Hashtags in International Development and Politics- Powerful or Pointless?!

The last year has seen an explosion of hashtags related to tragedies or big campaigns. Many of these hashtags seem to reflect events related to natural disaster, conflict or human rights, but the limited longevity of these campaigns leads to the suggestion that their impact is severely limited in the real world. Lorraine Patch questions raises the moral dilemma in the technology age- is social media outpouring really creating awareness or are we naively thinking we are making a difference?!  

This month saw one year passing since the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, in reaction to the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram. This is just one example of a notorious hashtag campaign which has rarely made a re-appearance in the year since its creation. Hashtags though do have a place in development work and politics, and can bring about positive social change but they should not be considered a cure-all.

©pascal/Creative Commons License

©pascal/Creative Commons License


Clicktivism and Remaining Realistic

The role of social media in campaigning is often given the term clicktivism; “the use of social media and other online methods to promote a cause” or slacktivism; “people who support a cause by performing simple measures are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change”

However, the idea of clicktivism does also have its positives, especially for charities when it comes to engaging audiences with their work internationally. Arguably, clicktivism is helping provoke more people to become global citizens, actively interested, engaged and informed about international issues; even if it is behind a screen.

Although not applicable to all, in some cases, raising awareness about one key development issue may provoke interest in others. So much of what happens in the world we feel powerless to control or help, so discussing or supporting a campaign online can make us feel a little less hopeless.

Closer to home, clicktivism is also becoming increasingly prevalent in UK politics and it is easier to see the successes as a result of these campaigns. Discussing politics and political views online allows people to express their views in a way which appeals to them. Groups which have not been listened to previously are turning to social media to make their voices and opinions heard. What started out as a joke with memes and dedications to Labour leader Ed Miliband, #Milifandom has become a hugely popular hashtag campaign, bolstered by real political views. Some may suggest that political hashtags and online trends like this are a fad which belittles politics, but this accessibility is increasing engagement and is offering a gateway into politics. A record-breaking 469,000 people registered to vote online on the 20th April,the last day to register; 152,000 aged 25 to 34, and 137,000 aged 16 to 24.

In contrast, when the #BringBackOurGirls campaign was created, it was the only way people realistically felt they could make any difference, no matter how small. As well as expressing collective outrage and condemnation about the atrocity, the campaign brought about awareness of the need for education and women’s rights. Central to campaigns like this however, is ensuring unrealistic expectations are not placed upon the power of this form of activism. Yes, it is powerful in raising awareness, creating debate and expressing solidarity; however, we should not assume that our contribution will result in direct improvement or aid to those in need.

©Elijah van der Giessen/Creative Commons License

©Elijah van der Giessen/Creative Commons License

Hashtags to Actions

The biggest challenge for charities in the field is transforming hashtags into actions. Ritu Sharma suggests that this impact is somewhat expected of the form “without necessarily meaning to it has served as a very powerful tool in imparting democracy, education and justice, both at home and abroad.” They may communicate solidarity for those who have witnessed or experienced the effects of a disaster; be it natural disaster or conflict related. However, there is always the possibility that such exposure can bring about negative change too, resulting in scepticism and a backlash concerning the point of hashtags.

This is especially applicable to #BringBackOurGirls. The campaign resulted in a lot of press attention and many celebrities being involved, but according to some, the impact was minimal. In an article written just after the campaign started, Jumoke Balogun even suggested that the campaign was doing more harm than good by encouraging military intervention at the expense of more subtle and nuanced responses.

Sustaining Interest

The problem with hashtag campaigns is their short lived impact and the selective nature in the way which many topics can be treated. This is particularly noticeable when a disaster occurs, which can be trending for several days but subsequently discussion reduces and in many cases the topic does not hit our feeds again. Rightly or wrongly, it is the highly trending campaigns which bring others to the cause.

In many cases, international development work needs to be long term to be sustainable, and this is something that is not reflected in how we pay attention to online campaigns. Ultimately, we are selective in the way we campaign online, often giving preference to the most emotional, shocking or most efficiently promoted posts. This can be successful in forms of activism such as politics but raises complications with further detached issues which we cannot realistically impact or contribute to on a long term basis.

Despite the shortcomings, online activism, namely hashtags are positive as long as we remain realistic about their power. Raising awareness and improving engagement are some of the greatest positives of the hashtag movement, which arguably outweigh the negatives.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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