The 2010s: Hashtags And Social Movements
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Today we are spending some time looking back at the things that helped shape this decade. And when it comes to social movements, the Twitter hashtag was huge - from conservative politics to race and outrage over sexual assaults and harassment.
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VIOLA DAVIS: I am speaking today not just for #MeToos because I was a #MeToo.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: We say #MeToo. Our stories are true.
FADEL: #MeToo. That phrase was coined back in the early 2000s by community organizer Tarana Burke. It came out of a school program in Alabama to address sexual violence and trauma among young girls and exploded, she says, when a TV actress tweeted it in 2017.
TARANA BURKE: I knew that it was starting to go viral. And then by that evening, it was clear. It was on the news. It was clear that it was - it had become this massive thing, that the genie wasn't going back in the bottle.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Sexual harassers and attackers are unmasked by the #MeToo movement.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Now to the #MeToo movement growing this morning in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks. How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?
BURKE: What the movement did was give us an opportunity to expand that to a national and international conversation about what sexual violence is and how pervasive it is and how many people it affects and who those people are, what they look like.
FADEL: Since 2017, #MeToo has become a rallying cry for women in many arenas.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: #MeToo in politics, #MeToo in Hollywood, #MeToo in journalism.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We need to also be talking about the abuses that go on in restaurant workers, domestic help.
FADEL: I'm really confident that this next decade - and I'm also clear that we can't do this alone. And so I'm hoping that the other thing that happens in the next 10 years is that there's some young person right now who is looking at the work of #MeToo and saying, oh, I can do better.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Black lives matter. Black lives matter...
FADEL: In 2012, Marcus Anthony Hunter was the first person to tweet out that slogan, but the movement didn't gain momentum until a string of deaths of unarmed black men and women starting in 2013.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: In Illinois, we have Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd. In Texas, we had Sandra Bland. In Ohio, we had 12-year-old Tamir Rice and John Crawford. In New York...
FADEL: Hashtag creator Marcus Hunter is chair of African American studies at UCLA. I asked him what the Black Lives Matter movement means to him.
MARCUS HUNTER: I think the movement means when we center black people, we're actually centering everyone's humanity because in my version, blackness is also about the experience of access and power. So there is a lot of blackness everywhere. A lot of people are disempowered. A lot of people don't have access as they should. And until people who are powerless or not having access are provided access and power, we're all in trouble.
FADEL: So, you know, in that vein, is a hashtag - could it be in some ways an easy way out? Does tweeting about something maybe make some people feel like, OK, well, nothing needs to be done; there's no reason to go out on the street and protest or go advocate with policymakers?
HUNTER: I think the thing with social media is that it's also about generating conversation. And oftentimes, those - and this is back to our point about power - those who often don't have power, one of the best places they can go to influence or try to start a conversation is on social media. And so it kind of democratizes your access to power and conversations and people in power.
And being able to generate that conversation is as important as generating movements and other things because it's often a conversation that has everything starting. So, for example, if we think about the civil rights movement, it wasn't just that one day people woke up and got into a movement. That was generated by a series of conversations that wound up having a lot of impact and connection across region, across state, across city, that those sets of conversations actually give way to a march on Washington, give way to a poor people's movement. So I think, you know, we should never underestimate the power of generating a conversation.
FADEL: After you tweeted out #BlackLivesMatter, it went viral. Then we saw things like #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter. What is your response to those hashtags?
HUNTER: My response is that those hashtags misunderstand what #BlackLivesMatter is about. If black people were to be free, then it would mean that a lot of other people would be free. You're already always saying all lives matter. You're always already saying a black police officer's life matters.
FADEL: When you tweeted it for the first time in August, 2012, and you started watching it catch fire in front of your eyes, what were you thinking? Like, what kind of a moment was this for you?
HUNTER: Yeah, I thought it was incredible. I thought maybe it in some ways rejuvenated my cynicism and also belief in what social media could do. I also, at the same time, was surprised to see how the narrative had to be shaped so fast, where it had to be who's in charge and who started this and why did they start it, which in some ways tried to discipline something, that maybe that was the whole point, you know, is that when we discipline movements so much, maybe we lose all of the people.
And I really enjoy watching how the movement has resisted that. Part of what you wind up seeing is that it's just a lot of different people who have come from different walks of life, who all are invested in the idea of people being more free. And that is a beautiful thing to see.
FADEL: And now the hashtag that helped win the White House.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we will make America great again.
FADEL: In 2016, Gene McVay, a retired fighter pilot from Fort Smith, Ark., wanted to show his support for presidential candidate Donald Trump.
GENE MCVAY: I searched Twitter to see if there was a MAGA or a #MAGA on Twitter anywhere. And I got zero returns. It wasn't used that much on Twitter at first. But when Donald Trump started using it, then the use mushroomed.
FADEL: You know, this hashtag that you first tweeted out has become synonymous with this president. But what do you say to criticism about the hashtag, people who say, oh, it's a symbol for white supremacy and things like that?
MCVAY: I'm a fifth-generation Arkansan. And I believe in equality. So I don't see that as a white supremacy symbol at all.
FADEL: What do you see as the role of that hashtag in the movement that has followed it in the next 10 years?
MCVAY: Well, I don't know that the hashtag itself is anything more than an inanimate object. But the movement to make America all that America can be and to put America first, I like that idea.
FADEL: Gene, with this hashtag, was it the first time you were really politically active, or have you been politically active most of your life?
MCVAY: Oh, I ran for state senator more than 50 years ago. And I was a county Republican chairman. I ran for governor of Arkansas 20 years ago, I guess. Never been elected.
FADEL: So has this been your most successful political foray, this hashtag?
MCVAY: If I hadn't have come up with that, somebody else would have come up with that in short order, I'm convinced. Social media is a very powerful medium. And the people that know how to use it can make a difference.
FADEL: That was Gene McVay on #MAGA. We also heard from Marcus Hunter who coined Black Lives Matter and Tarana Burke, who founded #MeToo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.