TORONTO — Celebrity watchers and armchair coaches may have produced the most social media chatter over the past 12 months, but those tuned into the web’s global conversations believe 2014 will be remembered as the time when social justice advocates found their voice.
Twitter, Facebook and other key social networks were peppered with loosely related hashtags throughout the year flagging complex, timely issues ranging from racial profiling to sexual assault to domestic violence.
Such topics are far from novel in either the online or offline worlds, but social media watchers say the scope and impact of the most recent conversations suggest a watershed moment in online discourse.
Hashtags such as #BeenRapedNeverReported, #BlackLivesMatter and #WhyIStayed are still generating discussion in community, law enforcement and political circles long after exploding onto the public radar.
Social media analyst Carmi Levy said such a phenomenon is almost unprecedented for a medium in which 15 minutes of fame is an eternity.
“This was the year that social justice came into its own as a social media trend,” Levy said in a telephone interview from London, Ont.
“We’re no longer looking at social media simply as something that allows us to share pictures of what we had for breakfast or to play games when we go online. We can also use it to do more meaningful things like perhaps improve the world around us for those who might be disadvantaged.”
Such lofty goals may seem divorced from a medium still dominated by Hollywood photo ops and calls to arms for local sports teams.
Numbers from Twitter Canada indicate that Ellen DeGeneres’ star-studded snapshot at the 2014 Academy Awards was the most frequently shared tweet of the past calendar year, while a message of thanks from Justin Bieber was the most popular tweet originating from a Canadian account.
Six of the 10 most popular hashtags across Canada reference sports events ranging from the World Cup to the Olympics, according to Twitter, while the remainder are filled out by reality television shows and broad-based political chatter.
But Twitter Canada spokesman Steve Ladurantaye said the organization noticed a pronounced spike in topics with a social justice focus, most of which evolved as offshoots of breaking news stories.
When a black teen was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began a months-long discussion delving into the multifaceted subject of racial profiling.
This month’s hostage crisis in Sydney Australia, widely described as an act of terrorism, spurred a similarly wide-ranging discussion about anti-Muslim sentiment under the banner of #IllRideWithYou.
And allegations of violence and sexual assault against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi prompted two Canadian women to introduce the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported, which is still in use to this day.
The millions of tweets these topics garnered may not compare to the numbers posted by Bieber and his peers, but Ladurantaye says impact is not measured by data alone.
“It’s quality over quantity,” he said. “A hundred thousand people sharing stories about how to make women safer, there’s no way anyone could argue that isn’t an incredibly valuable thing even though more people tweeted about the Super Bowl. The fact that more people tweeted about a football game doesn’t take away the deep effect of those women’s stories and the ability for them to find each other on Twitter and share their stories and raise awareness.”
That power came as a shock to Antonia Zerbisias, the Toronto-based journalist who was one of the two originators of the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag.
Social change was nowhere on Zerbisias’ mind when she gave voice to her mounting frustration about people who questioned why sexual assault victims stay silent and appended the hashtag to the end of a personal story.
“It was just a tweet. Not unlike many other tweets that I put out that just are timely, based on events in the news, and are on point,” she said. “That’s all it was.”
But within hours, Zerbisias realized she had helped launch a worldwide conversation in which people across international and socioeconomic barriers were sharing their personal accounts of undocumented rape.
Days later, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair was offering words of encouragement to the city’s sexual assault victims who had not felt comfortable reporting their past traumas.
Shortly after that, the issue was front and centre on Parliament Hill after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suspended two members of his caucus over allegations of sexual misconduct.
Zerbisias says it’s impossible to attribute such a wide-ranging conversation to a single hashtag, saying it was one of the elements in a “perfect storm” that made the topic timely. She says she is confident the online discussion helped keep the subject alive among those who could help to make genuine change.
“It’s a kind of consciousness-raising that is now spreading through the culture and is having impact elsewhere,” she said.
Beverly Gooden, a 32-year-old North Carolina resident credited with originating the hashtag #WhyIStayed, is feeling similar effects three months after her impromptu effort to debunk myths around domestic violence went viral.
What began as a spontaneous reaction to violent video footage of National Football League player Ray Rice assaulting his wife in elevator quickly evolved into a nuanced discussion of the complex reasons why both men and women remain in abusive relationships. The NFL eventually suspended Rice, but he was reinstated last month.
Gooden says she’s been contacted by complete strangers telling her that the discussion helped them find a way to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation.
Even though she hopes the revealing dialog will mobilize more community resources and prompt a broader examination of the root causes of domestic violence, she says individual impacts can’t be discounted.
The medium on which the conversation unfolded, she added, insures that those smaller victories may continue to mount even after the hashtag has faded from memory.
“The Internet never forgets. It’s the same with hashtags, they never really die,” she said.
“At some point next year or two years from now someone might pull up #WhyIStayed and then see all these stories of women and men that have similar stories to them.”
Levy said the social justice Twitter triumphs of 2014 all share common elements – a clear connection to a current news story and a compelling emotional angle that makes people feel engaged.
Even as the first factor loses influence, the second can be easily sustained, he said, adding that all it will take is another relevant event to keep the conversation moving forward in social media and beyond.
“We shouldn’t be judging success or failure based on what happened to a particular hashtag days or weeks after it first flares then fades,” he said.
“. . . The fact is that larger conversation continues to happen, and it’s only a matter of time before the next major news event occurs and allows us to write another chapter about it.”