In Defense of #HashtagActivism

“ISN’T HASHTAG ACTIVISM THE WORST?!” — Many people who are not activists in any realm of their life. Not through donation of money, nor from being engaged in activist activities, simply expressing a vague sense of rebellious angst about how the “system” doesn’t work, rather illogically making them too cynical to take any action whatsoever, ultimately confining all of their activist activities to their mind, in which I imagine they are spending far too much time picketing their third grade memories, explaining why they haven’t had the time to turn any of that nifty mind activism into essential real life activism.

The statement above is not necessarily an endorsement of hashtag activism. Particularly not in its most obnoxious form; something I have a vague sense of but could not define if I was asked to. I remember once reading about a hashtag campaign where a bunch of people took to twitter to raise awareness for a notion that Cho Chang from the “Harry Potter” series was some sort of racist depiction of a Chinese person. As a lifelong fan of the series, I literally never read that into the character. She was bland and uninspired certainly, but not racist.

I feel as if this sort of hashtag activism is particularly obnoxious. Not because these people are not entitled to whatever minor grievances they may have — I can’t negate the validity of their feelings — I just wonder how they ended up choosing this particular issue as their activist cause. Like, what were the selection criteria..? I imagine that two people gathered together in some sort of alternative coffee shop to talk about their grandiose plans to save the world and there was an exchange of dialogue along the following lines:

Person 1: “We should advocate for a cause that could potentially help humanity,”
Person 2: “Sure, that sounds okay… OR we could speak out about an issue that literally no one is thinking about and try to get people to change their tune on the issue of whether an ultimately anticlimactic character in a beloved children’s series is a racist depiction.”
Person 1: “Yeah, that’s a better idea. I particularly like how your suggestion offers no potential to make any dent on systemic issues adversely affecting humanity and ultimately presents little opportunity to make any effect on widespread discourse”

The whole thing baffles me. In particular, I’d be curious to learn how many people actually changed their opinion because of this campaign. Like, I wonder how many people joined the campaign because they thought: “You know, I’ve never looked at ‘Harry Potter’ through a racial lens before — Probably because I was too busy thinking of it as a fantasy series in which people play sports on flying broomsticks—but now that you mention it, J.K. Rowling is basically a white supremacist…”

Yet, despite the fact that I’ll never be able to understand the impulse for someone to spend their time on twitter trying to draw shaky parallels between “Harry Potter” and “Mein Kampf,” I also acknowledge that his/her choice to do so has literally no effect on my life. As I said before, I don’t have the ability to invalidate anyone’s feelings, so rationally I have no reason to get upset about his/her choice to express these feelings on social media. Yet, for whatever reason, I hear people getting worked up about hashtag activism almost weekly, lamenting its existence as if it is the scourge of the Earth; the one true obstacle preventing humanity from achieving true equity and enlightenment. It’s very strange to me.

I mean, there is definitely some accuracy to the claim that hashtag activism has a tendency to dilute the legitimacy of important social causes and I understand that it is obviously not the most effective way of affecting change in the world, but I also wonder whether its net effect on the world has been positive or negative. I tend to wonder whether the current crisis in Gaza would have received the same degree of media attention; whether the world would have been nearly as informed about the events which have been taking place in Ferguson, Missouri; or whether A.L.S. would have ever been recognized by the public without social media activism and its robust ability to spread awareness on a mass scale.

Of course, I’m sure that there are tens of thousands of Ice Bucket Challenge participants who couldn’t tell you what the acronym “A.L.S.” stands for and the question of whether the situations in Gaza and Ferguson have improved as a result of social media activism is a different one altogether, but at the very least the public is more aware and engaged in these issues than they would have been 20 years ago. I can’t say for certain that there have been no instances of someone posting on twitter about Gaza and feeling vindicated as if this is a reasonable substitute for travelling to their Nation’s capital and staging a protest, but I can say for certain that there are probably hundreds more people who did choose to join a protest because of a post or article they saw on twitter.

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