I am not against online activism. In fact, I believe in it and have been moved by its power. From typhoon relief fundraisers to voter-recruitment efforts, I have participated in these Internet-based campaigns and have seen the power that lies in we Americans when we are aligned to create change from behind our computers. It felt good to lend a hand and to know that my contributions made a difference in various campaigns.
But I think hashtag activism should be used judiciously, especially when it comes to issues affecting the black community, at home and abroad. In some situations, it risks offering users of social media a false sense of accomplishment while obscuring underlying policy and structural issues as well as the full picture of what is taking place on the ground.
That’s why, after a few tweets, I ceased participating in the ongoing #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which is designed to highlight the plight of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last month. I worried that this was becoming one of those situations in which people feel an unjustified sense of accomplishment.
The campaign has been going on for weeks, and it’s become painfully clear that while the hashtag has elicited attention, the news coverage isn’t enough to make a difference to the people at the center of this horrifying story—the Nigerian girls who have not been brought back and who, despite all of the tweets, remain in grave danger.
The abductions still are an international topic of discussion, but the focus of U.S. reporting on the plight of the girls has declined. In fact, by the time the celebrity attention and major media outlets got on board, more than two weeks had passed since the girls were abducted.
A popular sentiment in the black community is that, in many cases, we have to work twice as hard for equal results. I think a version of that idea applies here. Certainly, when it comes to pushing for accountability and justice, we have to be especially strategic. Social media activism might not be as powerful as many think it is when it comes to tangible results, when we’re dealing with situations that call for more than just raising awareness. My concern isn’t that it’s wholly ineffective but that it makes us feel as if the job is done, thereby keeping us from taking a course of action that may be more effective in the long term.
I especially worry about how the #BringBackOurGirls campaign will turn out when I think of some examples from the past: U.S. courts are still systematically breaking down affirmative action, Joseph Kony is still free and George Zimmerman got off.
Considering these outcomes, I had to make sure I was honest with myself about the fact that a retweet or hashtag might not do much to contribute to the return of the girls.
But what would help? What are the other options? That’s a question I challenged myself to answer. Doing “something else” doesn’t have to mean picking up and moving to Nigeria or sleeping outside the embassy in a demand for action. One quick way to make a lasting difference in the conditions that led to this disaster would be to dedicate some time to learning more about the issue of abduction in Nigeria and in other areas of the world, so that comments and tweets are based on personal research, not just recycled demands.
If that’s too time-consuming, start following some of the people and organizations that are doing work on the ground so you know what’s happening even after Twitter moves on to the next trending topic. Commit to knowing what the United States can do to prevent the conditions that led to this disaster. Support nongovernmental organizations and international groups that are fully dedicated to protecting and providing for girls around the world.