I’ve held a couple of social media-centric positions, and in my current job I spend a part of each day monitoring Twitter. When a major, usually tragic, news story breaks, I tend to hear about it on Twitter before any other media source, and along with the scant details of the emerging story there’s usually an annoying hashtag that people jump onto to “show support” for the victims. It has to be the most aggravating aspect of social media as it exists today, because it reeks of slacktivism. I suppose it’s nice to see that people can possess at least a marginal and ephemeral knowledge of world events, but this online form of human “solidarity” does nothing to elicit quantitative change. Here are a few recent examples of mindless hashtagging in inaction.
Bring Back Our Girls/Real Men Don’t Buy Girls
This hashtag really took off when Michelle Obama posed for a photo with #BringBackOurGirls written on it. Surely, the sight of a successful working woman would convince Boko Haram’s misogynistic kidnappers to return their hostages, right? It didn’t. But wait, what if hundreds of thousands of nobodies with internet access echoed Obama’s sentiment? No dice.
Then some white male celebrities got in on the act and held up signs declaring “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls.” Is anyone really surprised that this tactic didn’t work? Did anyone honestly believe that some ass-backwards Muslim extremists gave two shits about what Justin Timberlake had to say? “Ashton Kutcher says it’s wrong for men to buy girls, so I better reassess the life choices I’ve made up to this point,” said no jihadist ever. According to Boko Haram’s leader, the captured Nigerian schoolgirls converted to Islam, surely a conversion of their own volition, and were married off.
Remember Kony? Young people in particular seemed ever ready to hop on the crowded Stop Kony bandwagon, largely because of the slick production values and at-times uplifting soundtrack of the film that sparked the campaign. At least the Stop Kony movement encouraged some discernable action; it wasn’t just about posting messages on social media and letting them be. To its credit, the Stop Kony movement did lead to the mobilization of African Union troops to areas that Kony had impacted, but the man himself remains at large.
The Kony campaign illustrated two weaknesses inherent in social media movements and hashtags. First, they oversimplify complex issues and create the illusion of easy fixes. Second, they rely on people with infinitesimally short attention spans, and as such, they lose momentum just as rapidly as they gained it. Discernable social change requires consistent, prolonged effort, and movements rooted in social media will never be able to muster that effort.
I’ll Ride with You/Stand Up for Muslims
In the wake of any Muslim-led terrorist attack, it should now be expected that a hashtag rallying support for peaceful Muslims will follow suit. Yes, the majority of the world’s Muslims are not terrorists, but it does appear as though the majority of the world’s terrorists are Muslims. That point is often dismissed amidst the cries of religious tolerance.
The problem with both of these hashtags is that they paint the non-Muslim world (and Australia in particular, in the case of I’ll Ride with You) as a mass of violent, bigoted assholes. But by standing up for the poor persecuted Muslims, people latching onto a hashtag overemphasize Muslim victimization, which is exactly what extremist groups use to justify their attacks and round up more downtrodden, dimwitted individuals to serve as human hand grenades.
Pray for ____
After a natural disaster or a man-made attack, you’ll often see the “PrayFor____” hashtag. Ottawa, Newtown, Japan, and Haiti have filled that blank space in recent memory, among others. Prayer is usually substituted for action when people feel powerless in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe. But people who pray shouldn’t feel that by praying, they’ve done something for the world.
Prayers don’t rebuild infrastructure, repair schools, or dress wounds – people do, and those people need money to do their jobs. After a natural disaster, a $5 donation to the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières offers more help than the combined prayers of everyone on earth. The case for prayer after a mass shooting like the one in Newtown, Connecticut is even shoddier. Prayers don’t resurrect the dead, they don’t treat posttraumatic stress disorder, and – this should be painfully obvious by now – they don’t amend insane gun laws.
Sure, god can help football players score touchdowns, but apparently he can’t (or chooses not to) protect the world’s most vulnerable. Prayer is the poorest example of action in the face of difficulty, and the PrayFor____ hashtags only anesthetize their delusional participants.
Je Suis Charlie
No, you’re not Charlie. You may value free speech and freedom of expression, but you probably never poked a jihadist bear. Charlie Hebdo was, and still is, devoted to mocking every public figure, every nationality, and every ideology it sees as fit for ridicule. Most of the people claiming to “be Charlie” probably never heard of the magazine until last week. What’s more, they’ve likely never thought about the religious ideologies or political mores that drive Charlie Hebdo’s satire. Like all the other hashtags noted above, Je Suis Charlie doesn’t deter terrorist attacks or address the reasons why people become radical Islamists.
The problem with all these slacktivist bandwagons is that they typically reflect what modern, civilized people already believe to be self-evident truths: despots are bad, free speech is good, girls aren’t chattel, etc. The hashtags are echo chambers for decent, but not particular deep people. These people add their thoughts to the hashtag, feel as though they belong to a global body of goodness, and tell themselves that as such, they don’t need to change; it’s the “other” bad people fucking things up, and it’s those other people that need to change. In truth, we all need to change in some way to alter the course of the future for the better.
Additionally, hashtags tend to whitewash horrific events with feel-good messages of togetherness that never, ever address the problematic roots that sprout into extremism, misogyny, and the like. If we were to examine those roots, we’d see the gross and glaring inequalities that exist in this world, and how some of our daily activities only stretch the chasm between this world’s haves and have-nots.
With each kidnapping or hurricane or shooting or suicide bombing or methodical massacre that we hear or read about, we risk desensitizing ourselves to horror and suffering and injustice. So in a way, I can see why so many people latch onto hashtags. They’re a way of expressing to the world, albeit in a minuscule way, that we still care. I don’t doubt that the people who posted about Kony or the kidnapped Nigerian girls or Charlie Hebdo did care, but many of their expressions were so vapid and hackneyed that they almost sound disingenuous. Tweets of “my thoughts are with the families of the victims,” or “today we lost our innocence,” or “what is happening to our world?” offer little heart and even less thought.
Other than being one extensive bitch session, I wrote this post in the hopes that it would encourage someone to pause and ponder before mindlessly propagating a social media-based movement. I’d like social media to be a space filled with more discussion and original thought, and less banality. After all, I have a short attention span too.
Image via Digital Trends