How to Write Better Hashtags in 2019

February 25, 2019 Will Coley

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

Reader’s note: This post has been updated since being originally published in December 2018.  

In December, we discussed how Twitter hashtags can make or break online discussions about immigration. Recent Twitter activity around President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on Feb. 15 has shown that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to concocting a strong hashtag. Immediately after Trump made his announcement, organizers used #FakeTrumpEmergency to express their opposition.

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Trump’s declaration wasn’t a surprise: the media had been discussing the possibility for weeks, which means that advocates could have done a little more work to come up with a hashtag that didn’t include the word “emergency.” Repeating that word, even if negating it with “fake,” only served to restate Trump’s framing of the debate. It was classic myth-busting. On top of that, we fell into the trap laid for us: deflecting attention away from Trump’s failure to negotiate funding for his border wall (as well as all the additional immigration enforcement money that was approved).

I’ve been curious about the issue of hashtags and how they both encapsulate and influence the immigration debate. That’s the question that I posed in a short informal survey of folks on Twitter at the end of 2018. 100  people responded. You can see the results here. It’s probably no surprise that #FamiliesBelongTogether and #AbolishICE topped the list. Our social listening tool, Crimson Hexagon, found that there were more than 1.6 million posts with these two hashtags which could have potentially reached 290 million users (“impressions”).

The challenge of hashtags has always been how to encapsulate complex issues succinctly. This was especially difficult in 2018 with circumstances changing rapidly on multiple fronts. Take, for example, the #FamiliesBelongTogether campaign that captured the nation’s attention last fall. The hashtag expresses a common-sense value (something that we at The Opportunity Agenda are always in favor of). Yet when it became clear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) intended to expand family detention, the meaning of the hashtag seemed to change: were we somehow suggesting that families belong together… in detention? Of course not! Soon advocates were tweeting #FreedomForFamilies and #StopFamilyDetention.

#AbolishICE, on the other hand, helped spur a public debate about the role of ICE, but it didn’t explain what policies advocates wanted instead, which makes one wonder: can a hashtag ever capture the entirety of a debate or policy proposal?

When I asked folks in the survey if hashtags are less important that they used to be, 46% said they think hashtags are still important, 40% said they don’t know, and 11% said no, they’re not. It’s hard to decipher the “don’t knows,” but I chalk it up to a certain ambivalence about hashtags or a lack of information on their current impact. Keep in the mind that the respondents were a self-sampling group: most likely people already engaged in immigrant rights activism.

Nowadays with the rise of “fake news,” I wonder if we tend to follow trusted sources more than random strangers who happen to use the same hashtag. I’ve noticed that many social justice organizations with large followings are using hashtags sparingly, if at all.

I talked to Juan Escalante (@JuanSaaa) about this issue. He’s a prolific tweeter and has been involved in many online campaigns. Juan wondered if Twitter’s recent timeline changes (no longer being chronological, threads, showing “important” tweets first) have also made us look to trusted sources more. Juan also pointed out that bots and trolls are highjacking hashtags and diminishing their value. “It’s a symptom of our times. We live in an era when people use information as a weapon,” he said.

Of course, hashtags are still important for tweet ups/twitter chats and live-tweeting about events. I spoke to The Opportunity Agenda’s digital consultant, Twanna Hines (@funkybrownchick), about this. “If the goal is to increase engagement and awareness, hashtags can be a good route in because posts that include them generally have higher engagement rates than posts that do not,” Twanna said.

When you’re considering developing a new hashtag, Twanna thinks that advocates and allies should keep two things in mind. “First, focus on who you're trying to reach. Who is your target audience? Next, you'll want to consider your primary message. In other words, once you've captured their attention, what do you want to tell them? The answers to those questions should drive the decision-making process.”

So you may be left wondering, how could advocates have designed a better hashtag against Trump’s national emergency declaration? First, we need to stop simply negating what Trump says or does: that only draws attention to his actions. Second, we need to ask ourselves: What do we want to talk about instead? #VibrantBorderlands or #GreatAmerianBorderRegion might be a little too earnest, but they are both affirmative hashtags with a vision.

When I tweeted cognitive linguist, Anat Shenkar-Osorio (@anatosaurus) for alternative suggestions to #FakeTrumpEmergency, she suggested #PresidentNotKing or #YouWork4Us. My colleagues and I later wondered if #WeAreNotFooled could work. Sure it doesn’t completely encapsulate our values, but at least it doesn’t repeat the lie. It shows that we are confident in our knowledge and our vision for this country, which brings me to my final point: It’s important to reflect shared values in our tweets and hashtags; to express what we’re FOR rather than what we’re against. 

What do you think? The survey is still live so feel free vote on the most effective  immigration hashtags and leave a comment about their overall usefulness. After completing the survey, you’ll be able to see other respondents’ comments on hashtags. Or tweet me at @willcoley with your thoughts.