Earlier today, I sat on a panel with four other women to discuss the pros and perils of hashtag activism, specifically around #BringBackOurGirls. If the topic interests you, you can see it here (number 8). One of the enduring themes was that we need to take hashtag activism as it exists now -- online -- and bring it into the offline world. So how does that work?
It's important to identify the purpose of hashtag activism. Of course a hashtag and a few thousand tweets will not solve global issues. But a hashtag can, and does, jumpstart a conversation, set the agenda, and drive offline action, if it's done right (or wrong, but I'll get to that in a minute).
Let's agree that driving discussion is a good thing; let's also agree that conversation is the starting point to creating action. The danger of hashtag activism, as with any form of activism, is that when the issue gets too big and the supporters too many, it becomes easy to lose control of the resulting action. In the case of #BringBackOurGirls, we saw international attention push President Goodluck Jonathan into finally making a statement and kicking off whatever small actions intended to rescue the students. That was a positive action that resulted because of the conversation -- even if it has not produced the results we want. But Jumoke Balogun points out the many potential negative actions that can result as well, in her now well-read piece over at Compare Afrique.
So how do we control for the possible outcome of negative action? We don't let hashtag activism stop with conversation. Someone who talks about climate change is not considered a climate change activist; you have to take the conversation a step further. Here are three steps for being an Effective Hashtag Activist:
- Join in the conversation. Use that hashtag!
- Understand the conversation. For every tweet you send into the universe about an issue, read at least one in-depth article. Read blogs you disagree with. Read research pieces. Learn the underlying causes.
- Donate your time, money, or skills to resolve those root causes.
In this case, reading will lead you to understand that Boko Haram is not a cause of instability; it's the product of it, along with low education rates, gender inequities, poor governance, etc. So those are the issues you can address: donate whatever you can give to the organizations and groups that are working to create social stability in the region. We can't fling a $20 at a militia group to bring the girls home to their families (and if you can...please don't), but we can try to create an environment in which this doesn't happen again.
We're at a crossroads. #BringBackOurGirls is giving voice to an international tragedy, but it's also setting the stage for what hashtag activism can, should, and will be in the future. It can simply drive an agenda, or it can push forward positive, thoughtful action. Let's work toward the latter.