Hashtag Activism Makes the Invisible Visible

Protests in the Digital Ether Democracy


The world has seen the rise of an emerging group of cyber-savvy and click-ready social activists who advocate for social change through the Internet using social media tools, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Twitter popularized the use of the “#” (i.e., the hashtag) to promote trending topics or in focus for others to notice. The use of the hashtag to promote a social cause is known as “hashtag activism.” A prime example of this tactic is the Nigerian-born campaign of #BringBackOurGirls. What does this case teach us about the effectiveness of this messaging tool?



Internet Use Drives Internet Action


Nigeria has an active civil society, which became visible during the period of military rule (1983-1998) as many activists challenged the dictatorship and clamoured for the return to democratic rule. Many activists used civil disobedience, protests, marches, and petitions to demand action. The pressure on governments and international agencies to act derived from these collective actions. In 1999, when Nigeria successfully returned to democratic rule with the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo, traditional social activist tools were employed to monitor and advocate for human rights.


Fifteen years later, the political, social, and technological environments have dramatically changed. Chat services and social media have become primary methods advocating for social change.


Nigeria, like many countries in Africa, has a growing number of Internet users, mostly young people. Many organizations, corporations, and government agencies are using social media as a complement to their websites. While Internet penetration is low in most countries on the continent and concentrated in urban areas, there are many users accessing the World Wide Web and interacting with others from their mobile phones. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission, Nigeria has 184,148,420 mobile phone users, a number greater than the country’s population. Approximately 58 percent of Internet users in Nigeria access the Internet from their mobile phones (A snapshot of Internet use in Africa), which dwarfs the world average of 10 percent. Within Africa, Nigeria is number one for Internet users, with 48.4 million people.


It’s in this digital arena where activism is seeing tremendous growth. But to what effect?



Purpose and Efficacy

The first indication that hashtag activism could be a strong tool for mobilization was in January 2012, when the Nigerian government announced the removal of a subsidy for petroleum products, leading to an more than 100 percent increase in the cost of fuel. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) like the “Save the Nigeria Group” and “Enough is Enough” popularized the “#OccupyNigeria” online activism campaign. This effort was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States, which made extensive use of the #Occupy hashtag to share information on social media.


The reaction to the #OccupyNigeria campaign was spontaneous and unexpected. Large numbers of people gathered in major cities (Abuja, Kano, and Lagos) to protest the fuel hike. For the first time in a long time, the crowds were made of ordinary citizens rather than members of CSOs or trade unions. They were angry about the increase in the cost of living caused by the fuel hike, so they assembled to demand a more socially responsive policy from the government.


There were also strikes by trade unions, which led to disruption of flights in and out of Nigeria and closed markets, effectively shutting down services. While all the demands were not met, the government did reduce its proposed fuel hike by about 50 percent. The #OccupyNigeria campaign attributed its success to its hashtag activism. This in turn spurred many social activists to open social media accounts and study social media advocacy techniques. #OccupyNigeria represented a clear indication of the future of social advocacy and global movements.



Raising Awareness

The capture of more than hundreds of girls on April 14, 2014 by Boko Haram insurgents in Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria shocked the world. Not so much because of the abduction itself, but because of the way the Nigerian government was carrying out the investigation into the kidnappings. The inept response did not elicit confidence, and the families were worried that nothing would be done to rescue the girls. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign was inspired by the need to:


raise public awareness about the abduction;demand action from the government in securing the release and safety of the abducted girls;mobilize support for the campaign; andsustain the media reports and coverage of the abduction and effects on the families and communities where this occurred.


Unlike the #OccupyNigeria campaign, #BringBackOurGirls caught the attention of global media, international celebrities, and political leaders. The additional pressure from foreign CSOs, governments, and journalists put the Nigerian government in the spotlight, which then led to the setting up of the Presidential Fact-Finding Committee on May 2, 2014 to investigate the crisis. Subsequently, the government is now collaborating with neighboring countries (Niger, Chad, and Cameroon) and Western security experts from the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and Australia to support Nigeria’s fight against the Boko Haram insurgency. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign led to similar protests at Nigerian embassies all over the world, from Nairobi to Washington. The global solidarity was very encouraging for activists in Nigeria.


The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has also morphed into #BBOG, #ChibokGirls, and #TheChibokGirls hashtags. Now there is even a @BBOG_NigeriaTwitter handle to keep the campaign alive on social media, as well as a website.  Also, quite a number of activists have changed their names or profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. It has been more than 200 days since the campaign started, and because the abducted girls have still not been brought home, the calls for action have been sustained through hashtag activism.


The efficacy of hashtag activism has been challenged and questioned, but critics are missing a crucial point: hashtag activism is only one tool in the advocacy circle and not a sole agent of change. At the beginning of an advocacy campaign, activists need to ask the question: which methods are we going to use and how will they complement one another to achieve our objectives? Ignoring the potential that hashtag activism has to influence political and social change is near-sighted.


One argument against the #BringBackOurGirls campaign it that it hasn’t been effective; Boko Haram hasn’t released the girls, so what was the point of all that digital activism? The responsibility to protect lies with the government to take measures to protect the people within its territories from violence and mass atrocity crimes. People living in areas where Boko Haram is most active suffer the brutality of the raids by the terrorists and are exposed to more violence during face-offs between the military and the insurgents. The government should do more to end the violence and intervene to find a lasting solution to the issue. Social activists are holding their governments accountable and this means monitoring government action (or inaction) to improve the lives of their citizens.



Positives Outweigh Negatives

Hashtag activism can drive instant attention to a social issue, which in turn accelerates the delivery of the message to target audiences. The tactic’s ability to mobilize large numbers of people regardless of location is useful in garnering support from interested persons, as well as stimulating action to participate in protests, marches, submit petitions, and much more. Too often mainstream media is not tuned into social and human rights issues. Attaching a hashtag to a social cause makes it easy for media practitioners to search for and find trending news. It also makes it easier for them to follow the story and report on events and outcomes.


The most important thing hashtag activism does is to inspire action. When used appropriately, it supports rather than harms other methods of advocacy or activism. It has in recent times become a powerful tool for social movements and will continue to be so for as long as people are using the Internet and have something to say. Hashtag activism is a step in the right direction and is an important device for keeping a social or human rights issue visible.



Boko Haram, Activism