This so-called “hashtag activism” raises a fundamental question: Does it actually change anything?
The most recent example is #BringBackOurGirls, which aims to spark action related to the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by a militant group called Boko Haram. This particular hashtag campaign gained global attention, prompting an estimated one million celebrities and everyday folks to post comments and photos using the hashtag.
But as with any social trend, this one has its critics. A Nigerian-American writer named Teju Cole recently used Twitter to blast the campaign, calling it little more than “global sentimentality.” Conservative pundit Ann Coulter openly mocked the effort by tweeting a photo of herself holding a sign that said “#BringBackOurCountry” (a joke that backfired as Twitter users retweeted the picture with new, decidedly uncomplimentary captions on her sign).
Others, however, say people like Coulter and Cole are missing the point. While hashtag activism isn’t likely to solve a problem, it can raise awareness in ways that might lead to a solution.
“Hashtag activism’s most important function is to divert public attention to new subjects, and in ways that stir conviction,” writes Ben Scott of the Open Technology Institute in a guest column for Slate. “It contributes to a process of ‘agenda setting’ that drives the news media.” That in turn generates conversation—perhaps leading to concrete action—on issues that otherwise might be ignored.
Social change is never the result of a single thing. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat did not create the civil rights movement. Trashing the Berlin Wall did not cause the collapse of Soviet domination. And #BostonStrong did not wipe away the sorrow of the marathon bombing.
Whether from a social movement or a marketing campaign, a hashtag as an end unto itself is a waste of bandwidth. As part of a broader strategy to raise awareness, educate the public and set a course toward meaningful action, it’s already proving its value.
What do you think? Is hashtag activism a worthwhile tool for raising awareness? Or is it a feel-good but ultimately useless exercise? Use the “Comments” to share your perspective.