The power of hashtags

Photo: Bruce Newman//Oxford Eagle

Like after every other tragedy, people come together to console each other and overcome grief. But the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was not just any other tragedy: instead of uniting the nation, it divided it, and grief soon became outrage. The students, whose lives were forever altered by this tragedy, decided to take matters into their own hands by creating the #NeverAgain movement. Since the government had decided to protect their own interests rather than to protect the lives of children and teenagers, these students decided that they had no choice but to hold politicians accountable. They are right – the Washington Post found that since the Columbine shooting in 1999, 187,000 students have been exposed to gun violence. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, there have been 1,600 mass shootings in the United States. These statistics are chilling and I applaud all the students who have mobilized against this kind of violence. But at the same time I wonder to what extent they will be able to influence change: how efficient, influential and powerful can a hashtag and youth movement really be?


People usually say that politics move slowly and that may be true, but pressing change can happen rather quickly. Look at how fast Australia introduced gun control after the Port Arthur massacre that killed 35 people. The US could easily follow in Australia’s footsteps: it is not a problem of time or complexity; it is a problem of willingness. The #NeverAgain movement is about forcing politicians to abandon an agenda built on self-interest and driven by the sole purpose of being reelected. These students ask for members of congress to quit being strategic actors and start working in the interest of the people. And the people have spoken: according to recent polls, 66% of respondents said they would support stricter gun laws.


The problem however is that it is difficult to change a structural failure in the system from outside: the NRA is one of the most powerful and deep-pocketed lobbies in the United States, it spends approximately 3 million dollars on lobbying alone – and in politics, money is power. In fact it is so powerful that it can make people like Ben Carson, former Republican presidential candidate and now U.S. Secretary of Housing, say absurdities like: “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand put things quite bluntly and clearly when she stated that “the NRA has a chokehold on Congress.” With a U.S. Senator admitting that a gun lobby holds such sway over government officials, can we really hope for youth movements, such as #NeverAgain or March For Our Lives, to make a difference?


I am deeply inspired and moved by how the youth in America has mobilized itself against gun violence. But is inspiration really enough to make change happen? I hope so. I hope from the bottom of my heart that politicians will listen to the outcries of students that have lost friends in school shootings, to parents that have lost their children to gun violence; I hope they will listen to common sense. But realistically speaking I doubt that change will happen just from this. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement; while the movement was at the center of attention for quite a while, police brutality and bias is still an ongoing issue in the United States. Also, people seem to have moved on from this issue on to the next one; the Black Lives Matter movement is increasingly becoming a forgotten hashtag, instead of being considered as a social movement fighting for an unbelievably important cause. This is why I cannot help but wonder how long it will take for media and society to move on from this social cause to another – until the next mass shooting.


In fact the problem with activism and social movements is that all they can do is influence decision-makers; they cannot take decisions instead of them. But in order to influence people, one needs to be heard, which is why I hope that this movement will be more than just another hashtag. I do not believe that protests or social movements alone can bring about change. But if they are strong enough, big enough and last long enough, they can influence the right people. Surely the NRA has close to unlimited funds when it comes to lobbying, but there is one other actor that outnumbers it and is more powerful: the people. And, as silly as it seems, if we manage to keep this hashtag alive long enough, if we manage to keep this issue on people’s minds, maybe next election season we will vote for candidates that prioritize their constituencies over their political careers.


Alina Yalmanian is a first year student, whose origins and nationality are too complicated to be explained in 2 lines. Plays the drums and practices martial arts even if she really does not look like it. On the Loose runs once a month.

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