In the 13 years since the hashtag was invented by open-source advocate Chris Messina, it has moved beyond linking pages to becoming a movement of its own.
In recent times, the most popular hashtag, which is a follow-on to the Me Too movement founded 14 years ago by US activist Tarana Burke, was #MeToo.
It went viral, mostly because all one needed to take part in it was a keyboard, a hash key and four letters of the alphabet.
However, social media has revealed that going viral hardly means mass advocacy, as hashtags remain coded language that some only associate with hip trends without the relevant tools to decode the message.
#MeToo became such a hashtag. People with little comprehension of what Burke’s movement was about tagged along and used the hashtag, not the movement, to settle old scores and, in some cases, to push regressive agendas.
That’s the tragedy of social media – it has no checks and balances.
To a certain extent, hashtags mirror society’s psyche and shortcomings. The more traumatised a society, the more disturbing its hashtags.
If hashtags had been invented before 1994, viral ones would have been #ReleaseMandela, #UnbanPoliticalParties, #MayibuyeiAfrika, #IzweLethu, #BDS, #EndPoliticalDetentions and #WeShallOvercome.
Back then, such slogans were printed on T-shirts and pamphlets, and immortalised in pictures like that of Mbuyiseni Makhubo carrying Hector Pietersen’s body and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s defiant fist protruding from an opening in the back of a police van as it sped down a township street.
In March, after the Wuhan 114 were brought back to South Africa from Covid-19 coronavirus-struck China, I invented the hashtag #WeAreAllCaptainVusiKhumalo after the SAA pilot gained popularity for being part of the crew that flew stranded South Africans to a quarantine site in Limpopo.
One would have expected a nation traumatised by fear and panic to seek solace in associating with a hero – it didn’t.
Rewind to when musician Mampintsa was accused of beating his protégée and girlfriend Babes Wodumo.
As soon as word of the abuse got out, #WeAreAllMandlaMaphumulo sprung up.
There was pushback from some men who said Mampintsa didn’t represent them as they had never beaten anyone in their lives.
It was #NotInMyName by another name. But social media feminists, forever armed with crosses, hammers and nails, were out guilt-tripping every man and crucifying those who dared to dissent – accusing them of being, you guessed it, #Trash.
Every man afraid of Golgotha had to tag along and accept that they were a Mampintsa – a disgusting figure many wouldn’t want to become even if they were paid to play him in a biopic.
The country was back to that ugly time when convicted killer Sandile Mantsoe murdered Karabo Mokoena, doused her body with acid and then set it alight; when every man was bullied through a series of hashtags to own up to being a loser who killed and burnt his ex-girlfriend in a ritual only known to men.
Me Too was well-intentioned when it was launched in 2006. The jury’s still out on whether the hashtag carried the same ethos as the movement.
The hashtag allowed people to point a finger without looking at where their other four were pointing.
#MeToo was about judicial redress, but #MeToo advocates often said they didn’t believe in judicial redress because “the justice system favours men, so there’s no point in subjecting oneself to it”. #MeToo became YouToo.
The hashtag outlived its radical cousin #MenAreTrash. Even Facebook had to ban it after realising that it was a padlock without a key.
Inventors threw the key away and, when asked, “How do I get out of this prison?”, they declared: “Hell has no exit.”
#MenAreTrash was negative energy masquerading as activism, and it gained traction because black society has been socialised to see itself in a negative light.
Anything unifying hardly flies in black society.
Which is why even when convicted rapist and film producer Harvey Weinstein was arrested and later found guilty, there was no hashtag #WeAreHarveyWeinstein.
When Kevin Spacey was accused of abusing more than 15 people, no white community wanted to own up to his sins.
White society is socialised not to see itself in a negative light, even when it often homogenously displays racist tendencies.
Like Muslims, they will never take ownership of an individual’s transgressions through self-hating hashtags.
Look at how Kiwis responded when white supremacist Brenton Harrison Tarrant gunned down 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand.
They didn’t come up with a hashtag #WeAreBrentonHarrisonTarrant, instead choosing to rally behind the hideous absolution #ThisIsNotNZ.
A similar response followed the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (#WeAreCharlie), not #JeSuiKouachiFrere (#WeAreKouachiBrothers), in reference to the two gunmen, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, who killed 12 people and injured 11.
The question among black people should be: Why can’t we be comedian Trevor Noah? Why is it so hard for us to associate ourselves with the likes of Noah and Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi?
Why are we so quick to co-opt corrosive figures as our mirrors?
It is how apartheid works in our psyche – it has made us hate who we are and love that which we should hate.
We see ourselves as dirty, abusive, trash, rapists and corrupt. We are socialised to look down on ourselves.
Psychologist Frantz Fanon wrote: “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.”
We easily and willingly associate with society’s outlaws and their behaviour because, deep down, we don’t want the responsibility and expectation that comes with positive role modelling.
We are wired to always fine fault.
Black people must start seeing the glass as half full and not half empty, the same way other societies with a nationalist agenda do.
It is a classic Trumpian move to condemn a whole community with one hashtag.
Mashego is a culture writer and author of the book How to Sink the Black Ball