On April 14, 2014, almost 300 schoolgirls were abducted from a government school in Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria. The world sat silently as the Nigerian Government sat on its hands. By the end of the month, fueled by reports that some of the girls may have been sold into marriage or slavery, the Nigerian-born hashtag #BringBackOurGirls gained international traction, becoming a global movement. International media outlets and major nonprofit organizations, like Amnesty International, began to pay attention, write stories, and use the hashtag. Political leaders and pop culture figures took note. Michelle Obama famously shared a picture of herself, holding a sign stating #BringBackOurGirls. Hillary Clinton used the hashtag in one of her tweets, as did celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Wyclef Jean.
By May 9, the international use of the hashtag waned, and the world fell quiet again. A generous assessment of the length of the global attention span to the ongoing crisis in Nigeria is ten days. More than six months later, the girls are still missing, more schoolchildren (girls and boys) have been kidnapped, hundreds have been killed through raids and bombs, and Nigerians are fleeing as the security situation deteriorates. At this point, shouldn’t we be even more concerned?
Supporters of hashtag activism claim that hashtags allow for mass global participation, are instrumental in raising awareness, and provide impetus for policy change (example here, here, and here). But does the ease of virtual membership really increase participation in global movements? In each of these areas, the potential of hashtag activism is currently limited. To facilitate real momentum and efficacy through global movements, including through the use of hashtags, the general public needs to re-examine its own processes of engagement with the rest of the world.
While social media may seemingly be part of the everyday lives of most people, it is important to remember that users are a relatively small proportion of the world’s 7.2 billion people. According to Statista, there are approximately 1.2 billion Facebook users and 255 million Twitter users. Even if we assumed that each Facebook, Google+, and Twitter account belonged to separate individuals (that no one had an account on more than one social media platform), the numbers of users would account for 1.8 billion people, or around 25 percent of the world’s population. The actual proportion is, of course, much smaller. Further, although social media helps information spread quickly and potentially reaches some who may not have had a means to gain access to information, we must question the nature of the participation engendered.
Hashtag activism is easy and cheap—assuming that infrastructure exists to provide electricity, Internet connectivity, access to devices, and basic literacy. The ease of participation, however, is countered by a lack of accountability. Free riding—benefitting from another’s work without putting in effort oneself—is a perennial problem for social movements and advocacy organizations, which tend to be led by those with a deep commitment to a cause, and then supported by people who are interested or moved by compassion. Large advocacy organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund, request donations of their members, while dedicated employees and volunteers manage lobbying and other activist efforts. The employees and volunteers are accountable, even if in a limited sense, to their donors and the mission of the organization. A member does not face any demands for further participation beyond donation, and usually receives a cute panda sticker or the like as a symbol of their commitment to the cause.
Even less is required of participants in hashtag activism. The use of a hashtag does not necessarily indicate that the user knows what the issue is or what the action should be; this is especially true if someone is retweeting or reposting. Social media does not require its users to read the articles shared—it just requires a click. The use of the hashtag becomes the activism itself; rarely do those tweeting, posting, and sharing compose letters or display posters, let alone protest. Moreover, their tweets and shares do not support others as they coordinate activist efforts, unlike the donations that World Wildlife Fund receives.1 No one is held accountable to anyone; no one needs to follow through.
In other words, the global use of cause-related hashtags does not necessarily equate to action being taken. It’s more accurate to consider these hashtags as facilitating awareness rather than activism inspiring change and policy. Yet, here again, the potential for hashtags is limited.
Hashtags tell simple stories. #BringBackOurGirls demands the return of those kidnapped at Chibok. Within Nigeria, the campaign has helped in that the government could no longer sit silent (not that it has done much more). Abroad, #BringBackOurGirls tells the story of one event in shortened form—potentially less than 140 characters: School girls kidnapped by Islamic militants. We must save them.
As Teju Cole, a Nigerian-born author living in the United States, noted on Twitter, the simplicity of this narrative drove its appeal. Girls were kidnapped. The narrative of a single kidnapping glosses over the years of insurgency by Boko Haram and other groups in Nigeria, the kidnapping of others, including boys, and the history which lead to the rise of Boko Haram. These “incidentals” to the event are actually its fundamentals—the foundations without which the kidnappings could not have taken place. Yet, such fundamentals have not led to gripping stories in the international media or to global causes with sexy hashtags. So, maybe the simple narratives and attention are enough.
More problematically, however, the resulting demand for change or policy responses are similarly simplistic; in Cole’s words, “a simple wrong that could be corrected simply.” People called for solutions led by the West: send in military support and drones, support the Nigerian military, increase security at boarding schools, swoop in, save the girls, and move them out of Nigeria.
Each of these solutions presents their own problems. The region is already suffering from militarization; the Nigerian government and military have not demonstrated that they can use resources well, and are also guilty of atrocities against civilians. Strengthening the military or providing military resources may be detrimental to the Nigerian people. Removing the girls from Nigeria (if even possible) presents the idea that Nigeria is unlivable, and does not prevent further abductions. All of the proposals use Western voices to speak for the Nigerian people, without considering local concerns, demands, and solutions.
Finally, while hashtag activism may be radically democratizing in its ability to pull together a wide range of participants, its simplistic solutions do not carry the same transformative potential of on-the-ground efforts. Digital activism puts a band-aid over the wound, but it doesn’t address the injury’s underlying causes.2
Hashtag activism requires minimal participation, minimal awareness, and often supports minimal responses. But it can do more by becoming a gateway to a deeper engagement with the world. Hashtag activism is so prevalent because of the ease with which it fits into our lives, not requiring deep commitments or altering our daily lives. It’s time to think about whether this is the ideal form of engagement, and what we can do to change our own practices.
We can demand more of the traditional news media to cover international stories, whether or not they have a direct bearing on the United States. For this demand to work, however, we simultaneously have to demonstrate a sincere interest in the world around us—not just when a mass atrocity occurs or a hashtag slips into our news feeds. In other words, being a global activist requires being a global citizen.
I’m not yet ready to pin down an exact definition of what I mean by “global citizenship,” but I think it does require a few things. Global citizenship needs a general interest and curiosity in the world around us, an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of our actions, and a sense of common humanity. It also allows for multiple voices, including the voices of those in places that supposedly need “saving.”
In more concrete terms, we can:
Actively cultivate our interests in the world, even if in just one country, issue, or region;Consider how our actions are interconnected—through consumption, the environment, history, etc.—and how changing our actions may change the experiences of those elsewhere in the world;Listen to others, hoping to work together to improve situations rather than unilaterally trying to “save” the victims; andAdmit what we don’t know when atrocities occur, turning to those who know the context and can analyze the circumstances and implications. Understanding context and complexity can hopefully lead to better policy responses, as well as preventive measures.
These are idealistic goals. It’s easy to point to a far off place and call for action and change. It’s harder to turn inward and ask ourselves how our sense of being and acting in the world may need to change. Intentions of raising awareness are not enough. Intentions of “saving” a place, no matter how well-founded, are not enough, especially if we know that they may cause greater harm.
We’d like to think we can save the world with a simplistic hashtag, yet in most humanitarian situations, there are no simple stories or easy fixes to be found. More importantly, we need to acknowledge that true global activism requires changes in our own behaviors. By holding ourselves to greater standards of global citizenship, hashtag activism may become more effective through deeper participation and long-term engagement.
In the meantime, we’re still waiting for the release of the Chibok girls.
1. Hashtags and social media have been used to coordinate protests and rallies—here I’m not referring to the use of hashtags as organizational tools, but to the specific use of hashtags in and of themselves as activism.
2. With co-authors Bruce Hall and Edward Carr, I make a similar argument regarding the potential of celebrity humanitarianism. Access the paper here.
Activism, Boko Haram, Nigeria