CARMEL, Calif. — These days, people see hashtag advocacy everywhere they turn. The phenomenon appears on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even on the sidewalks of college campuses. There is the common cry for a movement in 140 characters or less that says, “Look at me, I care, you should too.” But does hashtag advocacy actually make a difference? Or is it like charity for egotistical reasons, in which it does nothing but boost the self-esteem of the Twitter user ?
Hashtag advocacy, first and foremost, is a movement that utilizes our society’s current fascination with technology and social transparency. As Matt Collins of The Guardian says, “Social media… is a buzzing conversational hub of the important issues of the day,” meaning it is a platform for both like-minded and at odds thinkers alike to communicate their ideas for all to hear. But it is more than conversation?
By posting something on one’s Twitter account with the close #BringBackOurGirls, it draws one into an effort that is seen and similarly engaged in by thousands of people around the world.
Hashtag advocacy is akin to protesting peacefully in the streets with posters in hand and phrases to yell, except hashtag advocacy has one unique quality. Anyone with access to social media can be a part of it, regardless of where they are. #FreeOurBoys calls for the release of three Israeli boys kidnapped earlier in June, but a protester need not be in Israel to cause uproar. Social media allows people in Kansas and Massachusetts to join the cry for change as well and have much the same effect.
Hashtag advocacy serves to connect us globally for individual causes in far away nations. On a similar note, hashtag advocacy’s greatest gift is bringing mass attention and mass empathy to a cause or circumstance that many Americans would not have known about otherwise. For example, both #BringBackOurGirls and #Kony2012 enlighten a wide range of demographics to specific human rights violations, as well as the climate of the two countries’ politics and struggles.
Hashtags have the unique capability to reach thousands of people worldwide with a quick, clear message that educates Tweeters and Instagrammers about the world around them. This new knowledge of far away struggles increases empathy and gets people to think like global citizens. But as Collins points out, “Selfies and hashtags are unlikely to lead to social change on their own.”
Thousands of outraged American teens posting Instagram photos of themselves holding signs does not directly bring back the Nigerian schoolgirls. The tweet does, however, show one’s concern, and more importantly, shows one’s enthusiasm for the cause to both the government and media.
With enough buzz, this calls upon people in positions of power to use their outlets to catalyze change. Essentially, it gives people an active role as an agenda setter. This has proven effective time and time again. For example, only after #Kony2012 took over the Internet did Obama send troops to Uganda to aid in training Ugandan troops to locate Joseph Kony.
More recently, because of the publicity the kidnapping has received through #BringBackOurGirls, specialized teams have been deployed to Nigeria to help in the rescue of the schoolgirls captured by Boko Haram. Noise on social media has proven exceedingly effective in drawing politicians’ eyes toward what is important to their constituents. But for all its positive attributes, hashtag advocacy remains an evolving tool for social movements that has yet to be finessed. One of the biggest problems confronting this type of advocacy will not destroy it, but certainly limits it. The problem is with the public’s attention span.
Americans these days, due in part to the speed of technology and the whiplash-inducing pace of their lives, cannot sit still long enough to read an entire news article. Many prefer to skim news sites, but not gain much detail.
The advocacy part of “hashtag advocacy” is severely hindered by the public’s inability to sit still long enough to become fully educated on an issue. Hashtags cater to simplicity, and while this makes for a fast spreading, powerful movement, too much background is neglected, leading to misinterpretations and limited action. To make matters worse, a study on the Kony 2012 movement by psychologists Daniel Sullivan of University of Arizona, Mark Landau of University of Kansas and Aaron Kay of Duke University showed that people tend to lose interest when they realize the issue is more complicated than the hashtag.
One’s attention span also limits how long the movement will continue to take over Twitter. A graph of this type of movement looks like that of flu cases during the winter: only a few, a giant spike, a leveling off and a sharp decrease. In short, hashtag advocacy movements capture the public’s attention for only a short amount of time. Once it becomes obvious that the problem will not go away in two months, the movement dies off. When the movement ends and people forget, lasting change goes out the window.
The key to ensuring that hashtag advocacy is successful in implementing serious change is increasing one’s personal involvement and understanding. Once the movement is based on solid information, it can continue to adapt and do good work. Hashtag advocacy has its place, but there needs to be more — more education, more involvement, more empathy. For lasting change to occur, the public needs lasting, educated movements.