Making a hashtag of things: is online activism much use?

Does Twitter and other social media offer the voiceless a megaphone – or do they merely flatter us that words are as powerful as action?

More than two months and several million tweets after the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag began, demanding action on the kidnapping by Boko Haram of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, 214 are still missing. Yet when the American first lady, Michelle Obama, the British prime minister David Cameron, Pope Francis and countless celebrities took to Twitter to share the same statement, a feeling of hope, action and unity took hold, and the power of social media seemed as if it could prevail even over the most stubborn of governments and the ugliest of terrorist dogmas.

In fact, though, the power of social media has been a double-edged sword for the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign. Ramaa Mosley, a filmmaker based in the United States with an interest in girls’ education who picked up the hashtag from the Nigerian campaigners Oby Ezekwesili and Hadiza Bala Usman, found herself at the sharp end of a backlash, receiving death threats and accused of attention-seeking and taking credit for a movement that had started in Nigeria. She had never claimed credit, of course, and indeed was mainly involved in running the US side of the campaign away from Twitter, but once established as part of the unstoppable Twitter juggernaut, anecdote became fact, and she was forced to defend herself in the media – unwittingly adding fuel to the fire.

“I began tweeting #bringbackourgirls at Michelle Obama, Oprah, the president and numerous other influential individuals after I first saw this phrase used by the Nigerian people, specifically Oby Ezekwesili and Ibrahim Abduhalli,” says Mosley. “The hashtag was only one part of the actions I used to help raise awareness. I wrote my friends individually on Facebook and asked them to post on their walls to help raise awareness. When I would see a friend go onto Facebook I would ping them. Within 24 hours, I sent out 1,200 messages. I created a Facebook page dedicated to Bring Back Our Girls and shared this with everyone I knew. I began writing my government daily asking them to help Nigeria.”

But the instant and massive communicative powers of Twitter mean that the truth need never get in the way of a good trolling, and in the meantime, Obama naysayers pounced on Michelle’s contribution. Sarah Palin scathingly tweeted “I kinda-sorta doubt a tweet will intimidate the kidnappers much” and opponents Photoshopped statements onto the paper that she held up in her picture, replacing #BringBackOurGirls with #BringBackYourDrones and #MyHusbandHasKilledMore­Young­GirlsThanBokoHaram­EverCould. In the most recent iteration, Iraqi terrorist organisation ISIL changed the hashtag to #BringBackOurHumvee.

It was a textbook example of both the power and limitations of hashtag activism, and the latent misogyny in some of the responses seems to be something that is peculiar to those online campaigns involving female issues. Mosley remains undeterred in her mission to find a way to rescue the girls, but is certainly a wiser user of social media as a result – having had little understanding of hashtag activism before the episode.

“I do think that social media can be an amazing place to share information that otherwise wouldn’t be shared but I also have seen it as an instrument for cyberbullying,” she cautions. “I am strongly against using this powerful tool to post mean-spirited statements about individuals. We all should applaud people for speaking out against oppression … The sad thing is that oftentimes when you speak out, you become a target for cruelty. Every one of the individuals involved in the BBOG campaign has experienced bullying, blackmail and even death threats.”

Hashtag campaigning is certainly no place for the faint-hearted. With the anonymity of online discourse, cyberbullying exists across the online space, and the emotional and political heft of gender and race issues appear to be grist to the trolls’ mill – never mind the high passions of those who genuinely disagree with a post or a hashtag.

“There is a rough and tumble and often sharp-edged side, too,” says the US-based feminist blogger and tweeter K C Gibbons. “Some are because of racism and differences involving sexuality, class and disability. It is just as hard to tackle in real life, but the anonymity and lightning-quick responses amplify the gaps between feminists.”

One woman who takes a relaxed view of online strife is the feminist blogger (and a former journalist for The National) Georgia Lewis, whose blog The Rant Mistress covers everything from body image to body ownership.

“I have witnessed some horrifically abusive things said to women, particularly on Twitter, and I’ve been called some pretty horrible things,” she says. “It is easy for people to be keyboard warriors, especially on Twitter where you can be more anonymous than Facebook. This seems to embolden people to say things they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face in real life. Generally, I ignore it – there really is no point trying to have a constructive debate with someone who has called you a whore.”

Yet in spite of the persistent misogyny and bullying, women are consistently more likely to use social media than men, according to the Pew Research Centre, which found that between 2009 and 2012 women were 10 per cent more likely to be engaging on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, which goes some way to explaining the preponderance and success of women-driven and feminist hashtag activism, from #EverydaySexism, which encourages women to detail the little sexist acts that chip away at them every day, to the controversial recent response to sexual harassment of women in Egypt, #WeWillHarassMen.

“Women and progressive folk are the most frequent and largest group of interactive online media users,” says Tara L Conley, the founder of, a website that chronicles the development of the online feminist space. “So I think our issues get siloed into these spaces and then amplified, because we are all talking to each other, and there are a lot of us that have followings online that reach outside our echo chamber, and outside you have the critics, the misogynists and people who abuse those systems.”

For Conley, feminist hashtags are more than a new-media fad: they are a telling indication of the direction of a society and culture that are increasingly liberated for women and in which we are increasingly informed about female inequality elsewhere in the world.

“I believe hashtags are visual artefacts where we can actually watch culture happen,” says Conley. “I think they’re one of the first times in the Web 2.0 era when there are people using all sorts of interactive media to engage in issues related to society, culture, politics, and there’s so much information out there. I see Hashtag Feminism as a way of documenting and defining certain issues across the web and around the world.”

As Conley notes, feminist hashtags are not restricted to discussing purely feminist issues, with other inequalities regularly being involved – most notably race, with hashtags such as #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and #ImNot­YourAsianSideKick both combining feminism and race awareness. Indeed, some of the most vicious spats between feminists have involved race, and for some it is a reminder of the infighting that has characterised earlier waves of feminism – giving rise to another sort of cyberbullying entirely.

“Any time you have a movement and there’s a lot of chefs in the kitchen, you’re going to have some bumping of heads,” says Conley. “I think with the advent of online media, we see that as more prevalent now, we see the controversies arising, we see the spectacle more often.”

Certainly, the quick-fire nature of Twitter, with its 140-character statements leaving little room for nuance, can be brutal, with discussions quickly turning nasty. So is it possible for feminism to exist and flourish on social media without descending into back-stabbing and bickering?

“It already has descended into back-stabbing and bickering,” says Lewis. “That was always going to happen. Twitter is an easy way to start an argument that can rage long into the night. When an argument starts to go around in circles or is reduced to name-calling, it is best to bow out gracefully and move on. It is easy to be completely incontinent on Twitter – I am quite sure I am – but it is also wise to think before tweeting and to take time away from it. And while it is not a bad thing for a woman to gain a sense of confidence and to feel she has a louder voice because of social media, it behooves everyone, male or female, to not let ­social media control their lives.”

“Privilege-checking” might once have been a gentle reminder to consider the role of one’s own upbringing in forming a viewpoint, but it has become a Twitter phenomenon, a way to instantly shut down an argument by accusing your opponent of being themselves an agent of oppression. The #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag, created by the feminist blogger Mikki Kendall in response to tweets by discredited male feminist academic Hugo Schwyzer, raised the valid point that women of colour have traditionally been ignored by the feminist narrative, and a series of stinging tweets pursued the argument: Rania Khalek’s “#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen when convos about gender pay gap ignore that white women earn higher wages than black, Latino and Native men”, for example, or Zeba Blay’s “#solidarityisforwhitewomen when pink hair, tattoos, and piercings are ‘quirky’ or ‘alt’ on a white woman but ‘ghetto’ on a black one.”

Indeed, taking the argument further, some point out that so-called “Fourth Wave Feminism” – the feminism taking place in the online world – is by definition only accessible to those with access to a computer, demanding that all its participants take a “privilege check”.

“For women who are not online, social media is mostly a moot point,” agrees Lewis. “The social media landscape is still a place where there are many privileged women manufacturing outrage while there are millions of women in the world for whom basic survival is their main goal each day. A woman who has to walk for miles to carry water in a developing country isn’t going to be tweeting from her iPhone about some sexist ad over a latte.”

In fact, what some might see as a bewildering proliferation of opinion and argument is to others a sign of the healthy state of feminism and a brilliant opportunity, unique to social networking, to understand the points of view of voices that would not otherwise be heard. #FemFuture: Online Revolution, a report for the Barnard Center for Research on Women put together by Courtney E Martin and Vanessa Valenti, lauded the concept of “intersectionality” – in which different minorities have different experiences of oppression, allowing, for example, both race and gender to be discussed at the same time, rather than studied separately – but called for greater mobilisation and coordination in creating alliances between feminist factions that would allow common goals to be reached.

“The decentralisation of feminism is a great thing – writ large,” argues Martin. “It resists the false narrative of one leader or face and creates room for productive dissent. The risk is that we don’t take advantage of tipping-point moments by being strategic and working together for big wins, despite our healthy differences.”

This approach will certainly help as the naysayers gather their forces: the online forum 4Chan recently attempted to hoax women into a “feminist civil war” by posing as feminist women of colour and promoting hashtags such as #WhitesCantBeRaped and #EndFathersDay – and though they were eventually exposed, they duped some commentators along the way.

In contrast to this rather childish mischief, which at least acknowledges the power of the hashtag, the more common complaint against hashtag campaigning is that it offers a glib sop to vanity and conscience: an opportunity to burnish your image, to feel good, without in fact achieving a great deal.

The prime example is the #NoMakeUpSelfie, which somehow morphed from a Hollywood movement in support of Kim Novak, who had been derided over her appearance at the Oscars, into a campaign that encouraged women to go barefaced and simultaneously donate to Cancer Research UK. It may have ultimately raised Dh50million for the charity, but the hashtag has continued to be used to accompany pictures of celebrities showing off just how fabulous they look without make-up – even prompting online articles about how to take the perfect no-make-up selfie.

“Hashtags are a great way to use Twitter to gain momentum for a cause or an issue but it is also another way for lazy people to feel good about themselves,” says Lewis. “Personally, I thought #nomakeupselfies was a bit lame – there’s nothing especially brave about posing with no make-up on and, off the top of my head, I can’t actually remember what cause that was meant to be about.

“Social media is a great way to raise awareness of the plight of women who are not as privileged [for example] – but it really needs to go further than mere awareness-raising. If you really are concerned about girls not going to school in Yemen, tell your Twitter followers by all means but, seriously, tweet a link to a good charity while you’re at it and make a donation. Privileged women being social media slacktivists are everywhere and it’s an easy trap to fall into, feeling as if you have changed the world with a tweet but here’s the thing – you probably haven’t.”

That sums it up: Twitter and the hashtag offer feminism and activism a brilliant tool to engage women who might otherwise never encounter the arguments of feminism, which were previously largely confined to gender scholars. And for women in particular, many of whom grow up silenced as a result of simply being female – whether because they are not educated as extensively as men or because they face the dreaded accusations of “bossiness” when they assert their views – the online space is a safe forum to discuss issues of modern femininity and find others who share the same views.

“I think one of the popular narratives surrounding hashtags is that they allow other people to join the conversation; they are ways that people can get involved, so in that respect there’s a lot of benefit having the work happening online,” says Conley, and Ramaa Mosley agrees: “Using social media as a tool to raise awareness is our present and our future and I am thankful for this.”

But as Mosley has found, simply promoting awareness may not be enough to guarantee change – especially in a world as fast-moving as Twitter and the other social networks. After all, those girls are still missing, and while the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is still in use, interest has quickly waned.

“In the first two weeks when I started the Facebook page, I received hundreds of messages from people around the world who wanted to help,” says Mosley. “They were organising rallies and marches around the world. Even 10-year-old girls in remote villages in the Andes wrote me to ask for help because they were gathering to protest on behalf of the Chibok girls. Now there are only a few dozen messages a day. Outside of Abuja and Chibok, it feels that many people have gone back to their lives and are no longer focused. For the campaign to be successful, we need to all continue until the girls are home safely.”

With our shortening attention spans in our socially networked world, that is a warning worth heeding if the promise of hashtag activism is ever to be fulfilled.

Gemma Champ is a regular contributor to The Review.