On June 23rd, an Egyptian court convicted three Al Jazeera English journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed—of aiding a terrorist organization and damaging national security by producing false news. Their sentences range from 7 to 10 years and have sparked international condemnation from journalists, activists, politicians, and non-governmental organizations. In response, the hashtag #FreeAJStaff has become reinvigorated as the touchstone slogan of protest, appearing not just on Twitter, but in mainstream media and on other social media platforms as well. Photographs of journalists, activists, celebrities, and concerned individuals displaying the hashtag with their mouths taped shut have proliferated, like this example below. (A Tumblr collection of protest selfies can be viewed here.)
This hashtag, which emerged after the initial imprisonment of the journalists last year, has itself been a focus of concern and of reporting. Prior to the conviction, concerned Twitter users noted that the hashtag was lagging and urged their followers to keep up the momentum. As Kamahl Santamaria (@KamahlAJE) of Al Jazeera English tweeted on June 22, “The #FreeAJStaff hashtag/trend is way too quiet. Let’s get moving people…” The conviction on the following day prompted #FreeAJStaff to be tweeted over 50,000 times, according to #BBCTrending.
Another well-known hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls (sometimes #BringOurGirlsBack), emerged in response to the May kidnapping of hundreds of young girls by the now infamous extremist organization Boko Haram in Nigeria. David Cameron and Michelle Obama were just two notable figures who publicized this hashtag along with expressions of concern and calls for action. The same #BBCTrending article cited above noted that #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over 4.5 million times to date.
Tweets and retweets, it is commonly acknowledged, are an indicator of global concern and signify critical events that warrant our attention and action. But the question remains: does hashtag activism actually matter? If so, how might it matter?
The question of whether online gestures matter elicits groans from scholars and activists, partly because such activities come off as Protest Lite. After all, it only takes a second (maybe less) to retweet a call to action or a news byline. As journalist and former Labour MP Dan Hodges wrote recently for The Telegraph, it’s fast, transient, and comes off as superficial. Hashtag activism focuses our attention on certain issues to the neglect of others—such as the 60 women and girls and 31 boys kidnapped by Boko Haram this week, and the 16,000 political prisoners currently languishing in prison, tortured, or disappeared in Egypt. In addition, activists’ time and resources may be disproportionately focused on accruing retweets. The hesitation to ascribe any importance to this form of collective activism reflects legitimate concerns over how fleeting and narrowly-focused online activism can be.
But before we lambaste hashtag activism as useless—or even harmful—let’s consider what it can do. The creation of online publicity by organizations and individuals is a form a collective action that raises awareness about a particular social problem. It is true that some crises get hyped at the expense of others, and that hashtag slogans lack nuance. But these are problems that exists in all forms of media and activism, not just the online variety. We also know that raising awareness in and of itself does not solve social problems. Sympathetic publics alone cannot usually produce meaningful outcomes for the victims of injustice and violence. As Hodges writes, “Boko Haram didn’t #bringbackourgirls.” In the absence of real-world action, hashtag campaigns look weak, and even foolish. But this activism also lets people with at least some capacity to raise a fuss, such as politicians, know that the public (however briefly) cares. And we shouldn’t assume that the tweets stand alone. On the contrary, this form of activism is often partnered with offline actions and diplomatic efforts. Online activism often compliments, rather than substitutes for, mobilization in the form of protests, lobbying, and direct action.
Consider a parallel example from the pre-internet age: television and print media coverage of violence enacted against peaceful Civil Rights Movement protesters did not by itself produce policy changes. But it has been widely credited in sociological literature with turning the tide of public opinion against southern segregationists and justifying federal intervention. Rather than thinking of internet-based awareness as an insufficient condition for action, it may be more accurate to think of it as a necessary condition that prods external actors into taking concrete actions in some cases.
Rarely, if ever, is a Twitter campaign going to produce policy change or direct intervention on behalf of victims across borders. But maybe what it does—if only for a few days or weeks—is to signify that people care. This kind of global solidarity may never produce immediate, tangible results (which is, ironically, what hashtags call for), but it can provide much-needed moral support for grieving family members and for activists who aim to take direct action, especially for those who face risks in doing so. It may also signal to media outlets, whose articles on the subject are being bitly’d and retweeted along with the hashtag, that they should continue to commit resources to the issue at hand.
Perhaps more than anything, hashtag activism suggests the limits of symbolic gestures. But aren’t most protests symbolic gestures? And isn’t online outrage more productive than no outrage? Share your thoughts in the comments, or tweet them with the hashtag #dohashtagsmatter.