Forget protest marches on Washington. The newest way for people to raise their voices is hashtag activism. Despite the criticism, it is a good thing.
This type of activism was put in the spotlight this month when First Lady Michelle Obama posted a Tweet with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls in order to raise awareness of the kidnapping of 300 Nigerian school girls by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Many celebrities, such as Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, Malala Yousafzai and Jesse Jackson also joined the campaign.
Not everyone approved of Michelle Obama's campaign, especially those in the conservative media.
A FOX News panel of Chris Wallace, George Will and Brit Hume ridiculed the movement, calling it "an exercise in self esteem."
Naturally, Rush Limbaugh expressed his outrage, stating, "I just think this is pathetic. I'm just stunned. We got 300 Nigerian girls kidnapped by an Al Qaeda group, and nobody cared or talked about it for a while, Hillary [Clinton] wouldn't call 'em a terror group. Now all of a sudden, for some reason, we're on a big push to get 'em back and this is how... ?"...."The sad thing here is that the low-information crowd that's puddling around out there on Twitter is gonna think we're actually doing something about it. Is that not pathetic?"
Jon Stewart proceeded to mock Limbaugh and called him a "quivering rage heap who is apparently desperately trying to extinguish any remaining molecule of humanity that might still reside in the remains of a Chernobyl-esque super-fund cleanup site that was his soul."
Hashtag activism might seem naive to some, but it actually serves a purpose. For the most part, the American media ignore global stories unless it directly involves U.S. interests. Therefore, most coverage focuses on Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Stories about South America and Africa are ignored, unless there is a natural disaster that results in mass casualties. A good example are the Somali Pirates, who hijacked foreign ships for years. It wasn't until an American ship with Captain Phillips was captured that it garnered media attention in this country. Generally, stories of famine, war, disease and starvation in Africa are ignored.
Twitter is the equivalent of the town square or the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for Millennials. Most of them do not read physical newspapers or watch Meet the Press. Most of my college Journalism students don't listen to news radio. It's not that they are stupid; it's that they receive news and information in a different way than their parents and grandparents. People don't use written petitions anymore to express their grievances. Twitter and other social media are ways to get news instantaneously or to report news. It played a major role in news stories such as the Hudson River crash landing, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Arab Spring and natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake and Asian tsunami. President Obama's appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis was a major part of a successful effort to get young people to sign up for The Affordable Care Act.
This new trend of hashtag activism isn't likely to go away, as evidenced by the #YesAllWomen response to Elliot Rodger's killing spree.
On Wednesday, April 30, two weeks after the kidnapping of the Nigerian children, Salon ran an article with the headline "Why is the Media Ignoring 200 Missing Girls?" As Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams noted, the media was fixated on the missing Malaysian airline and Donald Sterling. There was also regular coverage of Benghazi, Chris Christie and the South Korean ferry tragedy. Michelle Obama proceeded to Tweet about the incident on May 6, which helped to raise awareness and media exposure.
Tweeting about atrocities in Nigeria and elsewhere won't solve the problem, but it can raise awareness. It wasn't until the hashtag activism on this incident started that the media paid attention and the politicians started to care and get involved. That's a far cry from being pathetic.