Whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, you have most likely come across a political hashtag in an article, a tweet or a personal story shared on Facebook.
A hashtag is a functional tag widely used in search engines and social networking services that allow people to search for content that falls under the word or phrase, followed by the # sign.
First popularized by Twitter in 2009, the use of hashtags has become widespread. Nearly anything political with the intent of attracting a wide audience is now branded with a catchy hashtag. Take for example, election campaigns (#MAGA), social movements (#FreeHongKong) or calls for supporting or opposing laws (#LoveWins).
Along with activists and politicians, news companies are also using political hashtags to increase readership and to contextualize reporting in short, digestible social media posts. According to Columbia Journalism Review, such practice is a “good way to introduce a story or perspective into the mainstream news cycle” and “a way to figure out what the public wants to discuss and learn more about.”
Is this really true?
To find out, we conducted a controlled online experiment with 1,979 people.
We tested whether people responded differently to the presence or absence of political hashtags – particularly the most widely used #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter – in news articles published on Facebook by major news outlets, such as The New York Times and NPR.
We randomly showed each person a news post that either contained or excluded the political hashtag. We then asked them to comment on the article and answer a few questions about it.
We discovered that political hashtags are not a good way for news outlets to engage readers.
In fact, when the story included a hashtag, people perceived the news topic to be less important and were less motivated to know more about related issues.