Hashtag activism draws on the logic that outrage or heightened audience reaction caused by iconic images can sway public opinion and eventually effect changes in policy, an argument that in its modern context has been documented since at least the Vietnam War era. With the advent of immediate and pervasive circulation through social media, the growing influence of images and short-form collective communication as persuasive media in policy decisions and social impact is undeniable.
But if hashtag activism builds on and replicate this assumed association between moral outrage and social justice through images and short communication, does it further offer the possibility of a more informed and effective strategy for social impact?
In other words, can hashtag activism lead to any kind of real change -- or are atrocities the world over, in their essence, unhashtagable?
Hashtags as Slacktivism
There is a strong argument that much of hashtag activism is ineffective, or is merely passive action that substitutes for real change. Take the case of one of the one of the most recent and famous hashtag campaigns, #BringBackOurGirls. On April 14, 2014, 276 girls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria's Borno State. Outraged Nigerian activists and those affected directly called on the government to take action to both recover the girls and to combat the historic impunity of the alleged kidnappers, Boko Haram. Eight days after the kidnapping, Ibrahim Abdullahi, a lawyer living in Abuja, created the now infamous hashtag. The day after the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, took responsibility for the kidnapping in a video on May 5, Michelle Obama tweeted a picture of herself with a sign reading #BringBackOurGirls -- and the day after that, the hashtag spawned 1 million tweets.
It was nearly a month after the abduction itself that the news went viral on Twitter. With Michelle Obama's May 6 tweet paving the way, political figures and celebrities came out in support of the hashtag and #BringBackOurGirls became an outlet for individuals to express their own outrage over the kidnapping. While capitalizing on the emotion of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, however, individual tweets began to shift the focus away from the actual girls, or even larger issues of violence, and onto the tweeters themselves. Model Irina Shayk's apparently topless Instagram photograph where she holds a #BringBackOurGirls sign, for example, generated a mixed response. Some argued it was empowering while others slammed the picture for being culturally insensitive and inconsiderate to the actual issues at stake. In two tweets from the days after the media explosion around #BringBackOurGirls, Ugandan-American writer Teju Cole wrote that Boko Haram's sustained and escalating violence was "horrifying and unhashtagable" -- conveying his thoughts that the #BringBackOurGirls movement was an excuse for patronizing and sentimentalizing an issue that African and African-allied activists have been fighting for years.
Along similar lines, ownership of the hashtag and the entire social media movement around the school kidnapping came into question. Organizations Girl Rising and Amy Poehler's Smart Girls joined forces to organize a Google Hangout on May 6, which focused on the importance of "social media marches" to raise awareness and maintain visibility. Their call to action hinged on the belief that individuals can combat injustice by leveraging social media through a "common voice." One recommended technique for asserting a "common voice" across social media was for individuals to change their profile pictures to an image of the words "Bring Back Our Girls" in white on a red background. This campaign, which disappeared as quickly as it started, was called out by some as a self-serving promotion aimed at hijacking the excitement around #BringBackOurGirls. Nigerian organizations called out Girl Rising's drive for $10 donations for a #BringBackOurGirls emergency project as having no established relationship to the original, local campaign. Controversy about ownership of the campaign intensified when one of the director's of Girl Rising's 2013 film, Ramaa Mosely, seemed to take the credit for the creation of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag and its subsequent movement in a series of interviews on USA news networks.
Because of its brief yet intense popularity on Twitter, accusations of co-option and questions about the effectiveness of "raising awareness," #BringBackOurGirls has been likened to the media campaign Kony 2012 (#StopKony). While both campaigns gained a tremendous amount of attention, they both failed at engaging sustained activism around their respective causes and at achieving actual success on the ground. Both campaigns were also criticized for encouraging a U.S. military agenda on the African continent when they provoked an international military response.
In an article for Slate, Joshua Keating highlights that media campaigns like Kony 2012 and #BringBackOurGirls are popular because they cause a sense of moral outrage via an easily-identifiable villain while glossing over the complexities of the causes they represent. The kidnapped girls and Kony himself became iconic images, but the vast majority of the public consuming these images remains ignorant of the dynamics of the issues at stake, for example, that the girls' abduction is part of a wider terror program that has seen thousands of people murdered in Nigeria by Boko Haram in the past four years. Against defenders of social media campaigns who claim them as "gateways" for raising deeper awareness for global injustice, Keating argues that more often than not these campaigns lead nowhere because they cannot sustain interest on a personal level:
Viewers get interested when they hear about evil monsters like the Lord's Resistance Army or Boko Haram who just need to be stopped. When they learn more about the issue and find out that, lo and behold, the world is a complicated place, that killing the monster won't be so easy and that there are larger issues in play beyond the monster itself, they lose interest.
The co-option of #BringBackOurGirls presents the further question of whether hashtag activism, through its saturation of both formal and social media networks, has the potential to harm the causes it sets out to champion in the first place. Web searches about the kidnapped girls reached their peak from the May 8-10, a total of two days after the hashtag went viral, and interest has dramatically declined since. Between May 2014 and the present, the story of the kidnapped girls evolved for a brief time into a celebrity cause. But a scan of media from May 29 to date indicates a sharp decline in media interest in #BringBackOurGirls, despite the Nigerian government admitting that they know where the girls are yet fear that it is too dangerous for them to retrieve the girls by force. Continued Boko Haram attacks and other on-going atrocities fail to remain hot issues in the crowded information environment of the mass media. Excitement and attention around #BringBackOurGirls has died down, but the girls are still not found. The world's attention has moved on, despite the fact that nothing has changed vis a vis Boko Haram's activities in Nigeria or the persistent systemic factors leading to the vulnerability of populations like the 276 girls.
Hashtags as Tools for Activism
There are ways in which hashtag activism can be a useful tool. When used with sensitivity and a clear understanding of its limited reach and impact, it can be a flexible medium for social networking and raising awareness within broader and more sustained advocacy and action.
Localized, community-driven hashtags, such as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #RIPEricGarner, as well as the appropriation of #MyNYPD to cite examples of police misconduct and brutality, for example, have served as creative vehicles for sharing information, mobilizing opinion, focusing community anger on justice, and sustaining commentary over a defined period of time or over a set of shared goals. In these cases, the hashtags arose specifically from and in support of the African-American community, which is reeling from yet another round of sustained brutality, with four recent deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police across the U.S.
The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been met with citizen action on Twitter, driven first through Black Twitter, then more broadly, using the hashtags #Ferguson -- through which news and information was gathered and disseminated on the unfolding police reaction and discussions around peaceful protest and the militarization of civilian law enforcement; #MikeBrown -- which served as an act of protest and of empathy, to name the victim and remind us of him as a person inherently deserving of justice; and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown -- which called out a prejudicial photograph of Mike Brown circulated after his killing and created a call to action around the power of visual culture and our larger perceptions of African-Americans.
As of this writing, the crisis in Ferguson is still unfolding. What appears the case is that the heightened attention on social media, particularly on Twitter, has led to a deeper national discussion of police militarization and law enforcement's treatment of young black men, though there is still a fight for media attention. Ultimately the question of whether these hashtag movements will have contributed to any effects on the ground or in long-term perception shifts remains open.
So Which Is It?
Is hashtag activism effective or not? To have comprehensive understanding of this kind of activism, a range of questions needs to be explored: What is the value of imagery in today's social media networks where a glut of images exists? What is the role of social media in addressing injustice on a global scale? Whose participation is important, or determinative? What standards can we use to gauge the success of a social media hashtag campaign?
Many social media commentators claim that the mere occurrence of heightened awareness in the perceiving and communicating audience is sufficient to count as "impact." And in the cases where hashtags created a community-driven critique, as in #IfTheyGunnedMeDown or #MyNYPD, the very engagement toward collective identity and organized participation represents a shift that will have ripple effects in similar ways that media and policy critiques do. In contrast, #BringBackOurGirls (like KONY2012 before it), appears to be a classic example of facile and self-validating activism, where people have jumped on the bandwagon for a moment and then quickly lost interest.
Ultimately, until the questions are answered around whose interests are served by hashtag activism and what it actually accomplishes for those directly affected, in both the short- and long-terms, most atrocities will indeed remain "unhashtagable."