FIBONACCI BLUE / CC By 2.0
Twitter allowed for the misrepresentation of the #BLM movement.
With the introduction of the internet, more specifically social media, activism has ceased to be the radical exercise it once was. Instead, it has become something accessible, something easy, something commonplace. Where marches and mass demonstrations used to be the main staples of activism and awareness, Twitter trends and Instagram hashtags now dominate. That is, movements you can access from the safety of your home, from the anonymity of your phone.
This more casual version of advocacy, previously known as ‘armchair activism,’ has even been renamed to reflect the recent integration of modern technology: hashtag activism.
#TimesUp. #MeToo. #OscarsSoWhite. #ICantBreathe. Some aspects of hashtag activism certainly strengthen proponents of political advocacy, raising general awareness of various issues and giving a wider scope of participants, such as those with disabilities, access to the movement. However, it also runs the risk of oversimplifying crucial components, spreading fake news and losing track of its initial purpose in its rise to popularity.
Hashtag activism serves as a good introduction into political engagement. However, to call it in and of itself serious political activism would be an oversimplification of activism and its purpose. It is not enough to tweet or hashtag — you should support your activism with action.
To clarify: My problem is not with the movements themselves. It is the translation, and thereby oversimplification, that is problematic. The main issue with hashtag activism is that it is not effective.
According to a digital activism study conducted by Cone Communications, approximately 58 percent of Americans consider tweeting information about issues an effective form of advocacy. Raising awareness can definitely benefit the movement. However, engagement often stops just there — a tweet, a hashtag, a Facebook post.
There is little evidence that social media activism leads to concrete, real world political action, and it is just that — action — that is truly needed for change to occur. What hashtag activism perpetuates, then, is a false sense of productivity. It satisfies our need to feel like we are helping, even if we are not. This discrepancy is crucial. We need budding activists to follow through with the movements they see online. However, with more and more people falling victim to this “slacktivism,” more and more people are less likely to actually take real-world measures.
Another problem with hashtag activism is that the movements these social media trends represent are often deeply complex. The #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement is a key example. The BLM movement rose to relevancy across social media in 2014 after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss. The BLM movement’s mission statement: to work together to affirm the value of the lives of black people (explicitly citing those on the LGBTQ spectrum, those who are disabled, those who are undocumented and women).
The mission statement does not state any anti-white propaganda. However, the movement’s rapid spread across social media led to a massive miscommunication regarding its agenda, as many Twitter users took the very hashtag to be offensive without looking into what it represented. A massive backlash ensued, and now the movement has a reputation that is charged with controversy. Instances like this are examples of how hashtag activism can misrepresent and ultimately harm a movement.
Finally, the speed of social media, which is so integral to its popularity, also generates another drawback of hashtag activism. Each movement, so fleeting, is quickly overtaken by another and then another, until it is lost in a flurry of other campaigns. This overly short residence on the internet, and thus within our minds, leads to movements that cannot be effective because they are not given adequate opportunity to develop.
There is no way to create change in such a short time. Change requires care, devotion and work. While it is great that one can support multiple movements at the same time (more often than not, these issues are intersectional anyway), hashtag activism is not the most effective way to do so.
Just as these apps convey a one dimensional view into our lives, they portray an oversimplified version of political movements that cannot and should not be shown in this way. Make sure the messages you perpetuate online are ones you support offline, too. This — and this alone — is the only way to make real and concrete change.
Nicola Sumi Kim is a freshman Writing Seminars and Global Environmental Change and Sustainability major. She is from London.