Before cable television outlets could break news of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of a white police officer, there was already a mass buzz on Twitter – intense debate on racial injustice that spurred the hashtags #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #HandsUpDontShoot.
Called “hashtag activism,” users continued to voice opinions – in Facebook comments and 140-character tweets – during the days following the Aug. 9 incident as protests and civil unrest in Ferguson continued to escalate.
Also labeled as “armchair activism,” engagement through social media and viral hashtags to help cultivate discussion and awareness has spurred its own debate over its effectiveness.
Dr. Thomas Holyoke, a Fresno State political science professor, said social media can be a useful tool to drive humanitarian action and spread information to large audiences quickly. However, he said it doesn’t necessarily have a large impact if used in an attempt to influence change in political agendas.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any particular instance I’ve heard of where social media was really used to pressure a member of Congress,” Holyoke said.
Yet efforts suggest hashtag activism can lead to philanthropic outcomes.
In the same time span as Ferguson, Facebook users likely saw their timelines filled with videos of celebrities, friends and politicians taking part in the #alsicebucketchallenge, an effort to raise awareness and donations toward research on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. So far, the #alsicebucketchallenge has raised $53.3 million in fundraising.
In both cases, millions of users retweeted, liked and shared opinions, relaying real-time events via social media that fed both the national conversation on Ferguson and the growing fad of dumping buckets of ice cold water in the name of ALS awareness.
Compared to previous social movements, social media allows for quick mobilization from constituents who are often ignored, said Dr.Timothy Kubal, a Fresno State sociology professor.
“For example, the percentage of African Americans who are regularly using social media is actually higher than the percentage of whites,” Kubal said. “So this becomes a tool where we already got a large proportion of the perpetually deprived population to plug into activism already using these tools and using them at a higher rate than the dominant white class.”
Pew Research Center’s Internet Project shows African Americans have higher rates of use for Twitter than whites – 22 percent compared to 16 percent of online white users. Younger African Americans, specifically, have higher usage levels: 40 percent of African Americans ages 18-29 compared to 28 percent of whites of the same age.
Dr. Hillary A. Jones, a Fresno State communications professor, said that social media is a medium that provides the public a platform to “work around constraints that may emerge in situations like that [in Ferguson].”
While some argue that the trajectory of attention rises as quickly as it falls on social media, Jones said there are still pros to this form of activism.
“There’s a rub there between the speed of the medium and the slowness of the changes in our public sphere and our politics,” Jones said. “But I do think if nothing else, we get additional ways for people to connect with one another, to agenda set, brainstorm, get voices out in the public sphere.”
In effect, the globalization of social issues is seen more prominently than previously due to mass accessibility, she said.
Activism can also differ depending on the social media site. Jones pointed out the difference between activism trending on Twitter versus Facebook.
Since Facebook is largely used for a more personal social connection between friends and family, the rising traction of the #alsicebucketchallenge on Facebook is more surprising, Jones said.
Rather than operating around the issue at hand, the bucket challenge capitalizes on one’s desire to take the “dare” and have it on our social network for their peers to see.
“A lot of people who are participating are not participating because of ALS, but because they like seeing the ice bucket thing happen and so they want to be a part of it,” Jones said.
EFFECTIVENESS OF PAST HASHTAG ACTIVISM
Recent hashtag campaigns such as #Kony2012, #Haiti and #BringBackOurGirls yielded varying successes.
#Kony2012 helped steer the U.S. toward sending 100 military personnel — along with the 5,000 the African Union sent — to help capture Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who kidnapped children and used them as part of his Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony still remains on the loose.
The American Red Cross raised approximately $484 million through tweets embedded with donation links to help aid relief in Haiti after a 7.0 earthquake devastated the country in 2010.
The campaign #BringBackOurGirls that launched after militant Islamist group Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 Nigerian school girls in April was much less effective, however. While it generated global awareness and outrage, the hashtag did not inspire much material action.