Protests in the Digital Ether

Welcome to The Mantle's fifth virtual roundtable and the first one to feature all women. This forum provides an opportunity for emerging critics, activists, and writers to think deeply about and debate a very narrow topic. In the past we've asked writers, artists, and musicians to reflect on their roles in conflict zones, and we have also had young policy wonks interrogate the United Nations' doctrine on the Responsibility to Protect. For this round, we continue with the activist theme and ask practitioners to deliberate the utility of protesting not with signs or banners in the streets, but with hashtags in the digital ether.

Our International Affairs Editor Corrie Hulse moderates the discussion. She's joined by three women from around the world with varying experiences in policy and activist fields. 

To follow the roundtable that asks, “What does hashtag activism mean for the future of global political movements?” see Corrie's introductory remarks below, then click each of the participants to read their essays and responses. At the bottom of this page you can read Corrie's concluding remarks.

- November 18, 2014


all illustrations by Illa Amudi

Moderator's Introduction

What does “Hashtag Activism” mean for the future of global movements?

With the invention of Twitter, and the subsequent introduction of what came to be known as “hashtags,” a new platform for global movements was born. In an instant, activists and non-activists alike from around the globe are able to come together around a cause they believe in. Now, with a few taps of the keyboard anyone can tweet their support or disgust for an issue or cause. We’ve seen impressive movements in the digital political sphere, such as #BringBackOurGirls and #YesAllWomen, each mobilizing thousands (if not millions) of people to join in the conversation.

Yet, as we look at this new platform for social and political movements, questions arise as to the efficacy and legitimacy of simply tweeting about a cause and not getting further involved. With only a glance at Twitter, it’s hard to understand what if anything all these hashtags mean. What purpose do they serve? Do they serve any at all? Does joining in a conversation on Twitter equate to stepping outside your door and physically joining a protest movement?

These are the big questions we  tackle in the following debate. The participants in the “Protests in the Digital Ether” roundtable unpack the idea of activism through hashtags by focusing on its efficacy and legitimacy. We also seek answers as to what purpose the tactic serves in the broader context of global movements. Does hashtag activism inspire hope for the future of campaigning for political causes, or is it a distraction from more effective methods?

Thanks to Nancy Ngo, Osai Ojigho, and Ami Shai for their insight and expertise.

  • Hashtag Activism Makes the Invisible Visible

    Osai Ojigho

    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?

    Read essay »
  • Rethinking Global Citizenship in an Age of Hashtags

    Ami V. Shah

    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.

    Read essay »
  • How Hashtag Activism Advances the Future of Global Movements

    Nancy Ngo

    With the emergence of social media platforms and the growth of their globally active user bases in the last decade, “hashtag activism” has become a common tactic used in global social change movements. The hashtag itself serves as a data tag in advocating for a cause, linking the participants of a campaign across platforms through a concisely packaged, unified message. The practice of hashtag activism has gained both widespread media attention for shining a spotlight on issues, including gun control policy and human rights abuses, while also drawing criticism for its limitations.

    Read essay »
Moderator's Conclusion

The inclination for many of us is to brush off hashtags as some sort of fad with very little real impact on the world around us. It’s simply a lazy person’s weak attempt at activism, what many have cynically called “slacktivism.” To be honest, I teeter between optimism and pessimism whenever I see a new hashtag campaign for a cause I am passionate about. I often wonder if I’m cheapening my commitment to the campaign by tweeting out the tag. Will it deter me from taking “real” action? Or, in contrast, is using the hashtag simply one way in which I am participating in the movement?

What we’ve seen in these three essays is that hashtag activism does have a role to play in drumming up concern and awareness of a political or cultural issue, particularly in an ever technologically centered society. Successful social and political actions have always needed to reflect the society in which they exist; they must enmesh themselves in the fabric of the current culture, or else risk irrelevancy. What would the Vietnam War protests have looked like had they not been draped in the music and artistic culture of the era? What sort of effect, if any, would the movement have had were it not a reflection of the times? Similarly, had protestors in Tahrir Square not utilized a contemporary cultural touchstone—i.e., social media—what sort of outcome would their protest have generated? How many supporters would the revolutionary movement have gained relying on international media alone to spread the word? It is in embracing “the times” and  seeking cultural relevance that political and social movements become most effective.

This is where hashtag activism comes in today and where—with all the reservations we might have—we must acknowledge that is can be a powerful tool for political and social change,  particularly those focused on human rights issues. While not everyone is on social media, it is hard to deny the bearing it has on our political discourse. Arguably, any organization or campaign not involved in social media will struggle to be relevant today.

Even if only a small portion of the global population is on Twitter, a well-run hashtag campaign can effect real change on a policy level. Take, for example, Invisible Children’s #KONY2012 campaign. While many might see this ultimately as a failure, as Kony still walks free, the movement did encourage the U.S. government to get involved. As a result of #KONY2012, a Senate Resolution was passed unanimously condemning Kony and calling on the Obama Administration to further efforts to capture the war criminal. Let’s just reflect on this for a moment ... a hashtag campaign persuaded an incredibly divided congress to unanimously pass a resolution. It’s difficult to deny that sort of influence.

What we must be careful to understand, and what has been highlighted within this roundtable, is that hashtags can stimulate change, but they are most effective when understood as one aspect of a broader campaign. A political action that relies on a hashtag as its entire change strategy might see a flare of global interest, but will lose potency in the long run. Going back to #KONY2012, had the organization not capitalized on the momentum gained online and translated that into rallies and in-person meetings with lawmakers, it is highly unlikely the resolution would have come to fruition. The key here is in understanding that hashtags are tools, not solutions.

In looking at #BringBackOurGirls, part of its struggle has been the failure of the international community to capitalize on the momentum and create strong policy campaigns based on the hashtag. Today, we sadly continue to see reports of more children being abducted while still awaiting the safe return of the original Chibok girls who were kidnapped in April. In reflecting on #BringBackOurGirls, this hashtag campaign serves as a prime example of the limits of hashtag activism while providing a glimpse at the tactic’s potential as a powerful way to raise awareness for a cause.