What happens to a hashtag deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or do we forget about it and go on with our lives?
According to Shonda Rimes, hashtagging is what you do in between episodes of your favorite HBO show. More specifically, she told graduating Dartmouth students in a commencement speech the following:
“And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping.
#yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething
Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge watching your favorite show. For me, it’s Game of Thrones.”
She also suggested that folks get offline and start volunteering in person. While it can spread awareness of something here and there, there is no denying that hashtag activism does have its limits. First off, a good portion of the world is not even connected to the Internet, so how does a hashtag really help them? But more specifically, you can’t mentor a child from a hashtag. You can’t clean up an abandoned lot. You can’t physically feed a person through a hashtag. And I can tell you from experience that emailing, tweeting, mailing and even telephone mobilization were never and never will be a match for in-your-face contact, especially if your aim is to get the very people you are trying to help active and involved in their own change.
But then again, it is hard to say exactly what value a hashtag has in terms of the total sum of movement building and activism. There is certainly a case to be made for hashtag activism in raising the profiles of both the Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander court cases. And as noted about Rhimes by the Anti-Intellect on his blog, Young, Gifted, & Ratchet, “Did she forget that the hashtag crew on Black Twitter is the one of the main reasons she has one of the top shows in the country?”
One such example, which speaks to the strange value placed on Twitter activism is the recent dustup in Nigeria around the #Bringbackourgirls hashtag. As well all know, the hashtag, which was created by Nigerian attorney Ibrahim M Abdullahi and Oby Ezekwesili, vice-president of the World Bank for Africa, was at the center of an international campaign meant to raise awareness about the more than 200 Chibok girls kidnapped from Northern Nigeria by the anti-western, militant group Boko Haram. Local Nigerian activists were also hoping that the increase in international visibility would put pressure on the government to finally address Boko Haram, who have been terrorizing villages and small towns for a couple of years now.
But according to this essay in Modern Ghana, Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, recently attempted to hijack the hashtag in hopes of rebranding it into something more favorable to the government. More specifically, the essay, which was written by Dr. Peregrino Brimah, states:
Towards this end, the government of Nigeria has invested billions; it can be imagined, in an eleventh hour campaign to transform the face of the Nigerian protest. Nigeria’s president has been advised to invest in attempting to use #ReleaseOurGirls to replace #BringBackOurGirls, which has been perhaps the most viral and globally participated hashtag protest of all times, with public figures including Michelle Obama, the United States president’s wife prominently and passionately getting publicly involved. Why is the president of Nigeria being advised and investing so much in fighting to transform #BringBackOurGirls to #ReleaseOurGirls. Is there so much in a ‘mere’ name and a hashtag?
According to this article entitled #BringBackOurGirls and #ReleaseOurGirls…Tale of Two Protests at War with Each Other, writer Abdulwasiu Hassan, who has a more detailed account of all that has transpired over the two hashtags, says it’s all about appearances. More specifically, it’s about President Jonathan and the government’s appearance. President Jonathan accused #BringBackOurGirls of being a part of a Western imperialist agenda meant to disrupt and discredit the government. And in a speech given, by way of an official, who met with #BringBackOurGirls activists, Hassan reports Jonathan as saying:
“We must be careful not to politicize the campaign against terrorism. When bomb goes off in Kabul, Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan do not blame the government. They blame the terrorists. When a bomb goes off in Baghdad, Iraq, the people of Iraq do not blame the government. They blame the terrorists. When a bomb goes off in Islamabad, Pakistan, the people of Pakistan do not blame the government, they blame the terrorists. When a bomb goes off in Nigeria. We must all unite to fight the terrorists,” the president’s speech read by Olajumoke Akinjide read in part.”
Hassan also reports that the new hashtag group, #ReleaseOurGirls, has been holding protests of their own in favor of the both the government and the Nigerian military, who is leading the hunt for Boko Haram. And other local activists, outside of the Jonathan administration, have too claimed that #BringBackOurGirls “was elitist with no regard for the poor.” Of course, the #BringBackOurGirls protesters rejected this notion and felt that President Jonathan, among others, seek to divert attention away from the fact that 44 days have passed and these girls are still missing. And as such, they continued on with their daily protests, which they have been having since April, despite state bans against them doing so, including in the Nigerian capital (Nigerian police would attribute the ban to a supposed terrorist bomb threat by Boko Haram, but some don’t seem to believe it).
However, the situation between the dueling hashtags would escalated late last month when one of the #BringBackOurGirls protests was interrupted by bus loads of #ReleaseOurGirls “activists,” who stormed the protests and began attacking the mostly female marchers with chairs and bottles. A portion of the incident would end up on YouTube, and Ezekwesili would confirm the details of the incident in an open letter to SaharaReporters. She would also accuse the group of being contracted protesters, hired by the President to disrupt #BringBackOurGirls protests. The ugly incident would result in President Jonathan again facing scorn from his fellow countrymen, and today, the #ReleaseOurGirls hashtag has pretty much faded into Twitter obscurity, with the exception of a few tweets questioning the mysterious disappearance of the hashtag activist group, even in the continued search for the missing Chibok girls.
I highlight this story to illustrate how a hashtag can have value in many respects, but a hashtag is only as good as the activists and people tweeting behind the keypad. President Jonathan’s administration might have thought that they could simply hijack the hashtag and use it to promote his own agenda (in this case, to take pressure off of the government for its continued failure to deal with Boko Haram) by simply (and allegedly) hiring folks to tweet some s**t out about properly attributing activities to terrorists, but ultimately, he forgot that the actual thought behind the hashtag matters. Folks could care less about who should be blamed–they just want the girls back. And ultimately, it is that legitimacy of the cause, which is way more effective than what you can write in 140 characters.