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May 9, 2014

Is hashtag activism better than doing nothing? Or about the same?

(Continued)

"If we take #CancelColbert at face value, we can easily dismiss it as shrill, misguided, and frivolous," wrote Jay Caspian King in the New Yorker. "But after speaking to Park . . . I wonder if we might be witnessing the development of a more compelling — and sometimes annoying and infuriating — form of protest, by a new group of Merry Pranksters, who are once again freaking out the squares in our always over reacting, always polarized online public sphere."

#BringBackOurGirls

Let's be very clear, here: The people tweeting on this latest activist hashtag are in no way "merry pranksters," and their objective does not involve "freaking out the squares." But the online quest to free Nigeria's missing schoolgirls, if it can be termed a quest, springs from this varied, iterative tradition of social media activism. Accordingly, it suffers from two of the criticisms that have been leveled at #CancelColbert, #Kony2012, and hundreds of other eclectic campaigns.

First, critics argue, "hashtag activism" is lazy — it's a frictionless convenience, conducted from the safety of a computer screen, that often serves more as a flattering public symbol of concern than concern itself. More insidiously, some claim, these hashtags are often started not by the people they're supposed to help, but by privileged, pitying outsiders on the other side of the world, gender gap or class divide. That's what made #Kony2012 so vaguely icky. And that's what made #NotYourAsianSidekick and #JusticeforTrayvon so great — those hashtags transcended whatever paternalistic or imperialistic traditions may exist in traditional media and discourse, and gave a platform to an oft-disenfranchised group.

#BringBackOurGirls, for better or worse, doesn't fit neatly into either category. It was started by Nigerians, but co-opted by outsiders. You can argue that it's lazy, but you can also argue that it's doing good. In the days since #BringBackOurGirls began trending, the United States, United Kingdom and France have all promised to aid Nigeria in its search for the girls; the U.S. alone will send a team of logistics and communications experts within the next few days.

Hashtag activism deserves our skepticism and vigilance; there is, clearly, plenty of room for critique. But it's neither fair nor particularly wise to dismiss the phenomenon out of hand. Maybe writer and actress Clarke Wolfe's reply to Teju Cole says it best: "Shaming people for awareness, even if it comes from a #, simplifies everything and also solves nothing (thanks)."

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