The Limits Of Hashtag Activism

| by Chrysler Summer

#BringBackOurGirls - So, did it work? Did the hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria ever get brought back?

What was once a popular Internet meme has faded into obscurity for most people. If you ask most people who participated in the web fad if they know if the girls ever came back home, chances are they won’t even know.

And that's the problem with the rise in online activism and Twitter movements. Most of the people taking part are only doing so because it is a popular thing to do, a chance to be a part of a wave on the web. Few actually care enough to do more than type 140 characters and a hashtag. We saw the same thing related to the “Kony 2012” campaign. The campaign generated enormous social media attention and online activism. But it too faded from the minds of the many young people who seemed at first to care about something more than the latest hilarious Vine.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the exposure that comes from these even temporarily popular Internet political movements is better than no attention to these issues at all. After all, how many of these typically non-political Americans would know anything at all about the Boko Haram in Nigeria or Joseph Kony in Uganda? Likely not many.

The problem is that in this day and age of being able to just type a few characters to feel like you are doing something or to feel like you care makes it easy to avoid real commitment. Real engagement on these issues means getting off the web and going to a march; it means writing letters to your Senators and Representatives. And real involvement certainly means staying with an issue until some resolution has been reached, not moving on because some new meme has presented itself.

The 300 missing girls in Nigeria have still not been returned despite the hope that was generated recently when a truce was supposedly reached this past Friday between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram. The girls have been captive since April, nearly seven months ago. The Internet meme may have lasted a little over a month. The web has forgotten them, or at least most of the Americans who got involved in the social movement a few months back. Kony is still out there but the teenagers and celebrities who made the “Kony 2012” campaign one of the biggest ever, have other issues and distractions now.

The real lesson in all this is not that web activism is entirely bad. The web is the best for generating quick exposure. The ice bucket challenge, for example, expectedly faded after a while, but by taking advantage of a viral social media meme and fun, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised, even if most doing the ice bucket challenge can’t to this day really tell you anything about the disease it was for.

But sometimes, exposure is the most important thing. And for that the Internet is King. We just have to accept that inherent in web usage is short attention spans and to understand that hashtagging is not the same as real engagement. If we can just figure out how to keep these web activists engaged longer before they move on to something else, we might actually be able to make things happen in these major social and political issues.