Debate breaks out over 'hashtag activism'

Map on CartoDB shows prevalence of US #yesallwomen tweets over time.

Did a huge international women's-rights protest just happen?

Or was it just a couple of million disaffected females tapping their cellphones?

The startling and controversial success of the hashtag #YesAllWomen raises these questions, along with a larger one:

Can "hashtag activism" - large numbers of sharers and tweeters upholding the same message - be legitimate?

On May 23, Elliot Rodger, 23, after distributing a "Retribution" video and a 137-page, ragingly anti-woman manifesto, went on a rampage through Isla Vista, Calif., leaving two women and five men dead, including himself.

#YesAllWomen arose within hours. It evidently started in tweets between the woman who created it (tweet handle @gildedspine) and writer Annie Cardi.

Cardi explained the hashtag: "It's not 'all men are dangerous' but 'all women live with some element of threat.' "

The hashtag went viral, often in the form used by Stacey Whittle: "#YesAllWomen because I don't know a single woman in real life who has not been sexually assaulted in one form or another, including me." According to tracker site Topsy, by midday Friday more than 2.1 million people had used the hashtag. An animated time-lapse map on CartoDB ( charts activity on six continents, most explosive in the United States and Western Europe.

Blowback was furious. Many sought to undermine, satirize, and savage the campaign. Hashtags such as #NotAllMen arose to compete. Simon Gurr responded to the tweet above: "Depressingly, the #yesallwomen hashtag is proving to be the biggest spiteful coward magnet I've ever seen on Twitter." Vituperation drove @gildedspine to lock her Twitter account: "I have locked my account for a reason. I do not want any more media attention or credit. Thank you."

There is anger on both sides, but no responsible observer would pretend it is equivalent. The impression: We are witnessing the gender divide, politicized.

There are serious problems with #YesAllWomen. Is it fair - does it even make sense? - to connect one disturbed man's rampage with the undoubtable fact that women are under kinds of threats that men, for all the violence in their lives, do not face in the same ways?

And, as Feminista Jones, blogger and frequent Huffington Post and writer, acknowledges, "the hashtag seems skewed to represent only certain women, which continues to be a problem within the feminist movement" - white, straight, middle-class women. The media play along.

But Jones calls this movement legitimate: "I see the use of hashtags the same way I see the use of rallies - each gathers people together in one space with a common interest and allows different voices to share their thoughts. Rallies often work to boost morale, spark energy, and spread important information about the cause, as do hashtags."

Larry Atkins, an adjunct professor of journalism at Temple and Arcadia, said when "someone sees that many like-minded people are talking about a certain issue, it makes it safer to go out on a limb and add your voice to the chorus. In some cases, it might remain in the virtual realm, but there might be certain issues that people feel enough passion about to actually join a physical protest rally or march."

Impact is the issue. New York Times columnist David Carr wrote in 2012 that "online movements are probably not as effective as real world engagement, but occasionally they are powerful beyond the computer."

Can movements such as #YesAllWomen ever hope to follow successful past movements, to end the Vietnam War, lower the voting age, divest in South Africa, legalize marijuana, institute marriage equality?

Most successful of all: the civil rights movements for women and people of African ancestry. They're not over: In the uneasiness, resentment, and sloppiness that remain, you can feel the grind of cultural change - as with #YesAllWomen.

Much of social media is silly. So it's easy to dismiss hashtag activism, as Bill Maher did on Real Time, mocking those who think, "I'm the real hero. I'm hitting 'Send!' "

Granted the bent bullhorn of social media, the pain and anger of the past week give pause. As for impact, as Atkins points out, it's hard to measure: "It could take weeks, months, or even years to see concrete change, and a hashtag campaign might just be one small factor in that change."

And there are real, flesh-and-blood, #YesAllWomen rallies scheduled across the country. Saturday sees rallies in Chicago, New York - and in Philadelphia, at 3 p.m. in Rittenhouse Square.

"It's about building networks upon which support can be drawn for future endeavors," Jones said. She called it "important work because those people will have children and teach them to be and do better. That is how we will change this world."

215-854-4406 @jtimpane