Laughing at #hashtag: Denouncing the Hashtag Stifles Investment in Social Good

In recent coverage of the kidnapping of the 274 Nigerian schoolgirls, analysts and experts have begun to turn on the very tool that brought the issue to light: the hashtag. As with major hashtag activism like the (botched) #Kony2012 campaign, the issue of whether or not this kind of movement makes an impact has erupted once again amongst activists and techies alike.

“...these are as Islamist terrorists who are intent on killing people based on their Christian belief. And in the case of these girls, look, a hashtag #BringBackOurGirls isn't going to cut it, ” Republican strategist Ron Christie
said on NPR.
Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole went on a Twitter rant about the hashtag campaign, saying “Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.”


But these “experts” would not even have been talking about this issue were it not for that hashtag. On March 1, coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 skyrocketed immediately: our newspapers, our Twitterfeeds, our TVs were inundated with updates about the mystery. Photos of the wailing and wondering Malaysian families splayed the cover of The New York Times a few days in a row. The girls were abducted April 17. For two weeks, the missing girls were back page stories; major news sources threw it in the pile of other stories of atrocities in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign was started May 1 out of Nigeria, then spread to LA and London, and then became viral, garnering attention from major news sources, support from celebrities and politicians and speeches by human rights advocates and activists all over the Western world. The below graph shows the Google search history for “Nigerian girls” and “Malaysian Flight 370.” Interest was absolutely nil until the Twitter campaign started.





What these experts mean to say is that raising awareness is not going to solve the problem, and that it is necessary to facilitate a physical intervention in the Nigerian government’s dealings with the Boko Haram terrorists, which is true. But at the very least, the poo-pooing of the hashtag is a pang of disrespect to those in the social media business, and at the most, it’s a rejection of the inclusion of the layman to current events and basic interest in what’s going on in the world at large. It is a splint in a path to enlightenment about the reality of the barbarities of religion, politics and sex in foreign countries.


To (particularly social) Millennials and under, reality is shaped by what’s trending on Twitter and self-confidence sways with the amount of likes or favorites on posts and photos. People who have no interest in current events and who don’t have a passion for social good are involuntarily inundated with news through their social media. Jumping on a virtual bandwagon is easy and attention in the subject fades quickly, but its power is in the heightened awareness of social issues.


Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn are former reporters for The New York Times who covered injustices to women around the world. They have deemed the oppression of women worldwide the “paramount moral challenge of the present era,” as much as slavery was in the past.


Their stories about the horrendous treatment of women in third world countries consistently reaped back-page real estate, as the stories are frequent, depressing, widespread and endless: the headlines “Fleeing Forced Marriages, Afghani Girls Turn to Prostitution” and “Rampant Botched Births in Uganda Leave Would-be Mothers to Poverty” are much less engaging than “No Clues on Missing Malaysian Flight” and the stories are much more complicated, often involving a mixture of political apathy, religious extremism and an obsession with the governance of women’s bodies.


Together, Kristof and Wudunn, a married couple, wrote the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” - a collection of those stories, and launched a nonprofit to fund micro loans for women’s businesses. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign is a lightning rod in the Half the Sky movement: it is a limelight on an issue that is rampant and frequent, one that Wudunn and Kristof have been screaming about on deaf ears, for years. Finally, the horrid social injustices done to girls around the world is getting attention. Finally, the rest of the world acknowledges that it is a problem.

So when an expert declares on national media that the hashtag campaign is frivolous, the layman who was once interested in the subject is once again thrown into the perception that nothing can be done. It becomes just another problem for all of those Africans, half a world and a million light years away. True social change will happen only after harsh realities are brought to light.