The Complex Nature of Hashtag Activism

When it comes to hashtag activism, there is usually lots of controversy and few results.

hashtag activism

When it comes to humanitarian campaigns, it can be difficult for an individual to have an impact. Not everyone has the funds to contribute cash, time to volunteer, or the nerve to donate blood. Naturally, people want to do something. But when it comes to a certain kind of hashtag activism, there are very few results and a lot of controversy.

The story of the Chibok kidnapping began to circulate hours after the event took place. As an apparently ineffective Nigerian government struggled to find a solution, outraged parents started to use #BringBackOurGirls on May 2nd, more than two weeks after the kidnapping. A few days later, leaders like Hillary Clinton began using the tag as the news of the kidnapping spread across social networks.

That’s the point where the original intent of the hashtag, Nigerians shaming an ineffectual national government, started to become a call to arms heard ’round the world. The hashtag prompted an international outcry, but outcry doesn’t always translate into action. And reaction is not always a good thing, because when context is lost, the facts are no longer important.

When a story is distilled down to something as snappy as a hashtag, it’s difficult to appreciate the context of the issue. #Kony2012 is the perfect example of a viral campaign that broke down under its share of controversy. Most conflicts or incidents that occur in these sorts of situations are much more complex that they appear in hashtag form.

Author and Vlogbrother John Green made a video about conflict in the Central African Republic, and many of the issues there hold true for Nigeria. “We can’t just ignore stories that don’t fit our understanding of the world, and we also shouldn’t try to change them to make them fit our preconceived narratives of humanity,” he said.

While the idea behind #BringBackOurGirls seems very simple, there are national and international forces at work behind the scenes that stall out the swiftness the Internet demands. TechCrunch columnist Jon Evans sums up the problem perfectly:

Social media should help to open minds, but all too often instead it closes them. Westerners are presented with a cartoonish black-and-white version story like this, which jibes nicely with their preexisting belief that all of Africa is a cauldron of disaster, blood and bullets; then they share it… The vicious spiral of ignorance continues, while all along the real story is so much more complex and nuanced than hashtag activism can possibly admit.