On the night of April 14 2014, hundreds of schoolgirls at the Chibok Secondary boarding school in northeastern Nigeria woke to the sound of gunfire. According to accounts from among the 57 escapees, men in camouflage approached. The witnesses thought soldiers were coming to save them from a militant attack. Instead, 276 schoolgirls found themselves in the clutches of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. And they were kidnapped.
The schoolgirls’ abduction sparked global outrage and a huge campaign calling for their rescue, in part propelled by the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. This was one of the biggest Twitter hashtags of 2014, and was used in more than 4-million tweets. Even United States First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted it. But did the hashtag help to bring back the girls in question? No.
Hashtag activism has been widely criticised as a form of slacktivism (defined as the act of showing support for a cause with minimal personal effort from the ”slacktivist”). It’s easy to express concern about social or political issues when all it takes is one click, which raises the question whether these low-cost efforts are a suitable substitute for more concrete actions.
In a New York Times article, columnist David Carr wrote: “In the friction-free atmosphere of the internet, it costs nothing more than a flick of the mouse to register concern about the casualties of far-flung conflicts. Certainly some people are taking up the causes that come out of the web’s fire hose, but others are most likely doing no more than burnishing their digital avatars.”
Similarly, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist George Will commented during a panel discussion on Fox Newsthat hashtag activism is a useless exercise in self esteem.:
“I do not know how adults stand there, facing a camera, and say, ‘Bring back our girls.’ Are these barbarians in the wilds of Nigeria supposed to check their Twitter accounts and say, ‘Uh oh, Michelle Obama is very cross with us, we better change our behaviour?” he said.
At the time, Michelle Obama’s participation in #BringBackOurGirls became a symbol of the futility of Twitter activism. Despite the hashtag’s viral spread, no rescue missions were carried out. And the level of attention her involvement gathered(as the wife of the most powerful man in the world) turned into free publicity for Boko Haram, something they were seeking.
“Favouriting” Fatigue versus Raising Awareness
It’s been almost two years, and there are still 219 girls missing, but #BringBackOurGirls has all but disappeared into the clutter of newer, trendier hashtags. This has prompted commentators to raise concerns that the ease of hashtag activism might lead to overuse and public fatigue.
Carr wrote: “I have to admit I’m starting to experience a kind of ’favouriting‘ fatigue, meaning that the digital causes of the day or week are all starting to blend together. Another week, another hashtag, and with it, a question about what is actually being accomplished.”
Certainly, hashtags serve to raise awareness. In 2014, the ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge took over the internet when friends challenged each other to dump buckets of ice water on their heads in an effort to promote awareness of the debilitating degenerative disease, and encourage donations towards research. As people nominated one another on social media, Facebook and Twitter feeds were flooded (literally) with Ice Bucket Challenge videos.
But these viral videos managed to achieve more than merely entertainment value. Of the 4-million #IceBucketChallenge tweets, over 70% were retweets. Even though only 9.7% tweets mentioned ALS in the hashtag, the Ice Bucket Challenge still managed to raise $88.5 million for ALS research.
And while #JeSuisCharlie (the hashtag in response to the Charlie Hedbo killings in Parison January 7 2015) was tweeted 3.4-million times in just 24 hours, the follow-up #JeSuisAhmed is the hashtag that got us all thinking. #JeSuisCharlie served to express solidarity and sympathy for the victims of the massacre, but #JeSuisAhmed honored the fallen policeman, Ahmed Merebat, who rushed to defend the Charlie Hedbo offices during the attack. Merebat was Muslim, and he died defending the rights of cartoonists to mock his own religion. At a pivotal moment when distasteful and anti-Muslim comments were being tossed about on social media, #JeSuisAhmed reminded us that while every religion has its extremists, it has its heroes too.
More recently, #PrayForParis (in response to the November 13 2015 Paris terrorist attacks), drew criticism from Twitter and Facebook users, who asked why there wasn’t an equivalent outburst of social media support for Lebanon, Beirut, Kenya, and Mali, all of whom had suffered similar terrorist attacks in the days before and after Paris was hit. In addition, many criticised the social media networks for capitalising on tragedies to boost use and engagement. In the 24 hours after the attacks, #PrayForParis was tweeted 64 000 times per minute, and used in more than 6-million tweets.
Voice of the People
With Facebook and Twitter as part of our daily routines, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been turned on its head, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns. #FeesMustFall among South African university students managed to rally thousands of students to stand up together and protest government’s proposed university fee increases. At the height of protest, Twitter saw approximately 300 #FeesMustFall tweets per minute. And after various coordinated sit-ins at campuses across the country, President Jacob Zuma agreed to a 0% increase in university fees.
#FeesMustFall (much like its predecessor, #RhodesMustFall, which campaigned for the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and the decolonisation of education), is a great example of how a hashtag alone won’t do it. Digital presence is one thing, but thousands of disenfranchised students physically blocking the entrance to Parliament or storming the Union Buildings are impossible to ignore. However, awareness and broad support is a good place to start, and #FeesMustFall was tweeted some 140 000 times across the globe, even making it onto the catwalk at Sies!Isabelle’s show during Johannesburg FashionWeek.
Slacktivism or not, hashtags have become an important way for us to communicate ideas, and may even influence how we think. In cases like #BlackLivesMatter (in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin) and #AllLivesMatter (which arose as an abuttal to #BlackLivesMatter, and which has been slammed for promoting racism), conversations about hashtags have become shorthand debates about the nuances of a political idea.
Did #BringBackOurGirls return missing children to their parents’ embrace? Did #JeSuisCharlie change the world? For every stirring story of activism organised on Twitter, there is an equally uninspiring story about hashtags that don’t do anything, except to make us feel like we’re doing something. And in the conflict of today’s unconnected connectedness, these conversations are not only important, but necessary too.
Did you know?
The oldest known mention of the term “hashtag” is from The Guardian, where it was mentioned in context to describe Occupy Wall Street protestsin September 2011.
Hashtags have a history on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. The hashtag originated as a means to coordinate Twitter conversations between individual Twitter users.