Thus far, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has failed its primary mission. Aside from 53 girls who managed to escape in the early portion of the April 14, 2014 attack, not one of the over 200 remaining Nigerian school girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorists has returned home. Does that mean that hashtag activism is a pointless concept or that affecting real change via social media is impossible? Absolutely not.
Successes and Failures of #BringBackOurGirls
Created by Nigerian lawyer Ibrahim M. Abullahi, the hashtag has been tweeted over one million times. People all over the world, celebrities and even First Lady Michelle Obama have participated in the campaign. Though a handful of American media outlets reported on the mass abduction in the first week of the crime, updates on the South Korean ferry disaster and the missing Malaysian plane still dominated the international news headlines.
Once Americans became more aware of the mass abduction, there was a public outcry to not only bring back the girls but also to be informed of important international events by the American media. More than one person noted that had the girls been white of any nationality, the media coverage and international response would have been different.
The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has not brought back the girls, but it has made people think critically about the uniquely vulnerable position of black girls in the world, and it has started conversations about media output and media consumption.
Hashtag Activism Success
Hashtag activism seems to work best when it is tied to some type of public relations nightmare that could negatively impact a company or person’s finances. When IAC public relations executive Justine Sacco tweeted an insensitive, racist “joke” about AIDS, Black Twitter took her to task with the #HasJustineLandedYet hashtag. Sacco was en route to South Africa, and the by the time she landed, she was out of a job. IAC is the umbrella corporation for a slew of companies, including Match.com, Vimeo, Tinder, the Daily Beast and many other popular brands. The digital media powerhouse was not interested in keeping an executive who made potentially brand damaging comments. Score one for hashtag activism.
Twitter grabbed another victory of sorts when signer/activist Ani DiFranco announced plans to hold a feminist retreat at a Louisiana plantation. The #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag, which was created months before that incident by blogger Mikki Kendall, was brought back to life for pointed critiques of the poorly conceived event. DiFranco eventually pulled the plug on the idea, but not before sustaining some possibly irreparable damage to her reputation.
Domestic Hashtag Activism
Given that public relations disasters seem to be ripe for hashtag activism success stories, it makes sense that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has not fulfilled its core mission. This is a complicated international affair: Boko Haram has nothing to lose in terms of reputation, and there is no clear financial loser in the girls remaining missing. Ethical and humanitarian issues alone don’t seem to be able to be the catalyst for clear, progressive action when it comes to hashtag activism. The success or failure of the #OccupyWallStreet movement is still up for debate in terms of concrete changes.
However, many individuals and companies have found success on a smaller scale with online crowdsourcing campaigns for a variety of goals such as college tuition, seed money for businesses, film production costs and medical expenses. These campaigns often have custom hashtags as well.
Is it possible to merge that type of focused moral and financial energy to tackle some of our larger issues in our major cities? There are crisis situations in places like Detroit and Chicago in terms of violence, inept school systems and contentious police relations.
Is it possible to turn hashtag activism into focused national conversations that consistently bring about actual change? Are there digital leaders who can pave the way for a new path to social, political and economic change? If there is to be a new path to equality, we will need digital versions of our beloved Civil Rights icons. They will be grass roots organizers with national and international voices who can harness the energy of the people and hence be powerful enough to influence or become the decision makers.
Is the US ready for a digital civil rights movement?