. In the days following his death, one widely circulated image showed Brown standing on the front stoop of a house wearing a jersey, his hand raised in what some publications ludicrously asserted could be a gang sign. This spawned the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, a critique of the subtle, troubling ways that African American men are negatively stereotyped by the press. Thousands of Twitter users posted twinned images of themselves, suggesting that the press would use the more “incriminating” photograph if they, like Brown, were killed by police. The visually striking campaign served as a potent reminder of the media’s role in shaping narratives of police brutality.

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#IceBucketChallenge

It was the kind of campaign handcrafted to go viral, and it worked. This summer, the ALS Association started the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for those suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. The rules were simple: make a video of yourself dumping a bucket of ice water on your head and post it to social media, along with a challenge asking three other friends to do the same within 24 hours or donate $100 to the Association. Thanks to the easy rules, the sharing-based nature of the campaign and the prominence it was lent by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, the challenge was a rousing success, raking in $106 million by the end of August.

The donations proved that people were not simply posting videos of themselves as a more self-indulgent, wallet-friendly way of participating in the challenge. But questions lingered about the efficacy of this sort of one-off campaign. As other non-profit leaders pointed out, those who gave money were unlikely to do so again because they have no sustained relationship with the charity. And writers at Quartz and Vox pointed out that these cause célèbres end up taking money away from other charities that may be more in need of funding, or affect many more people. As Julia Belluz put it at Vox, “Celebrities and gimmicks often drive our charitable donating more than, perhaps, they should… There are big gaps between the diseases that affect the most people and those that net the most money and attention.”

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#GamerGate

It all started with a scorned lover. In August, video game critic Eron Gjoni penned a series of rambling blog posts claiming that his ex, game designer Zoe Quinn, had cheated on him with others in the industry, looking to make inroads in her career. Gjoni was quickly propped up by an invisible army of hackers and 4chan users who published personal information and nude photos of Quinn in an effort to embarrass and discredit her. From there, the scandal metastasized into a full-blown debate about how women are marginalized and harassed in the online gaming community and on the Internet at large.

The conflict has caught an ever-widening number of female journalists and game developers in its wake. Journalist Jenn Frank and writer Mattie Brice vowed to stop writing about videogames thanks to the harassment they endured. Game developer Brianna Wu fled her house after receiving death threats. And in October, the scandal was reignited when feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University after someone claiming to be a student threatened “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if the event went forward as planned. Trolls and hackers are as old as the Internet itself, but the demographics of online gamers have changed. The same is true for the awareness of gender-based harassment online. So though the battle for greater inclusion in gaming will undoubtedly be long and ugly, it is far from over. According to the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey, Gamergate is merely “a proxy war for a greater cultural battle over space and visibility and inclusion, a battle over who belongs to the mainstream.”

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#WhyIStayed

In September, security footage emerged of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice physically assaulting his then-fiancé Janay Palmer in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino. The video—which shows Rice knocking his significant other to the ground with one swift punch—is breathtaking in its swift, nonchalant violence. For those who refused to label Rice a domestic abuser without “proof,” the tape provided incontrovertible evidence. For many others who had long believed the accusations of assault, it prompted another question: why would Janay Palmer choose to marry a man who did this to her?

The answers came in droves, as women began sharing stories of their own experiences with domestic abuse using the hashtag #WhyIStayed. Some stayed because they were financially dependent on their partners; others because their partner threatened to hurt or even kill them if they left; others because they were still in love with their abusers and didn’t want to move forward without them. Rather than justifications for doing so, the tweets served as a chorus of support, a reminder that some 25 percent of women experience intimate partner violence during their lifetimes, and that it isn’t their fault.

As a result of the video and the ensuing outcry, Rice was cut from the Ravens and indefinitely suspended from the NFL. He and Palmer are still married, and she has repeatedly defended their relationship in public.

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#BlackLivesMatter

More than any other hashtag on this list, #BlackLivesMatter has transcended the confines of social media, becoming a rallying cry that is, at this moment, being shouted on street corners from Berkeley to Manhattan. First started in 2012 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the hashtag has morphed into a cultural force of its own, a furious shorthand for the countless ways the lives of African Americans are devalued by the state. It has become imbued with new levels of frustration and despair as the years pass and the system continues unchanged. The death of Michael Brown was one of those transformative moments. Another was the killing of Eric Garner, a Staten Island father of five who was choked to death by a police officer while being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes. These horrifying incidents of police brutality—and the decisions of grand juries not to indict the officers involved in either case—have brought on nationwide protests of a scale and intensity not seen in years.

On Twitter, Facebook, T-shirts and cardboard signs came the impassioned response: Black Lives Matter. As with #NotAllMen, some people saw this as a potentially divisive message, responding with their own: #AllLivesMatter. But as many activists and pundits have pointed out, no one questions the ability of white people to live lives free from police brutality, harassment and assault in this country. As Julia Craven writes at Huffington Post, “Saying ‘all lives matter’ is nothing more than you centering and inserting yourself within a very emotional and personal situation without any empathy or respect. Saying ‘all lives matter’ is unnecessary.” 

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