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Is Hashtag Activism Turning out to be More Harmful than Helpful?

Hashtag activism gone wrong#BringBackOurGirls. You may already know the story behind this hashtag – heartbreaking reports swarming in from media outlets all over the world that more than 200 Nigarian schoolgirls were abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram. And it’s within this upsetting time that those with social presences feel compelled to show their support and further push the issue forward toward the public.

Enter hashtag activism, where the pound sign has become the internet’s version of Batman’s Bat-Signal shining down on Gotham City. The hashtag works as a means to raise awareness and empower Twitter (and Tumblr, and Instagram, and Facebook) users to band together in favor of a cause, which is typically abbreviated or a short and catchy phrase.

I won’t deny that hashtags are incredibly effective at starting the conversation and keeping it going when it comes to major (and minor) events in our world alike, but having observed this particular one for a little over a week now, it seems as though hashtag activism has slowly started to sour in on itself.

Whose hashtag is it anyway?

Hashtag activism faces a major problem in figuring out who can be credited for the creation of said hashtag as it gains momentum and popularity online. #BringBackOurGirls was initially said to have been created by a Los Angeles based mother named Ramaa Mosley. Despite reportedly not knowing what a hashtag was, Mosley said she was compelled to act as the abductions had no social media rallying cry online of their own.

But this was not true. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, #BringBackOurGirls was actually created by a 35-year-old Nigerian attorney named Ibrahim Musa Abdullahi. To the credit of Mosley, she did ensure that recognition for the hashtag creation was given back to Abdullahi, but not in time for him to receive full acclaim which ABC had initially given to Mosley with the headline “Los Angeles Mother of Two Creates Viral Hashtag.” (The headline has since been deleted.)

It’s crucial to conduct deep research on trending hashtags and their origins before we begin actively using them. Particularly on platforms with a public pull as strong as Twitter. We won’t know the exact roots for every hashtag trending, but wherever breaking news in the political and global spectrum is concerned, you should be able to understand what, and why, it is you’re tweeting in the first place.

The rise of the blogger (and brand) savior.

Hashtag activism is bolstered heavily by social influencers from all walks of life. The most notable in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has been First Lady Michelle Obama. On May 7th, on the FLOTUS Twitter account a picture was tweeted of the First Lady posed with #BringBackOurGirls written on a piece of paper. The accompanying tweet said, “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It's time to #BringBackOurGirls. –mo” Simple and very effective, the tweet has thus far reeled in over 58,000 retweets and 35,000 favorites.

Meanwhile, Get Off My Internets, or GOMI, reported on May 15th that a small group of bloggers were planning to head to Rwanda this summer to fuse fashion and justice as jewelry company Noonday Collection partnered with the International Justice Mission for a #StyleForJustice Story Team Trip. Yes, that is the hashtag and yes, the website does go as far as to say, “Join us as we journey with a group of storytellers in order to spread the word that when we use our purchasing power for good and pursue the cause of justice, hope for the poor is possible.” One lucky blogger gets to tag along in the contest they’re throwing – so long as you push your own following to vote and gun it on using the #StyleForJustice hashtag.

I have nothing against hashtagged selfies, GPOYs, or even contests in favor of pushing meaningful messages forward. It is, after all, what made the #NOH8 campaign so successful and widely used to this day. But then we meet a particularly special side of the internet that creates hashtags to trivialize and capitalize on those in need for personal gain in the name of loosely affiliated “justice.” This is a dangerous ground to tread on since many of these bloggers and Twitter celebrities come with major followings and are seen as influencers by brands, many of which will target them first to collaborate on a sponsored post together and reach out to their audience too. The important thing to remember here is not to let the message, and the cause, get lost along the way for the sake of gaining new followers and short-lived momentum online.

Getting caught up in, but not seizing or acting on, the moment.

The trouble with hashtag activism lies in its very definition – we’re liking and favoriting and retweeting these phrases, but it’s also activism that doesn’t require extra action. What comes next after the tweet? Where do these campaigns go in another six months or year and how tangible can their success be measured, if it can be measured at all?” (#KONY2012, anyone?)

Ultimately, hashtag activism is still an infant and depending on it solely as a means to be the change we wish to see in the world is much more harmful than helpful for us. What we should focus on is the continued understanding behind the movement, be it #BringBackOurGirls or otherwise. Malcolm Gladwell once said that we are swimming in knowledge, but lacking in the understanding behind it. Take the time to dig deeper and keep the conversation going long after the media frenzy has died down. No one person will ever be the sole problem-solving hero that the internet needs, but as a collective community, if we continue to focus on and discuss the issues at hand, we can ensure the awareness never dies out.

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