The Conversation

The Failure of Hashtag Diplomacy

In response to Note to Michelle and Hillary -- #SaveOurGirls:

The Washington Post has a piece today discussing the history of "hashtag  activism." :

We’ve all heard this debate before — first over “slacktivism” in the ’90s, then over “clicktivism” in the aughts. “Hashtag activism,” a term apparently coined around the turn of Occupy Wall Street, is just the latest iteration of a long-standing debate between people who think “awareness” is its own kind of protest … and people who, for various reasons, do not.

The article notes a Nigerian American writer for the Black Atlantic, Teju Cole, who has tweeted that latest hash tag trend on Twitter, #BringBackOurGirls essentially "solves nothing" relating to the plight of Nigerians who have been terrorized by Boko Haram for years. He writes in a piece at The New Yorker

They are not thinking of Twitter, where the captivity is the cause of the day, nor of the campaigns on the streets of Lagos for a more competent and less callous government, nor of the rallies in front of Nigeria’s embassies worldwide, nor of the suddenly ramped-up coverage by international media, nor of how this war will engulf even those who are only just beginning to hear about it, nor of those who, free for now, will someday become captives.

They are perhaps thinking only that night is falling again, and that the men will come to each of them again, an unending horror.

Cole then tweeted out further thoughts on the issue:

And how effective was the #Kony2012 trend on Twitter? Here's how the Washington Post summed up that one:

That was a major, immediate failing for #Kony2012, which trended only weeks after #standwithpp. Sparked by a documentary of the same name on Ugandan military leader and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony, and fueled by tweets from celebrities like Rihanna, Stephen Fry and Nicole Richie, #Kony2012 earned nearly 2.4 million tweets in March 2012 … but failed to articulate any specific demands, besides the self-evident “stop Kony.” Worse, the documentary (and the hashtag) were organized by do-gooder Americans, not Ugandans.

They may have meant well, but the meddling, imperialist overtones of Kony would forever haunt the hashtag. Kony, critics pointed out, had been accused of abducting child soldiers since the ’90s. But millions of Americans noticed only when it became trendy to do so, and when it was other Americans advancing the issue. Two days after the documentary “Kony 2012” premiered, the first (and to date, only) definition of hashtag activism appeared on Urban Dictionary:

The kind of activism undertaken when you “do something” about a problem by tweeting or posting links to Facebook, without any intent of ever actually doing something. Nothing more than a nonsense feelgood gesture so that one can say they “did something about” whatever trendycause they’re pretending to care about. Usually only lasts a week or two before the cause is completely forgotten (i.e. it stops being cool to forward/retweet on the subject).

[Example:] I forwarded a video about some unspeakable atrocities in a country I didn’t know existed until I watched the video. My hashtag activism is going to accomplish something!


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