And Just Like That … was the most-watched series debut ever released on HBO Max. It was almost predictable that this hotly anticipated follow-up to the iconic series Sex and the City would attract a large audience.
But what was perhaps even more predictable, especially given today’s increasingly incendiary internet, was a series-related scandal amplified by social media.
First, Peloton’s stock price went on a bumpy ride downwards due its role in a pivotal plot point in this Sex and the City reboot. The popular home exercise bike was depicted as being involved in the death of series stalwart John James “Mr. Big” Preston, played by Chris Noth.
Then there was a Ryan Reynolds-driven online video response to the plot twist. He produced an ad entitled “He’s Alive!” This cheeky piece of crisis communications featured Mr. Big living his best life and still embracing his inner Lothario. The ad featured the actor with a romantic partner in front of a fireplace with a Peloton in view.
And finally, multiple sexual assault allegations were then levelled against Noth. This led to the pulling of Reynolds’ ad and the removal of Noth’s scenes from the season finale, airing in early February 2022. And just like that, Noth was gone from the show.
These developments unfolded quickly. They show how social media can fuel important social movements following acts of reprehensible behaviour like those alleged against Noth. They also speak to society’s long overdue reckoning with issues like sexual assault and harassment in concert with movements like #MeToo.
#MeToo went viral due to celebrity advocacy
Social media has an unparalleled ability to amplify messages given today’s prevalence of digital media. One of the best examples is #MeToo, which obviously is closely tied to the Noth scandal.
Contrary to popular conception, this movement wasn’t new when it went mainstream in 2017. Tarana Burke started #MeToo in 2006. That was well before it became a Hollywood-driven hashtag.
It went explosively viral more than a decade later, fuelled by posts from high-profile actresses like Alyssa Milano, Jennifer Lawrence and Uma Thurman.
As many as 19 million people responded to a tweet from Milano suggesting women share their stories, and the hashtag was born. This iconic hashtag was followed and shared, tweeted and retweeted, by an incredible number of allies. Many people bravely shared their harrowing experiences with sexual assault and harassment. Others posted in solidarity, using the hashtag, not just on Twitter but on Instagram and Facebook. A movement had begun.
But how do social media movement hashtags like #MeToo actually become viral?
The amplifying force of hashtags
The #MeToo movement is indicative of broader changes in how we communicate. Social movements are now inextricably linked to their associated hashtag. Think of #ArabSpring, #BlackLivesMatter and #OccupyWallStreet. It is nearly impossible to think about sexual assault and harassment in 2022 without #MeToo.
Hashtags amplify messages regardless of the underlying content. Tweets with hashtags earn twice as much engagement as those without. Similarly, tweets with one or more hashtags are 55 per cent more likely to be retweeted.
By distilling a complex movement down to its core, hashtags emphasize its essential elements. They also make them more shareable for social channels. Longer content can be ignored given the limits on how much information a person can consume in today’s hyper-competitive attention economy.
Hashtags not only quicken a message’s speed, but also broaden its geographical reach.
The global nature of hashtag activism
We communicate most frequently and intensely with those who directly surround us. This tendency to communicate with those close by was so ingrained in our distant past that sending someone who lived far away a handwritten letter was once considered a revolutionary means of communication.
But social media communication — especially for business — is often locally focused. Even politicians also routinely use social platforms to communicate with constituents.
But the advent of hashtag activism has allowed key social movements to transcend their local origins and become international.
This might be best demonstrated by #BlackLivesMatter’s global reach in the aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd. After this horrific incident, daily use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag surpassed one million posts. That was similar to #MeToo’s explosion a few years earlier as it became a global rallying cry for women. Hashtag activism can create a viral local response, but also propel it to the furthest reaches of the globe.
The future of social media-driven movements
Like other massively successful hashtags, #MeToo derives its power from being concise and memorable. It communicates a much deeper message than the hashtag itself.
It also embraces the zeitgeist. The fight for equality across gender, race and income lines has become increasingly prevalent. These issues continue to be shared via social media. Like the most powerful hashtags, #MeToo moves seamlessly between online and offline spaces, reinforcing one another.
It’s difficult to predict the characteristics that guarantee an online social movement will gain traction in the physical world and have staying power. But social media’s unparalleled powers of amplification across time and space will undoubtedly contribute to the next global social movement.