The Limits of Hashtag Activism

For the past two months, my Facebook newsfeed has been spammed with ALS Ice Bucket Challenges. Yes, I shamelessly enjoy watching them. Possibly the biggest social media-fueled social activism since the infamous Kony 2012, the Challenge has gotten everyone from Sarah Palin to Leonardo DiCaprio dumping ice cold water on themselves. There are different versions of it (I did it with a mix of the Clean Water Challenge), different statistics shared in each accompanying status, but does it -- and any other forms of "hashtag activism" -- actually have any impact?

It depends how you would define "impact." If it means fundraising, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has definitely succeeded. Donations reached $100M in one month during the viral Challenge, compared with $2.8M raised last year during the same time period. Yes, not everyone donates, and there is something not totally right about taking the challenge to avoid donating. But if the goal is to raise money, the challenge has certainly been proven to be effective. Why? It's fun, easy, accessible -- everything an armchair clicktivist could want, and whether the viral activity is self-serving or not, there's no disputing the 3,500 percent increase in donations.

Another way to define "impact" is awareness. Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of simply increasing awareness. It doesn't matter if everyone knows about world hunger unless we act to stop the problem. But in the cases where the ultimate goal is policy change, solving the problem can be closely connected to awareness. #BringBackOurGirls, for example, very well could have spurred the (albeit, quite small) search for the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. The kidnapping happened April 14, the hashtag reached its peak almost a month later on May 5, and the U.S. began searching the US began searching just a week after that. Yes, it helps to have world leaders like Gordon Brown speaking out too, but the press coverage directly correlated with the use of hashtag. It appeared that this hashtag activism was working, until the tragic nature of the hashtag took hold: it became a fad. These girls have still not returned home. But it appears that social media has forgotten them.

Awareness can have another affect: lasting engagement in an organization or cause. This is where hashtag activism tends to fall extremely short, given their fad-like nature. Will retweeting a post like "I believe animal abuse is wrong, RT if you agree" actually make the tweet's readers go out and volunteer at their local shelter, or get more animal rights legislation in Congress passed? Probably not. Social media is a good place to start. Unfortunately, it's also where too many movements die out.

Hashtag activism is tricky. Here are some ways to do it right:

  1. Use critical thinking: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown is getting acclaim because of this. The campaign, protesting police brutality in Ferguson, contrasts images the media could show and ones it does show of someone who was gunned down. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old in Ferguson, MO, was shot to death while unarmed and left dead in the middle of the street all afternoon. The media chose to show a video of him displaying what they thought were gang signs in attempt to justify his death. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown is powerful because it makes people think. Awareness works when it has a target, and this campaign has one: the media.
  2. Go beyond the hashtag: Social media can be good. So tweet all you want, share as many statuses, but don't let it fill a "good person" quote and then never think about it again. If you rep a cause on social media, find out what the next steps could be, and take them. That being said, don't fall for every non-profit with a trendy hashtag. Invisible Children, the organization behind Kony 2012, didn't have their facts right in their viral video -- Kony had left Uganda years before -- and their funds were terribly misallocated, in addition to a boatload of other problems. This isn't to say stopping Kony is a bad thing, but that the organization that claimed to be doing it, and raised millions after its Kony video went viral, was doing an awful job. Try Doctors without Borders or UNICEF, both terrific organizations that get the most out of every penny.
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