Oh, you retweeted to #BringBackOurGirls? Well, give yourself a self-congratulatory pat on the back for giving two seconds of your time to save the world before checking Facebook and scrolling through cat posts on Tumblr.
Yes, I am a cynic when it comes to social media activism. There’s no denying that it spreads the word, but so much of hashtag activism just doesn’t sit right with me – reducing issues to a cutesey catchphrase before the next hot new cause catches the imagination of the interwebs. After all, our attention span these days is only 140 characters long.
It’s a bite-size piece of social justice that people can consume while taking a break from Buzzfeed. (Not my words, sadly. A very succinct definition from a friend.)
“But social media activism works!” I hear the impassioned masses cry.
And yes, it can, depending on what result you’re hoping to get. But at what cost?
Over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted by militant group Boko Haram on 15 April, but mainstream media remained largely silent. The hashtag can be traced back to an event honouring the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, nominated as UNESCO’s 2014 World Book Capital City, which took place on 23 April. Dr Oby Ezekwesil, who opened the event, brought public attention to the cause when, in a speech, he made the demand: “Bring back the girls!” This phrase was later retweeted by attendees, and the hashtag snowballed from there. It now has more than 4 million tweets.
Celebrities, political leaders, and ordinary citizens took up the cause, and #BringBackOurGirls caused such an outcry that news organisations were forced to cover the issue.
Social media brought the spotlight onto the issue of these missing girls, and that is an admirable thing.[This does, of course, point to glaring issues in the world’s media organisations, specifically with regards to their blinkered coverage of news issues, but that’s a blog post for another time.]
But don’t for a minute think that your hashtag led to world military action. Many people seem to be under the misguided impression that the US military offered to send in troops – no, that’s not what happened. Let’s be serious here – if the US military actually listened to public opinion, well, then #BombIraq wouldn’t have happened. What the US did offer was a group of “military personnel, intelligence and hostage negotiators” to assist if the Nigerian government so wished. So much diplomatic wrangling goes on behind the scenes, that we can’t say whether any government assistance would or would not have happened without the news coverage and social media to begin with.
A recent post by Slate points out some of the larger issues surrounding this specific hashtag:
“Of course, millions of Americans tweeting about a country that most of them cannot find on a map is hardly a weighty gesture. And even if the resulting media pressure contributes to a more effective military response to this act of terrorism, no social media campaign will change the deep-seated political, economic, and social conflicts at the root of this horror.”
Slacktivism (noun): The act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.
Hashtag activism makes us complacent. It gives us the false idea that we’ve actually done something valuable. It makes us feel better about ourselves and our middle class privilege. It comforts us in our refusal to give these issues deeper consideration.
As one of my politically-aware friends said when I asked for opinions on hashtag activism, “It’s a dangerous coping mechanism which means terrible things go on for so long without anyone really doing anything about it.” When it comes to serious issues, hashtag activism can be an ostrich-in-the-sand approach that protects us from having to engage the more unsavoury aspects of humanity.”
Like the title of this piece suggests, talk is cheap. If you can’t back up your tweet or post with action, then you really haven’t done anything at all.
So you tweeted to #BringBackOurGirls. What else did you do? Did you write to your political leaders to demand action on this issue? Did you donate money to human trafficking organisations? Did you volunteer your time to a cause closer to home that empowers women and girls?
Furthermore, hashtag activism is essentially reductive – it seldom provides greater context to the issue at hand. Bringing back the girls will not address the deeper underlying structural issues in Nigeria that led to this situation in the first place.
If these two points are taken into consideration, then yes, I am 100% behind the hashtag.
If not, well, I’ll leave you with these words from poet William Butler Yeats.
What’s your opinion on hashtag activism? Feel free to share your insights in the comment section below.