I s activism, devoid of action, impotent? This is the question I believe we must begin to ask, the question that begs whether passive responsibility can be adequately met by passive activism, what many today call social media activism.
I do not mean to decry social media as a tool to spread information about atrocities occurring around the world. In fact, I thank social media for embedding in our generation a certain reverence for global communion, which seemed to evade our forefathers. Like millions of others, I too changed my profile picture to the red equal sign in support of the Human Rights Campaign’s 2013 crusade to achieve marriage equality before the Supreme Court. I must abashedly admit that I joined the Kony 2012 Facebook group and actively advertised the initiative. To this day, my cover photo on Facebook is #BringBackOurGirls, and I can be found sharing articles about Gaza or refugees on the U.S. border any day of the week.
More recently, I joined many of my friends at Penn in support of the #OKSis movement to speak out against cat calling and sexual harassment on the street. I have been pleased by the conversation this has started, and I am hopeful that it can lead to some changes on the ground. However, the fate of other social media campaigns makes me somewhat apprehensive.
These campaigns often appear and disappear like fads, and while many are dedicated to these causes, others bounce around hashtags next to new manicures and topless selfies , more emblematic of vanity than solidarity. Still others, upon realizing their activism has had little effect or attracts backlash , abandon the cause all together. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign is a poignant example.
From the beginning, the movement was plagued by serious flaws. The girl pictured in a once popular photo , edited by Emmanuel Hephzibah, hailed not from Chibok — the location from which the kidnapped girls were taken — or even Nigeria, but from Guinea Bissau, well over 1,000 miles away. (In case you were wondering, the girl in the photo was not abducted nor has she been deprived of an education. )
As the campaign grew in popularity, swindlers rushed to create sites to “field donations” for the cause . Yet, none of them seek funds in order to rescue the girls of Chibok. At best, the creators of these funding campaigns seek to use the popularity of #BringBackOurGirls to raise money for their own causes and, at worst, seek to field money to their personal coffers.
Meanwhile, Ann Coulter and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK have been made strange bedfellows in their respective appropriations of the hashtag to bring attention to their own movements. To be fair, Ann Coulter appropriated the slogan to remind everyone of the derisive need to #BringBackOurCountry, whereas the MPACUK used the hashtagchanged UK Muslim Public Affairs Committee to MPACUK to shed light on very real hypocrisy within U.S. foreign policy. However, both appeared in poor taste. Where activism should have bred camaraderie, “activists” instead volleyed for attention like spoiled middle children, trading on the misfortunes of a people — with little to no connection to the Obama administration’s foreign policy decisions — as social currency for their own agendas.
Worse still, these social media campaigns often fail in their most basic duty: to educate the masses. Little else can be expected when complicated crises are boiled down to 140 characters for easy digestion. These scant summaries often lead to misapplications of the public’s energy. In the case of #BringBackOurGirls, celebrities, politicians and journalists rushed to rally for women’s education in the wake of the kidnappings. However, this focus on education, while appreciated, belies larger issues at hand.
The most recent spate of terrorism and the Nigerian government’s tepid response are not occurring in a vacuum, but abreast presidential elections , in which President Goodluck Jonathan will run for another term. All the same, the security situation in Nigeria has been deteriorating for decades, with Boko Haram adding to this headache since 2002 . Churches, mosques, marketsremoved comma and schools alike have been targeted in order to craft an atmosphere of terror. Where Boko Haram abducts girls to serve as bush wives and sex slaves , they also massacre boys or conscript them as child soldiers . Attendance rates for both boys and girls are low in northern Nigeria and are unlikely to improve in the midst of such insecurity.
#BringBackOurGirls is but one of many problematic social media campaigns. While the movement can be said to have effectively shamed the Nigerian government into publicly acknowledging the seriousness of the insecurity in Nigeria, its popularity cannot mask its clear deficiencies. The time has come to take a critical stance towards such “activism.” In so doing, we as Penn students must recognize social media as a means to an end. That end may be as simple as spreading information and as ambitious as altering social behavior, but a hashtag alone will not suffice. Activism is of little import without long-term investment, legwork and risk-taking.
Finally, we must also acknowledge the limitations of these movements. Our social media networks consist of individuals with whom we choose to associate. At times this means our twitter and newsfeeds’ are forums in which we violently agree with one another, whilst remaining willfully ignorant of other points of view. Such ignorance is an unforeseen tragedy of the digital age. However, if activism is ever to succeed in achieving change, we must seek knowledge incessantly and then transfer that knowledge to those who may not agree.
It is my hope that men and women who support the #OKSis movement heed the lessons of past movements and continue this conversation on campus, in our GBMs and in our friend groups. We must reach out to those who do not see the harmful effects of sexual harassment and explain it to them. When women are harassed on our streets, we should speak out en masse against such behavior. We must fight to ensure that our frat parties do not become theatres for the reenactment of the subjugation of women and their agency. Without such effort in the real world, our labors in the digital world are unlikely to yield little more than bitter fruit.