It wasn't until 2012, however, that "hashtag activism" congealed in a major way around an actionable, concrete cause. On a Tuesday in January, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which annually contributed $680,000 to Planned Parenthood for breast exams and mammograms, announced its plans to cut that funding off. The decision was largely political, which outraged Planned Parenthood supporters. By Friday of that week, more than 100,000 people had tweeted hashtags like #singon and #standwithpp — and Komen had restored funding.
"I absolutely believe the exposure on Facebook and Twitter really drove a lot of coverage by mainstream media," Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards told the Los Angeles Times. "I've never seen anything catch fire [like that.]"
Richards had a point. While activist hashtags like #ows had trended before, rarely had a hashtag been aimed at such a specific policy — something that could, with enough awareness, be easily reversed by a handful of people.
It also helped that many of the #standwithpp activists were stakeholders in the conflict: women who used Planned Parenthood, or women's health services more generally, used Twitter as a platform to speak up for their causes.
That was a major, immediate failing for #Kony2012, which trended only weeks after #standwithpp. Sparked by a documentary of the same name on Ugandan military leader and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony, and fueled by tweets from celebrities such as Rihanna, Stephen Fry and Nicole Richie, #Kony2012 earned nearly 2.4 million tweets in March 2012 . . . but failed to articulate any specific demands, besides the self-evident "stop Kony." Worse, the documentary (and the hashtag) were organized by do-gooder Americans, not Ugandans.
They may have meant well, but the meddling, imperialist overtones of #Kony2012 would forever haunt the hashtag. Kony, critics pointed out, had been accused of abducting child soldiers since the '90s. But millions of Americans noticed only when it became trendy to do so and when it was other Americans advancing the issue. Two days after the documentary "Kony 2012" premiered, the first (and to date, only) definition of hashtag activism appeared on Urban Dictionary, beginning: "The kind of activism undertaken when you "do something" about a problem by tweeting or posting links to Facebook, without any intent of ever actually doing something. "