What is Hashtag Hijacking?

what is hashtag hijacking

This week’s explainer article answers the question “What is hashtag hijacking?”

Let me say right up front:  if you do not understand what a hashtag is, this article will be confusing. A hashtag looks something like this:  #SMBinfluencer.   If you need more information about hashtags or how to use them in marketing, you might want to first read our earlier piece “What is a hashtag?”  Then come back and this article will make much more sense.

But if you are a veteran of social media, then read on.  Because you may not be aware of how easily you can set your company up to be a target of hijackers.

We’ll focus this discussion on Twitter hashtags.  While hashtags are now being used on other social networks, the art of hijacking seems to have been perfected on Twitter.

What is Hashtag Hijacking?

As the word suggests, “hijacking” a hashtag is a negative thing.

Hijacking happens when a hashtag is used for a different purpose than the one originally intended.  There are two types of hashtag hijacking:  the attention seeking troll, and the PR campaign gone wrong.  Let’s look at them both.

1. The Attention Seeking Troll

what is hashtag hijacking

The most common but not too harmful type of hashtag hijacking comes from the kind of person I call the “attention seeking troll.”

You may have seen them.  These are the Twitter jerks who use a hashtag to promote their own “click my junk” offer that has nothing to do with the hashtag.  They use a popular hashtag because they know people are searching on that hashtag. Perhaps it’s a trending topic at the moment.  They figure they will get some attention by adding a popular hashtag to their tweets.

Businesses tend to run into the attention-seeking troll when they’ve set up a specific hashtag for a contest or an event.  For example, if you are holding a Twitter chat, a troll may throw in some unrelated tweets using the hashtag you’ve designated for the chat.

While annoying, attention trolls who abuse hashtags typically are not a major problem.  That’s because their MO (modus operandi) is the hit and run attack.  They lob unrelated tweets like grenades. Then they quickly move on to another hashtag.

The best thing to do with attention trolls is ignore them. Eventually they go away.  It’s usually not a good thing to get into a virtual shouting match with a troll.

If the troll persists and does the same activity repeatedly, you can report them to Twitter for spam.  Among the activities defined as spam by Twitter are:

  • Posting repeatedly to trending topics to try to grab attention
  • Posting links with unrelated tweets

That definition would seem to include tweeting using unrelated hashtags. To report a Twitter account for spam, you visit their profile page.  Click the little person icon to access the drop-down menu. Then choose “report for spam” as the following screenshot shows:

2. The PR Campaign Gone Wrong

what is hashtag hijacking

The second type of hashtag hijacking is far more serious for businesses.

This is when a hashtag that a brand sets up to generate positive PR, is hijacked by detractors.  Instead of being used for positive sentiment, it is used for attacks on the business, or in a sarcastic or snarky way.

One of the most notorious business situations of hashtag hijacking happened to McDonald’s. In early 2012 the fast food giant started a hashtag campaign called #McDStories. Although they sent out just a few tweets using the hashtag #McDStories, the public soon started using the hashtag  — in ways McDonald’s never expected.  Customers started telling stories of their own — stories about quality issues they’d encountered. Or they used the hashtag to make snarky remarks about the hamburger purveyor.

The hashtag quickly trended – for all the wrong reasons.  Members of the public, either unhappy with McDonald’s or just seeing an opportunity to have fun at a big brand’s expense, quickly turned the hashtag’s sentiment negative.

Almost a year and a half later, you can still find the occasional #McDStories hashtag being used.  Every once in a while it is positive, but mostly it’s negative, like this one two days ago:

Of course, McDonald’s is hardly the only brand to find itself the target of snarky hashtag hijacking.  It seems to happen with some frequency to large brands.

Celebrity brands are also targets.  The beleaguered Paula Deen bore the brunt of numerous hashtag attacks on Twitter and elsewhere. One of them used the hashtag #PaulasBestDishes, which is also the name of her former show on the Food TV Network.  The hashtag had been a sedate tag added to tweets about recipes by adoring fans. Once allegations of racism against Deen surfaced, the hashtag became a lightning rod for sarcastic outraged commentary.

Hijacking also happens almost daily in politics – as the recent hijack of #ObamacareIsWorking shows.

The bigger the business or the more well-known the person or organization, the bigger the target on its back.

And what typically happens is the hijacked hashtag becomes viral and far more visible, as a result of the sarcasm and negative uses of it.  Not only does hijacking have a negative effect, but the negative aspects are magnified.  It becomes a train wreck, where public relations are concerned.

Preventing hashtag hijacking


Type of HijackingDescriptionCharacteristics/Examples
Attention Seeking TrollHijackers use trending/popular hashtags to promote unrelated content.Often not major threats due to "hit and run" tactics. Can be reported to Twitter for spamming.
PR Campaign Gone WrongA brand's positive PR hashtag gets used sarcastically or negatively, often damaging its reputation.McDonald's #McDStories, Paula Deen's #PaulasBestDishes. Hashtags become viral with negative sentiment.


How to Avoid Having Your Hashtag Hijacked

So how do you avoid finding your brand in this situation? And avoid having your PR campaign go horribly wrong?

  • First, do not create vague, self-serving or “tell us how much you love us” type of hashtags.  Those are the ones that invite sarcastic remarks, as Sprout Social points out.  They are the most vulnerable to being hijacked and making your PR campaign go wrong. Trying to incite people to speak positively about your business or somehow spontaneously engage around a vague tagline-like phrase you’ve created, is a clumsy use of social media.
  • Second, keep it specific and give users a hashtag with a “what’s in it for me.”  For instance, creating a hashtag for a contest where people tweet using the hashtag to enter the contest, is less likely to be open to snarky hijacking.  If people have a reason to tweet using it, they will. They are less likely to have fun with it at your expense.
  • Third, some companies deliberately choose hashtags that do not include their Twitter handle or any variant of their brand name.  Hashtags without your brand contained in them are not as easy to turn against your brand.  The hashtag hijack depends on having a hashtag that can propagate through nearly instant recognition.
  • Fourth, consider what is going on with your company at the time.  If you are going through a particularly difficult time in your business — with layoffs or some public screw-up on the recent horizon — it’s not the time to be creating hashtag campaigns.  It just gives detractors one more way to attack your company.

The good news in all of this is that small businesses tend to be much more authentic when it comes to social media, than many larger brands.  With fewer layers between employees and the customer, small businesses tend to converse pretty naturally with customers.   Still, it’s something to be aware of.

In an age where everyone with a computer or a smartphone can publish his or her thoughts to the world, businesses have to navigate more public relations minefields than ever before.

Key Takeaways: “What is Hashtag Hijacking?”

  • Hashtag hijacking refers to the misuse of a hashtag for purposes other than its original intent, often negatively impacting brands.
  • Two primary hijackers: the Attention Seeking Troll (uses popular hashtags for unrelated promotion) and the PR Campaign Gone Wrong (brands’ PR hashtags used sarcastically or negatively by the public).
  • High-profile examples include McDonald’s #McDStories and Paula Deen’s #PaulasBestDishes, both of which faced adverse public sentiment.
  • Prevention strategies include being specific with hashtags, offering value to users, avoiding brand-centric tags, and being cautious during company crises.
  • Small businesses, due to their authentic approach on social media, may face fewer risks, but awareness remains crucial.

Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.