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Hashtags, though sometimes silly, are proving to be powerful as well. Take the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which has even been promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama, to call global attention to the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. And now there is #YesAllWomen, which arose in reaction to the recent mass killing in California by a violent misogynist who railed against women.

Following revelations about the killer’s 141-page manifesto where he detailed his hatred of women who refused his sexual advances and planned his so-called “Day of Retribution,” a debate on Twitter developed.  And the hashtag thread #YesAllWomen highlights the social media conversation about the incident and the reasons behind it.

Hashtags give people an outlet to vent and connect with like-minded people.

But according to University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has written about the power of hashtags and social media in low-level activism, hashtags can a double-edged sword: they can empower dissidents  “and spur them to action, but also how they can (paradoxically) help give power to the thing they are fighting against, and replace what might be a more lasting form of resistance with an ephemeral discussion that eventually fizzles out, having achieved very little,” reports Gigaom.

So will #BringBackOurGirls lead to the return of the schoolgirls? Will the #YesAllWomen thread end misogyny? The hashtags alone won’t. But both will generate conversation that could lead to positive actions or get people to reconsider their beliefs. Some have credited #BringBackOurGirls with bringing the worldwide attention that was necessary to get the Nigerian government to act with more urgency in the search for the kidnapped students. Then you have those like Ann Coulter who think it’s a waste of time.

As Mathew Ingram concludes in his Gigaom article, “Speaking as a man, and therefore part of the group that the #YesAllWomen thread was directed at (the name refers to the “Not all men” defense that many provide when the topic of violence towards women comes up), I found following the hashtag to be raw, disturbing, thought-provoking, challenging and many other things besides. In other words, the best kind of discussion. And now it’s up to me and everyone else who took part to put some of those feelings into action.

What are your thoughts on politcal and social hashtags? Here are some more thoughts on the topic here and here. And more on #YesAllWomen here.

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