Are there hidden dangers in hashtagging?

For many, I suspect shift + 3, you know, creating a hashtag, comes naturally. I, however, fumble over the basic how-to’s and why’s of hashtagging unless of course it’s #alengthyinsidejoke that ironically conveys my deep lack of understanding about this social media phenomenon.

Despite my struggles, I created a Twitter account for professional purposes as a means to share information about various projects I am working on and to monitor discussions around relevant topic areas.

One focus area of mine is the intersection of social justice – diversity, equity, inclusion – healthcare, so I follow thought leaders in these spaces. I’ve noticed that core human values, like empathy, are circulating wildly as hashtags. My feed has become saturated with #empathy on re-tweets of articles, likes, comments, and other, relevant forms of Internet validation.

As a Twitter novice, I thought to myself, I want my followers and the larger online community to read the article I’ve shared, so I should jump on the #empathy bandwagon, right?

I started to drop #empathy in my posts and observed my network doing the same. My own participation in the #empathy trend made me question, what are the larger implications, if any, of reducing core human values, like empathy, to hashtags? This is the question I’d like to explore in this article.

Hashtagging does serve a purpose

Hashtags have important, functional benefits, I can’t argue that point. Most simply, a hashtag serves to label content. It helps draw attention to, organize and promote a topic.

Because the hashtag makes it easy to find, follow and contribute to conversations, ideas can spread like wildfire, which, depending on the idea, can be overwhelmingly positive.

Is it possible for hashtagging to devalue an important topic?

Beyond the functional benefits, I wonder, are there any downsides to hashtagging? More specifically, in the context of an important issue whether that be social, political, environmental, etc.

Let’s revisit the case of #empathy and look at it from the healthcare angle. #Empathy has become popular in healthcare circles as a way to promote the idea that understanding the patient’s feelings, perspective and reality is not only “the right thing to do” but also can help the clinician give more accurate diagnoses and treatment plans.

Given its trendiness, #empathy has popped up on all social media platforms and is being used by all sorts of stakeholders in the larger healthcare dialogue from executives at large health systems to entrepreneurs to clinicians and the list goes on.

Is this inherently a bad thing? Probably not, but here is what gives me pause, in the case of #empathy:

Does slapping a hashtag on a social media post and re-sharing dismiss the significant time, effort and emotional energy that goes into developing empathy?

The key word here is developing.

Sure, it can be argued that some people have a pre-disposition to be more empathetic than others, but that person’s unique experiences and interactions have a strong influence on how their values evolve, whether they become more or less empathetic over time.

I believe empathy is learned and requires effort. Referencing the textbook definition of empathy, it’s “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, so unless you have a profound, innate ability, with zero exposure or experience,  to empathize with people from different backgrounds than your own (e.g. racial, ethnic, sexual and gender identities, to name a few) empathy doesn’t come about magically.

It requires an investment of time and often a high degree of proactivity to understand and empathize with the realities of a person that is of a different background than your own.

Does hashtagging make us too passive?

Is clicking re-share and typing #empathy a shortcut for action? Sure, it feels good to let the Internet community know where we stand and the ideals we promote, but are we, in any way, using hashtagging as a substitute for the real activism that is so desperately needed?

In this context, I’m defining “real activism” as putting time, energy and money into advancing an important cause. For instance, plenty of published evidence exists that supports the fact that minorities and marginalized groups struggle to gain health equity. In the healthcare industry, there has been increased focus on incorporating a patient’s social determinants of health (SDoH) as a means to improve health equity for patients.

While there is no shortage of #empathy circulating on the interwebs, there is still a substantial gap in funding to educate, train and equip clinicians and care deliverers with the tools and resources they need to effectively integrate the SDoH into their clinical decision making processes. If #empathy is as important in real life as it seems online, then why isn’t this hashtagging translating into substantial action?

Why do we have to wait for something to become a hashtag before we do “the right thing”?

NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast ran a stellar episode detailing the psychological forces behind cultural reckonings. While the podcast spoke to the #metoo movement, there are significant parallels with other social, political and environmental actions.

Applying the same logic of #metoo to #empathy, I’m curious why we have to wait for #empathy to reach large, global scale before we can apply “real activism”, as defined above, to a problem we already know exists? Is doing “the right thing” not enough or do we have to delay action until the Internet community gives us the permission, so to speak, to start creating real change?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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