You have probably come across one or more (or all) of these twitter hashtags in your digital lifespan. The hashtags listed above are the top ten ‘most influential’ twitter social campaigns, according to the Washington Post. The final hashtag above, #Ferguson has actually been tweeted 27,200,000 times. These short phrases are understood to be charged with emotion, meaning, followers and digital imagery -- the common language of today’s digital generation. The power of these hashtags resides in what I will call their ability to create a metaphorical ‘Tower’ of digital momentum, awareness and supporters. In fact, many of these campaigns have afforded minority voices a platform to finally be heard and recognized at a local, national and even international scale. Yet, with all the benefits digital “awareness” campaigns bring to the table, I can’t help but discern some crippling elements in the ‘Tower’s’ foundation. My argument is that “Hashtag Activism” ultimately confuses an impact in the digital world as being synonymous with a direct impact in the real world. Growing up in a digital world, we can forget these worlds are not the same.

What is the fundamental objective of digital campaigns? Is it to manifest the supposed power of our often illusory digital activism or to affect real people in real life in real ways?

You might be thinking already that I am being too generous towards the potential these online campaigns have in making profound social change. After all, I am addressing an online community through a 1,809 word blog post in the hopes that it will stir up thought and conversations in real life. I consider the objective of this particular post to be limited to a type of “awareness” raising. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that the role of hashtag campaigning is also limited to the creation of awareness in an online community.

The issue I am skeptical of is the supposed 'success' surrounding these media campaigns. The above hashtags have been some of the ‘most influential’ models for fundraising, collection drives and social awareness strategies. Maybe the objective of informing viewers about an issue has been achieved. Yet, some digital campaigns have outright failed in the execution of this particular objective. Some digital activism can actually make things worse by oversimplifying problems, mixing up digital incidence with physical incidence, and employing finances and energy in ways incommensurate with actually “doing something” about the issue.  

Shortly after the Kony 2012 documentary campaign launched to capture the Ugandan child soldier abducter/war criminal, Joseph Kony, raising awareness of his heinous crimes, a term known as “hashtag activism” was coined 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 trendy cause 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).”

This is not the first time this term is used. Yet, critics of Invisible Children’s #StopKony campaign were hesitant to back the movement, to the point that a counter-movement sprung up (appropriately called ‘Visible Children’), in order to make ‘visible’ the black-and-white portrayal of the issue, overly high financial cost for the film production, lack of physical proximity to the issue, and white-American privilege associated with the campaign leaders and its supporters. Even while ‘Kony 2012’ became the “most viral video ever,” according to Time, it is important to discern whether its ability to go viral is indicative of its ability to make a social impact. This is the first mistake social media campaigns make.

Let's stop for a moment and go back to the initial image taken from the age old biblical story: the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). In this narrative, humanity had wanted to accomplish building a tower of such a magnitude that it would replace God’s achievement with human achievement. The passage begins with the whole world speaking ‘the same language’. In my argument, let’s consider this to be the common language of “the real world” or the language of physical proximity.  It ends with humanity replacing this ‘common language’ with such a diversity of languages that resulted in confusion and misunderstanding among the builders themselves. This lead to the eventual downfall of the awe-inspiring Tower of Babel. I wish to highlight that this dangerous “diversity of languages” has emerged in the case of “hashtag activism”, with the oversimplification of complex issues, the illusory feeling of proximity to social justice issues through the digital world, and the campaign’s ability to overemphasize online activism over real world activism.

The confusing ‘diversity of languages’ spoken in the building of the biblical ‘Tower of Babel’ is not the same as the diversity of languages spoken and understood by all the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-13). I argue that Hashtag Activism’s potential failure stem from the fragile foundations inherent to the digital strategy itself. Let’s see why the digital ‘Tower of Babel’ is not as powerful as it appears on first glance.

Oversimplifying a Complex Issue

The forum of Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram and Facebook are not places of “in-depth” analysis, but cater to snippets, ‘tweets’ or tidbits of attention-grabbing information that compete for the short attention spans of viewers often mindlessly scrolling through feeds for the purpose of passing the time or feeling a semblance of connection. While the effectiveness of some of these campaigns can be to point fingers at a particular “bad guy” or “bad group”, or to make digestible what is most important about the issue in discussion, it can often paint the issue in unhelpful polarizing terms. This oversimplification does not address the complexity and intricacy of the matter in discussion. The important gray area is sidestepped for a more defined dual-color pattern that limits one’s ability to listen to both sides of the story and discern for oneself the matter at hand. In the case of #StopKony, its effectiveness was also its downfall. In a recent 2016 psychological study of the effect of the failed ‘Kony 2012’ campaign on its viewership, it is acknowledged that “identifying a clear enemy induces feelings of moral outrage, inspiring a desire to take efficacious action against the enemy.” Its ability to point to Joseph Kony as the sole object of pursuit -- ‘the bad guy’ -- was the attractive factor behind the campaign. People felt they were standing against “evil”. Yet, the “evil” of kidnapping children for soldiers was not something to be solved by capturing one specific person. It’s most effective component is also part of its failure.

In response to the criticism received by the first video for being too “simplistic”, the Invisible Children campaign released a second video called: “Kony 2012: Part II- Beyond Famous.” This video laid out a more complex picture of the situation and allowed for a more critical and nuanced lens to which one could view the issue. The second video was not as popular and in fact, the “Cover the Night” event which was supposed to have supporters flood the streets of cities worldwide with posters of Joseph Kony’s face failed. The event flopped and while some might say that this second video was less popular because of its now “too sophisticated” treatment of the same issue, there are major dangers to an overly simplistic view on an issue.

In fact, the over simplistic nature of these campaign ads have the potential to misinform readers about the root causes of social injustices; often overlooking one’s own biases and complicitness in unjust structures of racism, poverty and ignorance. The bigger picture (metaphorically) is lost to the ‘picture’ (literally) posted on Instagram, supposedly showcasing the face of evil, rather than unpacking the structures that lead to the formation and decisions of ‘evil’ groups or persons. Does our ‘Tower of Babel’ begin to shake when we begin to ask the question: Am I complicit in this injustice? Does my ‘pat on the back’ for posting something “socially conscious” on social media have the potential to turn into an internal struggle concerning: “am I really doing enough”? Maybe the hashtag should read #NotActiveEnough?

Praying, but Not Acting

Too often retweeting a campaign slogan, posting an image or sharing a story can feel like you are proactively doing something about a pertinent social justice issue. My only fear is that habituating this method of activism becomes as empty and meaningless as when people say in vain: “We will pray for you” but do not back their prayers (and good intentions) with concrete actions stemming from their prayer. Don’t misunderstand me, prayer is critical and important, but unless your prayer ‘in spirit’ leads you to concrete action ‘in flesh’, it will be like saying that “raising awareness” of homelessness is the same as giving a starving, cold-ridden woman with three children on the streets a warm meal and a place to stay tonight. To think otherwise is simply ludicrous.

                                                                                                                                                           Photography courtesy of Rain Rannu

                                                                                                                                                           Photography courtesy of Rain Rannu

The fact is that the amount of energy (physical, mental and spiritual), time and finances employed in gaining online support, followers, 'likes', 'shares', and 'retweets' is not commensurate with real sharing in person with the poor, really liking or even loving concrete persons with a name, face, and personal story, and even finding real communities of support that will engage important conversations in person -- through meetings, protests and service projects, as a discerned communal and personal response to the real issue.

Jesuit Priest, Fr. Michael Graham SJ, once said: “Service is what prayer looks like when it gets up off its knees and walks around in the world”. Just as authentic prayer leads to action, authentic awareness campaigns lead to concrete actions on the part of those made “aware”. My fear is that the “authenticity” of hashtag activism is compromised by the digital social pressures of employing too much energy on gaining online support and viewership, while the inflated portrayal of our online persona or image can also compromise our ability to be altruistic without expecting anything in return for our generosity. The new digital ‘Tower of Babel’ once again, becomes more about illustrating how ‘great’ we are to the world, rather than placing our efforts in building a real “Tower” of safety, justice and equal access for real people.

Is #Hashtag Activism just a load of ‘babel’ or does it have the potential for speaking across borders, generations and cultures?

Post your comments below.