Washington, DC,
10:09 PM

Does 'Hashtivism' Really Work?

By Holly Burkhalter, IJM VP Government Relations & Advocacy

Fashionable cynics love to deride “hashtag activism”: those thousands of "wasted" gallons of water dumped for ALS, the “pathetic” and “useless” #BringBackOurGirls tweets, the Snapchat solidarity with victims of police abuse in Ferguson, Missouri—at safe distances from the events. Some skeptics contend that Internet campaigns—Facebook posts, tweets and Instagrams—actually do harm by giving participants the illusion of making change while asking nothing more of them than a click.

As a 60-year-old techno-moron who is easily flustered by an incoming call on my rarely used and frightening cell phone, I’m surprised to find myself in passionate disagreement. I look in amazement, wonder and delight at millions of ordinary people giving voice to what they care about and finding others to join them. I think back on the issues I’ve worked on over the past 35 years in the international human rights field and think how different things would have been if vast numbers of people had known what was actually happening in the world and had been able to share that information quickly and widely.

Holly Burkhalter
Social media can be shallow, vulgar and ridiculous—and often is. But it can also joyfully rip through the shadows and fling the truth far and wide.
Holly Burkhalter

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, for example, it took about 100 days for genocidaires to butcher 800,000 children, men and women. Then-president Bill Clinton famously said, by way of apology for doing nothing to stop the genocide: “We didn’t know.”

Imagine, if you will, if Rwandans and Americans in 1994 had the tools for communicating and mobilizing that we have today, 20 years later. We—meaning millions of people all over the world—would have known. And some percentage of the millions who knew would have been sickened and outraged, and we would have demanded that our government do something to stop the genocide.

Social media can be shallow, vulgar and ridiculous—and often is. But it can also joyfully rip through the shadows and fling the truth far and wide.

I think we can all agree that knowing is not the same as doing. Public awareness of Joseph Kony’s atrocities or Lou Gehrig’s Disease or police violence does not by itself save lives. But the amazing good news is that knowing can become doing for some segment of those who have learned something that touches their heart. Moreover, the likelihood that a cause or an outrage will touch your heart is vastly increased when you hear about it from someone you know.

Thus my 17-year-old daughter who previously knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about ALS joyfully took the ice bucket challenge, contributed her allowance and called out a half dozen friends to do the same. It was a lark, no doubt. But it also meant that for a few days, those sweet kids thought about people other than themselves. It meant that money was raised for a good cause, hearts were softened and people with ALS saw that a whole lot of people cared about curing the disease they suffer from.

Back in 1961, a British lawyer named Peter Benenson wrote an article about “forgotten prisoners”—innocent men and women jailed for their beliefs. He founded Amnesty International, an organization which went on to engage tens of thousands of ordinary people around the world in writing letters of encouragement and support to political prisoners. Those letters—sometimes delivered to prisons by the bags-full—told the prisoners and their captors that someone knew they were alive. As a consequence, thousands were released who would have otherwise died in jail, unacknowledged and unknown.


Today’s Internet activism is easier than those laboriously crafted, individually penned letters, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less precious. Thanks to the Internet, barriers to participating in social justice campaigns have fallen so that virtually anyone with a phone or computer can join in. And for those in whom tiny seedlings of knowledge take root, the Internet will serve as a rich resource for further and deeper effort among others of like mind whom we never knew were out there.

Those who commit abuses rely on silence, shadow and indifference. Social media can be shallow, vulgar and ridiculous—and often is. But it can also joyfully rip through the shadows and fling the truth far and wide. That is very bad news for perpetrators of corruption and cruelty.

Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/reject-apathy/does-hashtivism-really-work#CX8O42yKdCOkzZca.99