Can you really change the world just by sharing a hashtag on social media?

Michelle Obama with a message of support for the #bringbackourgirls campaign.

It’s hip at the moment to complain about hashtags.

Yep, for every status on my Facebook news feed lending support to the #YesAllWomen movement, someone else posts an article complaining that hashtags don’t actually DO anything.

That they’re no more than feelgood “slacktivism”. That, as the Huffington Post has written, “(i)nstead of retweeting meaningless posts, people should strive to actively make a difference in the lives of others.”

Many of my humanitarian-minded friends are similarly critical. After Mamamia’s series on the #BringBackOurGirls story, for example, one mate texted to say the campaign was futile, arguing: “Men with guns took the girls, and men with guns are needed to get them back.”

But here’s where he’s wrong.

Hashtags aren’t supposed to replace “men with guns”.

They aren’t supposed to supplant the United Nations.

“Liking isn’t helping,” this ad for a volunteer agency claims. But is that right?

When I post a photo of myself with a #BringBackOurGirls sign or contribute to the #YesAllWomen twitter conversation, I’m not belittling the role of major world leaders, aid workers, activists, community organisers and humanitarian lawyers, and I’m not suggesting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon immediately give up his post and restrict his job description to the occasional tweet via his smartphone.

What I am doing is raising just a smidgen of awareness, which is one first step towards change.

I’m making a tiny demand that my friends and social media contacts register, even for a moment, that an issue they might have otherwise ignored is worthy of their attention.

I’m hoping that a portion of them read up on the issue and talk to their kids about why all human beings have rights regardless of their race or gender.

I’m hoping that a range of them will write letters to relevant politicians and donate money to the relevant causes.

And — although I know that only one or two of my friends might take up the charge– I’m hoping that some of them will pursue the issue further: by volunteering, by choosing a career that directly affects change, or by actively raising funds.

Because this is what social media activism does: it has the unique ability to organises thousands or millions of people across the world, to whom activism might not have been previously accessible, to work together for good.

And while the vast majority of those people might only be casually engaging with the cause — they may be too busy raising kids, paying bills and caring for sick parents to suddenly jump on a plane to Nigeria and work alongside grassroots women’s movement at the coalface (a response which, for a range of reasons, may be inappropriate anyway)– at least some of those newcomers will seize the opportunity to engage past that initial step.

No, I’m not calling for UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-Moon to give up his job and revert solely to tweeting…

And no, my (rather shouty) defence of hashtag activism doesn’t end there.

Because there’s another reason to tweet your desire to #BringBackOurGirls or #SaveMeriam: When masses add their voice to a hashtag conversation on social media, the mainstream media sit up and pay attention.

(Online news sites religiously refer to these trends, and have you noticed how even ABC TV news includes a social media round-up now?).


Policy-makers and world leaders, in turn, realise their people won’t accept inaction on particular issues, and ultimately respond to the mass media by getting shit done. Some examples? The Arab Spring was enabled by social media activism; Barack Obama arguably wouldn’t be president of the United States without the internet; and reportedly wins a campaign to change an unjust law or policy about once a week.

Oh, and some major world powers arguably wouldn’t have blinked at reports of the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls, had a record-breaking social media campaign not driven the story into mainstream headlines.

I have heard other arguments against social media activism — well-articulated arguments made by on-the-ground activists in articles like this and this — that Westerners need to butt out of issues that aren’t ours, because we’re provoking the ire of local governments, risking further crackdowns on local activists, paternalistically and illegally urging Western intervention in non-Western nations’ affairs, and robbing Nigeria/Sudan/the nation in question of the chance to resolve the issue internally.

I respect those arguments. They hold more weight than the simplistic “hashtags do nothing” view held by the trendy hashtag-haters.

But they do overlook the fact that not everyone using the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is urging Western military action or claiming Western powers have the answer; many are simply amplifying the voices of in-country activists, who may not be able to freely demonstrate where they are.

These arguments also overlook the view that human rights abuses transcend each country’s sovereignty. Many would argue — as I have previously — that where young girls are being stolen and sold into sex slavery, and the local government is refusing to take it seriously? Then the international community has a responsibility to assist them. (An international legal doctrine called the Responsibility to Protect can back me up here. But I digress.)

A still from a video released by Boko Haram, who abducted over 270 Nigerian schoolgirls in April.

So, next time someone starts hashtag-shaming on your social media feeds, hit them with this.

While it may be men with guns who ultimately storm the West African base where the stolen schoolgirls are being held, and while it may be human rights lawyers who admirably have Sudanese mother-of-two Meriam’s outrageous death sentence overturned — these things will not have taken place in a vacuum.

They will have followed a massive social media campaign that  mobilised public sentiment and put each of those issues on mainstream agendas in the Western world.

To say hashtags are futile is to say it’s better to do nothing to affect change than to do the little bit you can.

Of course, hashtags alone are not enough. But they are a tiny, well-intentioned cog in a large, globalised wheel of action, and they are likely to help more than they harm.

So if you’d like to help #SaveMeriam or #BringBackOurGirls — and if, along with any other tangible actions you’re capable of taking, you believe using a hashtag is your rightful place in the global scheme to do so — then go right ahead.

Here are some images from the #BringBackOurGirls protests:

 Do you agree that hashtags have a valid role in promoting worthy causes? Or are they a distraction from the real issues?