2018: The Year in Immigration Hashtags

December 20, 2018 Will Coley

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

In 2018, which hashtags shaped your online discussions about immigration? That’s the question that I posed in a short informal survey of folks on Twitter this week. Ninety-two people responded. 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”).


What was striking to me was that there were more than 20 relevant hashtags to choose from and several respondents added more that I missed. Most likely, this long hashtag list is a response to the Trump administration’s multiple assaults on immigrant rights this year: from family separation at the border, to banning Muslims to fearmongering over the Central American migrant exodus.

Part of the reason I created the survey was due to a nagging question that I’ve had (and one I asked in the same survey): “Are hashtags as important to online activism as they used to be?”  

The challenge of hashtags has always been encapsulating complex issues succinctly. This has been especially difficult in 2018 when circumstances are changing rapidly on multiple fronts. This was clear earlier this year in the #FamiliesBelongTogether campaign that captured the nation’s attention. The hashtag expresses a common-sense value (something that we at The Opportunity Agenda are always in favor of). But 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 helped spur a public debate about the role of ICE, but it didn’t explain what policies advocates wanted instead, which makes you wonder: can a hashtag ever capture the entirety of a debate or policy proposal?

I’ve had a Twitter account for more than 10 years (@WillColey). Back in the day, hashtags were a useful way to find other tweeters who were interested in the same things. Hashtags helped me connect with new people, and I actually made new real-world friends (Facebook, on the other hand, was theoretically designed to help us keep up with people we already know).

Nowadays with the rise of “fake news,” I wonder if we look to trusted sources more than random strangers who happen to use the same hashtag. Add to this all the Twitter noise on immigrants, it makes sense that we might be following hashtags less but following trusted sources like @fams2gether, @NILC_org and @DetentionWatch more. I’ve noticed that many social justice organizations with large followings are using hashtags sparingly, if at all. In my own use of Twitter, I gradually stopped using Tweetdeck, an online tool that helps you follow certain hashtags, and now I just look at Twitter’s main feed, a curated list of people I follow.

I talked to Juan Escalante (@JuanSaaa) about this issue. He’s a prolific tweeter and has been involved in lots of 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 high jacking 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.

When I asked folks in the survey if hashtags are less important that they used to be, 46.2% said they think hashtags are still important, 39.6% 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.

Of course, hashtags are still important for tweet ups/twitter chats and live-tweeting about events. This brings us back to the original goal of using hashtags in the first place. 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.”

As you would for most communications tools, it’s important to keep our goals in mind, especially on Twitter. I’ve often thought of the platform as an online “third place” where people are having conversations in public that you can eavesdrop on. That’s why it’s important to talk about shared values in our tweets and hashtags. This reinforces the values we share as a community. As tweeters turn more to trusted sources, it’s important that express what we’re FOR rather than what we’re against. So for 2019, let’s put values front and center in our tweets.

What do you think? The survey is still live so feel free vote on your top immigration hashtags and leave a comment about their usefulness. After completing the survey, you’ll be able to see other respondents’ comments on hashtags.