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Social Advocacy & Politics: #BringBackOurGirls Exposes George Will as Out of Touch

social media politics twitter campaign and activism

My good friend Colin Delany over at squared off against George Will this past weekend over Will’s rather weak criticism of Michelle Obama and about 3 million other people who tweeted #BringBackOurGirls. As Delany points out, Will doesn’t seem to understand hashtag activism. He makes an apt comparison between the use of hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel that raised awareness of slavery in America to the point of driving a nation to taking drastic action to end it.

The #BringOurGirlsBack hashtag is shining a bright light on the need for the Nigerian government to step up and do something impactful towards rescuing the nearly 300 girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. This isn’t the first time Boko Haram has kidnapped or slaughtered kids in Nigerian schools. And the Nigerian government hasn’t been effective in containing them.

That is what hashtag activism does: it shines a bright light on an urgent problem and forces the powers that be to do something on the ground to address it. It isn’t just about getting the hashtag users to feel a boost in the self-esteem, as George Will suggests.

But this isn’t the first time that (I hate to say this, given my own advancing age) someone from an older generation simply misunderstands how the internet works. Back in the early days of the Worldwide Web, Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) was running for president against incumbent Bill Clinton (D). It was 1996—merely two years after the birth of the web—and Bob Dole stood up in the Senate and loudly demonstrated that he hadn’t a clue about how the web works. The Clinton Administration was in the midst of treaty negotiations with Japan and decided to put a link to the Japanese Embassy’s website on Dole, who clearly did not understand how hyperlinks worked, stood on the Senate floor and accused the White House of creating a security breach by allowing the Japanese access to our government website.

Now, we all know that including a link on a webpage to another website creates no security breached. That knowledge is commonplace today. But it wasn’t then. And apparently, how hashtags work is not as commonplace today as we would like to think.

Remember, as well, that while Jon Stewart has come around to using Twitter in the past couple years, it was not that long ago when he dismissed Twitter as nothing but a forum for useless blather. Since those days of Stewart’s dismissal, though, we have seen hashtags used to raise awareness of many issues, drawing the attention and shaping the behavior of lawmakers in the process.

Similarly, it was twelve years ago when then Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made some causal remarks at Strom Thurmond’s (R-SC) 100th birthday party that the country would have been much better off if Thurmond won his 1948 bid for the presidency. Of course, he didn’t remind the audience that Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform. The mainstream media ignored the story, but bloggers picked it up and forced it into the mainstream press. As a result, many have argued, Lott was forced to resign as Majority leader and did not seek re-election.

The point is that new media, from websites to blogs to Twitter, changes the way the news breaks. It changes how people become aware of otherwise ignored news. And even while that is happening, many of the most venerable public voices do not understand that the times they are a changin’.

And that is why George Will is so woefully out of touch with social media. He hasn’t kept up with the times well enough. But, as I mentioned regarding my own age, we can’t simply give him a pass because he is old. He is a communications professional. If he wants to stay on top of his profession, he has to catch up.

Join The Conversation

  • cfarrell's picture
    May 14 Posted 3 years ago cfarrell

    Fair enough Alan. I'll happily embrace my anti-partisan bias.

  • DrDigipol's picture
    May 13 Posted 3 years ago DrDigipol

    Christopher, you should notice that at no time did I suggest in my article that the lack of understanding of social media by George Will, or any of the other examples, was because they were republican or white. If anything, it is a generational disconnect. I know, have worked with and promotes many very competent Republican social media strategists.

    Even my examples were not all republicans. If you read the post again, the Trent Lott example was a criticism of the mainstream media, which, according to the right, is liberal. 

    If you saw this article as an indictment of republicans, you are projecting your own anti-partisan bias into a story that had nothing to do with partisanship. 

  • cfarrell's picture
    May 13 Posted 3 years ago cfarrell

    Let me preface this by saying I am one of the "independents" alternately reviled and coveted in US politics. I see the media bias, both left and right, and it usually disgusts me that opinion has almost entirely replaced actual journalism. Mr. Rosenblatt's piece reflects his bias - both toward the left and toward an emphasis, and occassional schadenfreude over the failings of old white politicians to their right.

    There is no shortage of culturally sophisticated liberals who demonstrate their social media savvy inconjunction with their complete ignorace of the physics of social media. Andrew Weiner comes to mind immediately. Does he know how to Tweet? Sadly, we all know that he does.

    While trying to soften the blow by suggesting you're close in age, Alan, you can't seem to escape the blinders of your political bias. I have little doubt that older white conservatives, even the republican party as a whole, are very late adopters to social media if not blatantly resistant to it... certainly in comparison to the current liberal establishment. But to suggest that "we can't give [George Will] a pass" because he's not on board with Michelle Obama's hashtag, that he's old and somehow lacking professionally. That's liberal bias cloaked in arrogance.

    Regardless of your assessment, George Will is a writer with significant credentials. And I expect as many, possibly even more, people read him online than in print. If you recognize, as many of the articles published in SMT point out, that the quality of content matters, perhaps the age of the source or the channel through which they choose to disseminate it is less significant than you proport. But, I suspect it is not his technical aplom to which you are objecting, but his political perspective.

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