You’re the Prime Minister... Put the hashtag down and do something real about it if you care.
Another complex, socio-political situation, another hashtag, another debate about the merits and pitfalls of clicktivism. #Yawn. And yet there’s a conversation going on at Compare Afrique about the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that I'm finding particularly compelling.
Marissa Jackson argues that rather than a classic case of slacktivism, what we’re seeing this time is something different. She writes:
“The movement to #BringBackOurGirls, which actually originated in Nigeria, has thus far demonstrated the virtues of solidarity and grassroots international cooperation, within and beyond the African diaspora. It has shed much meaningful light on how to make visibility and voice to the invisible and voiceless. It has reminded us all of the value of naming and shaming–naming the girls to remind the world that they, too, are human beings, and shaming terrorists, Nigeria’s incompetent government, and the structural and institutional racism and misogyny that allowed an atrocity of this magnitude to go unnoticed two weeks and unresolved for over three.
As a black woman in the United States, this movement has become as meaningfully encouraging as it is frustrating because for the first time ever, I am witnessing men and women come together to notice when a group of black girls goes missing, and demand decisive action.”
Hashtags = frames
A hashtag is basically a mini-frame. It presents an issue in a particular way and connects the issue with a whole host of other ideas, values and worldviews. I’d argue (tentatively) that this actually makes a hashtag pretty powerful. Think about how #EverydaySexism has impacted public debate.
Jackson highlights how the framing of #BringBackOurGirls taps into the values of participation, cooperation, and solidarity: values that research suggests encourage more compassion. That it was a grassroots campaign, coming from within Nigeria (despite claims to the contrary) and that it has been supported by people of all classes, races and ages across the world is significant. And the use of ‘our girls,’ used by Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike, expresses a common humanity that well encapsulates universalist motivation. It’s a good example of an Interconnectedness Frame: a set of ideas around us being an interdependent world, bound together by shared principles and common humanity. (Read more in Finding Frames for Development)
Contrast this with #Kony2012, a campaign started in America about an old (though admittedly unresolved) issue that wasn’t even supported by Ugandans, was undeniably imperialist and white-man saviour-flavoured, demanding that Americans fix the problem.
Frames connect issues with values
People respond to messages like these because most people prioritise other-oriented values over self-oriented values. In other words - people do care. But just because people care about others doesn’t mean they will always act on this motivation. One reason is that we often don’t consciously consider our values, and it might not occur to us that a given situation has any relevance to what we think is important. We might really value equality and non-discrimination, for instance, but it might not occur to us to consider the obstacles for left-handed people, in a world constructed primarily for right-handers. (Read some of the research behind when we see our values as relevant here).
Frames make important links between our values and the issues we experience. #BringBackOurGirls extends our compassion beyond those we usually show it to. The issue that Jackson refers to - the seeming invisibility of particular groups, such as black women, in the public eye - is lessened.
Frames connect issues with actions
Hashtag activism has been criticised for allowing people to feel as though they have made a contribution to a cause without putting in any (so-called) real effort. Urban dictionary, for example, describes hashtag activism as:
“Nothing more than a nonsense feelgood gesture so that one can say they "did something about" whatever trendy cause they're pretending to care about… I forwarded a video about some unspeakable atrocities in a country I didn't know existed until I watched the video. My hashtag activism is going to accomplish something!”
It's an important critique. A frame should also connect an issue with an appropriate action. A cut should be met with a plaster, for example; if someone is not breathing, however, we should probably call an ambulance and try CPR in the meantime. It’s a problem, then, if we learn that the appropriate action to all global issues is to tweet about them. So much so, in fact, that not only have we done something important by tweeting the hashtag, but that someone with more power and agency (such as David Cameron) has also done something by doing so. The frame might also demand actions that are not actually in line with our values, or that are actively damaging. Jumoke Balogun argues (also at Compare Afrique) that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign risks “making things worse” by fueling further US militarisation of the African continent, just as with #Kony2012 (and they haven’t even caught Joseph Kony, despite continued operations):
“[T]he United States military loves your hashtags because it gives them legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa.”
Even this example, though, suggests that hashtag activism can be used to successfully connect an issue with an action (even if it can be corrupted, picked and chosen by those in power). But it also suggests we should connect these actions carefully. In the case of #Kony2012, there was very little understanding of the intricacies of the conflicts in and around Uganda by most of those calling for the capture of the former LRA leader, nor the geopolitics of American imperialism. In the case of #BringBackOurGirls, it probably isn’t appropriate for most of us to be calling for particular fixes (asking David Cameron to go and fix it isn’t the best solution either). Rather, acting in line with the values of community and equality, we can stand in solidarity with the Nigerian populace and in this way help to empower them to create the space to make political changes. Balogan suggests, for instance:
“If you must do something, learn more about the amazing activists and journalists like this one, this one, and this one just to name a few, who have risked arrests and their lives as they challenge the Nigerian government to do better for its people within the democratic process. If you must tweet, tweet to support and embolden them.”
What can campaigners learn from this?
It's difficult to boil complex interactions down into pithy conclusions, but I'm going to suggest three key questions campaigners could ask when they're embarking on a foray into social media.
1. Who's involved and how?
Look around and listen to grassroots movements. #BringBackOurGirls has real meaning because it started in Nigeria by people within the country and represents not only the distress about the disappearance of the schoolgirls but the growing frustration at an unsupportive (and corrupt) government. Support grassroots voices shows solidarity and can empower them to create real change. Strength lies in allowing the voices of those affected to be heard, rather than imposing a ‘fix’ on another group. Focus on those affected, as it highlights them as the important actors. Reflect the values of inclusion and participation in the way you interact.
2. What are the values?
Use language that expresses your values. This should just mean focusing on what you care about about the issue. #BringBackOurGirls is honest, straightforward, and has a clear connection with values of caring and inclusiveness.
3. What are the actions IRL?
Be aware of the context. Does the campaign have an ask? What can *I* do? Are these actions aligned with your values?