Publicly pledging support on social media for a cause or candidate of your choice is pretty common nowadays, and we bet you’ve seen it (or done it) recently between #OscarsSoWhite tweets and celebs shutting down sexist questions with the #AskHerMore hashtag. Sure, it’s made us more aware of human rights, feminist and racial issues, but would you believe that a small public display online actually has the power to help someone during moments of crisis and inspire a bigger movement? A new study proves that all of the initial criticism of hashtag activism as lazy and not that influential was wrong.

Girl Friends Look At Phone Together

American University (AU) recently found that social media drove the largest push for racial justice that the United States has seen in decades. The study Beyond the Hashtags credits hashtag activism with sparking a national conversation about police force against unarmed African Americans largely by using the hashtags #Ferguson and #Blacklivesmatter.

To examine the power of online activity, AU communications professor Deen Freelon and his co-researchers, Charlton D. McIlwain of New York University and Meredith D. Clark of the University of North Texas, studied the social tools credited with transforming the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter into an unstoppable national movement. In sum, the team analyzed a whopping 40.8 million tweets, more than 100,000 web links and 40 interviews with Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and allies.

Their findings are FASCINATING. Though the #Blacklivesmatter hashtag was created in 2013, it didn’t start showing up on a notable scale until months after the Ferguson protests in 2014. The day after a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown, the hashtag was used more than 100,000 times, when on the previous day, it had only appeared in 2,309 tweets! Data shows that social media posts by activists were essential in the early stages of spreading Michael Brown’s story.

“This report showcases how Black Lives Matter and related movements have used social media tools to broaden conversations about the general capacity of online media tools to facilitate social and political change,” the authors write in the report. “Our BLM interview participants were asked about the kinds of social changes they wanted to see as a result of their online activism; the primary type of desired outcome was policy change.”

As for the tactics behind hashtag activism success, Freelon’s team found that activists shared their own stories about police violence while protesters simultaneously communicated freely without a need for a standard news outlet. Both groups were able to amplify and spread their message super fast by appealing to parties that have been previously unreachable, like celebrities and politicians.

The key takeaways? Be thoughtful about your social posts and don’t be scared to look passive by engaging in hashtag activism, because you CAN make a big difference.

Have you used hashtags to share a story or opinion about a social issue online? Tell us about it @BritandCo!

(Photo via Getty)