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GONZALEZ: Effective activism goes beyond trends of social media

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jasmune-color-sidedIn the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the wave of protests across North Africa and the Middle East beginning in late 2010, media outlets and scholars alike spotted a novelty: the use of social media as a tool in a time of social unrest.

The Arab Spring was one of the first major world events to use Twitter, then only a few years old, to help coordinate and carry on the revolution. In these cases, social media facilitated communication and operations among revolutionaries while bringing the world’s attention to these conflicts.

Since then, social media has remained intertwined with social justice matters in the world. Platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube act as alternative news sources, allowing individuals at the heart of an issue to disseminate raw information in real time. They have also become rallying points for people across the world to demonstrate solidarity with others. After the attacks on the satire publication Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last Wednesday, the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” (French for “I Am Charlie”) spread across various social media platforms in response.

The ability of a simple hashtag to act as a signal boost for an issue is a modern marvel. But the question remains whether “hashtag activism” is truly effective.

There are significant benefits to this new brand of activism. Working as a collective, individuals can use their social media accounts to shed light on an issue that may be overlooked; singular voices uniting to support a common objective give it a greater gravity, marking it as worthy of attention and action.

In April 2014, after nearly 300 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by members of the militant Islamic group Boko Haram, the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls took social media by storm, driving international media and political attention to Nigeria.

However, as other trending topics took over the Twitter-sphere, the story was effectively buried on social media, despite its lack of resolution. As of Saturday, a majority of the kidnapped girls are still deemed missing, and Boko Haram, once under the world’s scrutiny, continues to wreak deadly havoc in Nigeria.

The forces that once rallied to popularize the hashtag may have been able to demand continued coverage and greater accountability from their elected officials; however, the opportunity was never truly seized.

Detractors of hashtag activism, sometimes opting to call it “slacktivism,” point to this inaction to critique the acts of retweeting or sharing an activist message as insubstantial. Some say many who partake in these activities do so for the sake of a shared experience with their peers rather than out of a genuine desire to take action.

Says David Carr of the New York Times, “it costs nothing more than a flick of the mouse to register concern about the casualties of far-flung conflicts.”

Favoring the ease and speed of sharing a message of solidarity can detract from the potential to have an in-depth conversation about the issue. Hashtags bolster activist movements, but they do not create them and cannot uphold them alone.

It is easy to justify a lack of action when the issue at hand is on the other side of the world yet, even when the opportunity for direct action is scant, these hashtags can be a learning opportunity. The popularization of a particular social justice issue should incite individuals to question why it matters and what has made it relevant. Social media can be a starting point to circulate and attain information and urge further action.

The same holds true for issues closer to home, such as the questions of race relations represented by #BlackLivesMatter. If one desires to affect change, social media posts are not enough and many across the nation have taken to protesting in public spaces to get their message across. Others choose to lobby their legislators or volunteer with nonprofits and communities to target issues at their roots. Marquette often takes part in such a manner by participating in service learning, through which issues can be better understood.

For hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls, #BlackLivesMatter and #JeSuisCharlie to bear fruit, there is more to be done than simply clicking the retweet button. There must first be a deeper understanding of the issues these hashtags represent, followed by real-world action.

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