My good friend Colin Delany over at ePolitics.com 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 WhiteHouse.gov. 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.