Does Hashtag Activism Actually Work?

There are some times on social media when I can really see the value of hashtags as a means of creating some kind of social activism. To create awareness for causes. To rally political change in places that, one assumes, don’t have a voice. However I remain somewhat cynical as to the real impact of such activism. Does it really make change? Is it an easy way out of actually not doing anything? What is the bigger picture?

My first foray into hashtag activism came about after the riots in 2011. The widespread reaction to the police in London, and further afield, after the shooting of Mark Duggan, shocked many people. Seeing neighbourhoods destroyed sparked a #CleanUpLondon campaign where people took the streets to repair the damage being done. A subsequent #NotInMyName campaign followed where young people wanted to distance themselves from this behaviour and culminated in a visit to Downing Street and a conference in Westminster Cathedral. Woohoo.

I was approached by various media to lend a voice as to why these events had taken place and what could be done to rectify it. I refused on all accounts as I didn’t want to be some talking head on social unrest, the complex cause of which I couldn’t even begin to comprehend and also my own revulsion to the fact it was mainly black males asked to comment on what was clearly a wider issue involving different races and cultures across the country.

My own personal frustration of this hashtag activism came to a head when not too long after this campaign, so many of the people who were happy to swan off to Westminster and take the stage, were no longer visibly engaged in addressing the underlying problems as a whole which, to be fair, still plague many of the inner cities up until now.

Racial profiling. Police distrust. Rampant poverty. Unequal education. Class and race disparities in employment. When the hashtag has stopped what then?

Other hashtags jump to mind such as the Arab Spring 2011, the stopKony 2012 and more recently the BringBackOurGirls and YesAllWomen campaigns. In and off themselves I admire such campaigns in heightening the need to make the world more aware of what is happening but as activism I am not so sure.

Take the Arab Spring for example. People waxed lyrical about the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. How the people would take control and force democratic change on theocratic run governments. When we look back on such campaigns what has actually happened? Has the Arab Spring become and Arab Winter?

Kony 2012. Mr Kony still runs loose. Yes we know more about the Lords Resistance Army granted that was needed. We also know more about dodgy organisation which spearheaded the twitter campaign but what else? What continuing campaigns around child soldiers and Uganda remain in the public eye, and what efforts are being made to cease it?

Bring Back Our Girls. I have mixed feelings about this one but the underlying sentiment remains the same. Yes we have celebrity support and even the visibility of the First Lady, Michelle Obama voicing their concern, but on the ground nothing really changes. The actual President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, and his team refused to go there because of security fears. Can you imagine Tony Blair not visiting Othose affected in Omagh after such a bombing for the same reason? If the change is not made within the political system then aren’t we just patting ourselves on the back because we have access to the internet and a Twitter account?

Last week saw the rise of the YesAllWomen campaign. A hashtag, like EverydaySexism, which clearly highlights that for many, many women, there is a heck of a lot of fear around their safety. An awareness that for many sexual harassment is a reality. Of course there will be detractors who dislike the “assumption” that all men are predatory women haters. Again in isolation, such hashtag activism, can heighten awareness of inequality but then what happens when the current trend dies down. How about if a raft of charities, schools, parenting organisations and other bodies all commit to ensuring there is something that can be done collectively to address gender inequality and harassment, riding on the back of such a tag? Rather than just an isolated tag, and if we are honest one that divided women along colour and orientation lines, it would be part of a collective.

I don’t pretend to have any answers. For now these are merely observations.
I can’t help but wonder however, what would happen if such activism was part of united effort by many to address those issues which they are active against. For example the woman in Sudan who is to be killed because a couple of religious nut jobs think she should be seen as Muslim instead of Christian? Surely the same power or threats against countries like Uganda who have been threatened with aid and trade sanctions because of their criminalisation of homosexuality can be applied here too. I can think of £60million ways those with the real power and a hashtag or two could make a difference.

Hashtags are not bad in and of themselves, but I wonder, when the trends have died down, what lasting impact for activism and change they really make in the grand scheme of things.


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