On hashtags and selfies…

For the past several weeks, I’ve been observing various posts, lamentations, exhortations, satire, and straight up middle-school fun-making, in regards to the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. And because I can’t resist playing Devil’s advocate, I wanted to try to think about this from a different angle.

One of the objections to the campaign is, first, that it is superficial and requires nothing of the supporter except they type a few words into a social media and thus receive a warm sensation of having done something to make the world better—the implication here being that they have done nothing and thus should not feel that way. Critics deride “hashtags and selfies” as a new, dangerous form of narcissism disguised as activism.

Another objection is that hashtag campaigns such as this oversimplify the issue. It is easy to understand and be outraged by a 25-second sound bite on the evening news, and even easier to send out one single tweet about it. One might even follow the trend for a few days, until the very oversimplification of the issue leads to a loss of interest and finally, forgetfulness. Social media activism is apparently doomed to sink into the oubliette of the next big hashtag thing.

And of course, a last (for this essay anyway, I’m sure there are others) objection appears to be that the First Lady is encouraging this fruitless form of activism.

To be honest, I halfway agreed with all of these points, with the exception of the last one. While I am not a whole-hearted supporter of Internet activism, and feel that it is a beginning beyond which too few people venture, I would be THRILLED to have visible evidence that the First Lady supported a cause for which I’m passionate. It would be great to see the wife of the President of the United States on Twitter, and thus the rest of the Internet and the international media, advocating for #spayneuterproject, or how about #endhomelessness. I would venture to say that 75 to 80 percent of activism is raising awareness, and once you reach the White House, you can probably check that particular block.

That’s not to say that there isn’t much work left to be done. And like many people, I started following this story on the BBC, frustrated because as a regular citizen there didn’t seem like much that I could do. Even sharing the story on social media didn’t seem like it would help, and I’ll admit, I read it and didn’t share it because again, I half-agreed with the first two objections stated above.

But then I read this story, or rather collection of stories, on MEMRI, which gathers information from news and editorials in the Arab Press. One quote in particular, from the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, asked this question: “…why is world public opinion acting, while the “home team” [i.e. the Muslims], who are expected to know more about what is taking place in the home, are not demonstrating the necessary fervor, either in protecting innocents or in defending the true Islam, when almost every day crimes are committed in its name to which it bears no relation?”

World opinion—that amorphous concept that carries invisible weight. While the link between the awareness campaign and this editorial may be tenuous and correlative at best, and nonexistent at worst, the article did make me sit back and think. If the outcry against these actions were muted, or failed to make ground, if the First Lady didn’t show visible, tangible, support, would world public opinion carry the same weight? The US might not be the center of gravity of world opinion, but we generate a lot of media and when the US and the UK are on board with a particular issue, we tend to also generate momentum.

I think it was interesting that I first noticed that the story spreading on social media, mostly linking to the BBC story and lamenting the fact that Western media outlets were ignoring the issue. A few days later, the story did finally appear in those Western outlets. If you get your news from one single television source, it could be easy to ignore the proliferation of condemnatory editorials in the Arab Press, or the month-long continuation of the story on the BBC, the New York Times, and other outlets. Again, there is no distinct, proven link between growing social media awareness and the coverage in the press, but I do believe that the trending articles contribute to a visible support for the continuity of coverage, and the actions of government in moving to address the situation.

One final point to address is the use of social media in America versus use of social media in, say, Nigeria, such as is examined in this article on the BBC. Perhaps the idea that “hashtags and selfies” are an inherently narcissistic and useless method of activism is based on the faulty assumption that everyone utilizes media exactly the same way as a teenaged Twitter trender in Skokie, Ill. I say faulty assumption, because as this article demonstrates, and as we have seen in other countries and other situations, social media activism can translate to social action. Not all of us may be there yet, but should we dismiss this tool just because others are using it in a way we find non-functional?

It’s been over a month and it doesn’t appear that this story has vanished. The problem won’t be solved with a flash of lightning and a HALO drop of fast-roping Rangers. If it would, we wouldn’t need awareness and activism. The problem will be solved when the country of Nigeria, its neighbors, the greater community of Africa and finally countries that have the wealth and resources to lend support work together to solve a problem that all can agree has become so heinous as to require direct action without any sort of apologetics. And while awareness of this problem in the Western world via social media isn’t the end-all, be-all, it would help to have the support of this country’s population behind the actions of the government, when they are taken. And this type of “hashtag and selfie” campaign can contribute to that support, awareness, and understanding.

Social media activism won’t solve every problem, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand. While I’m not going to advocate that everyone who re-tweets or clicks “like” on Facebook be given a medal and a cookie, I would urge everyone who feels the need to spend the effort to denigrate such activism to instead examine what you are doing to make the world a better place. And if the answer is “nothing,” then figure something out because you are not part of the solution.

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