Rob Douglas: The power of hashtag activism |

Rob Douglas: The power of hashtag activism

Rob Douglas

On Fox News Sunday, during a discussion about the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram — a terrorist organization that, according to Wikipedia, "seeks to establish a 'pure' Islamic state ruled by sharia" — George Will and Brit Hume belittled the fact that first lady Michelle Obama had used hashtag activism to express her support for the missing girls.

Chris Wallace (show host): "This week, Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai joined the Bring Back Our Girls movement. More than 2 million people have now tweeted the hashtag. And George I'm just curious, because I must say I was not that familiar with this phenomenon — it's even got a name, hashtag activism — and I'm curious what you make of it. Do you think that this is significant and helpful and can make progress or do you think it's really about helping the people who tweet the hashtag feel better about themselves?"

George Will: "Exactly that, it's an exercise in self-esteem. I do not know how adults stand there facing a camera and say, 'Bring back our girls.' Are these barbarians in the wilds of Nigeria supposed to check their Twitter account and say 'Uh oh, Michelle Obama's very cross with us, we better change our behavior?'"

Brit Hume (interjecting and laughing): "It's trending! It's trending on Twitter!"

Will: "Power is the ability to achieve intended effects and this is not intended to have any effect on the real world…"

The tweet in question reads, "Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It's time to #BringBackOurGirls." Attached to the tweet is a picture of Mrs. Obama standing in the White House holding a sign that proclaims, "#BringBackOurGirls".

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As an admirer of Will, Hume and Wallace, I'm sorry to say that the real world — at least when it comes to understanding the power of social media — has passed them by.

For the uninitiated, hashtag activism is defined by Techopedia as "the act of fighting for or supporting a cause that people are advocating through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other networking websites. This is the kind of activism that does not require any action from the person other than sharing or 'liking' a post or 'retweeting' tweets on Twitter. The term gets its name from the liberal use of hashtags (#) that are often used to spread the word about a cause over Twitter."

And while Techopedia also notes that hashtag activism has been criticized for the reason articulated by Will — effortless do-goodery — it correctly points out that "activist campaigns started over social media have been known to spread into real movements that created real change."

The best example of social media's power when it comes to "real movements that created real change" is the series of civilian uprisings that since 2010 has been toppling governments in North Africa and the Middle East like dominoes — the Arab Spring.

For the first time in history, citizens inside totalitarian countries instantly could broadcast acts of brutality and genocide by their government so that the world could witness the barbaric acts of those oppressive regimes.

From regions that are too dangerous or impenetrable for traditional journalists, citizen journalists with nothing more than a smartphone and a social media account can document their plight in posts and tweets that eventually reach millions of social media consumers around the world.

I still can recall a photograph on Twitter, in the early days of the Egyptian revolt, of citizens chasing a tank in a portion of Egypt the press couldn't access. In their outstretched hands were camera-equipped smartphones, not guns. They were risking their lives to prove to the world that the soon-to-be overthrown government of President Hosni Mubarak was lying when it said that portion of the country was not under military assault.

That was the day I realized social media activism is real and has the "ability to achieve intended effects" — Will's definition of power — in ways not imaginable even a decade ago.

Clearly Mrs. Obama, like a growing number of citizen activists around the world, understands the use of that power.


To reach Rob Douglas, email or follow him on Twitter @RobDouglas3

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