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Hashtag Activism and the Backlash to #BringBackOurGirls

When Twitter first appeared, I thought it was the height of everything wrong that the internet hath wrought. It’s 140-character-per-message left little room for nuance or even thoughtfulness. Especially when compounded with the fact that integration with cell-phone SMS messaging allowed users to tweet from their phones, Twitter seemed destined to become narcissist heaven.

And, to an extent, it has become that, but that was a gross underestimation of the scope of this social media platform. Since then Twitter has gotten people fired, helped Iranian and Occupy Wall Street protestors organize events, and (arguably) is where most people turn for breaking news. And because-through retweets and “at mentions” anyone can, in theory, reach anyone else from your favorite comedian to the President or the Pope.

Which brings us to #BringBackOurGirls, a hashtag started in support of the families who had more than 200 of their children kidnapped by terrorist thugs from radical Islam group Boko Haram (loosely translated: Western Education Is A Sin). The campaign did not become divisive however until First Lady Michelle Obama joined in.

Because everything the Obamas do becomes controversial, the right soon had a field day with Mrs. Obama and other “liberal celebrities” and slackers for their lame attempt at doing something.

Human fury-bucket Rush Limbaugh was one of the more prominent critics, saying the campaign was pathetic. “The sad thing here is that the low-information crowd that’s puddling around out there on Twitter is gonna think we are actually doing something.” One would think that a rational person would say that the “sad thing here” is that more than 200 girls were kidnapped by Islamic zealots, but I digress.

The normally more reasonable George Will also criticized the campaign on Fox News, mocking the idea that “these barbarians in the wilds of Nigeria [will] check their Twitter accounts and say ‘Uh-oh, Michelle Obama is cross with us.’” This underscores the false premise from which the critics are operating. #BringBackOurGirls was not aimed at Boko Haram, but instead at the Nigerian government who hadn’t spoken publicly about the incident and had refused all international assistance.

Yet, Will does have a point that hashtag activism is an “exercise in self-esteem,” an opinion shared by David Carr of The New York Times. Carr is more diplomatic, noting the success it has in shining the spotlight on certain issues saying, “the so-called weak ties of digital movements are no match for real world engagement,” but admits “they are better than nothing” and “probably make the world…a better place.”

Perhaps Will was not lambasting all digital activism, but just that the woman married to the most powerful man in the world is on Twitter with a hand-drawn sign like any other Joe or Jane Six-Tweets. Hashtag activism is a way for people with no platform beyond social media to unite their voices about something that needs attention from the people with a “real” platform in the national media or the halls of government.

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.