I doubt that it was ever envisaged that a sign which consists of four lines, would become associated with some of the world’s most powerful and social, cultural, and political movements but here we are. The hashtag has become a symbol for overturning the status quo as all over the world movements such as #BringBackOurGirls, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MeToo challenge what we deem to be normal or become the voice of the marginalised. A key question we need to ask ourselves however is whether social media activism actually translates into, not only tangible and long-lasting offline results.
Hashtag activism is great for awareness and as a tool for mobilization. We have seen individual countries and the whole world galvanized into addressing certain issues by a single hashtag. Local causes quickly become global causes by a spark of outcry on social media. #BringBackOurGirls brought the plight of kidnapped young women in Nigeria to worldwide attention. In South Africa the #FeesMustFall at least, albeit momentarily, prevented an increase in school fees at tertiary institutions. Hashtags are setting the agenda and pointing us to the issues that we should be talking about. They also seem to be the millennial and Generation Z weapon of choice against injustice and social ills. Although effective in many instances, let’s be real, hashtag activism is not without its limitations. For a movement to be successful, a large number of people need to take ownership of it and those who are part of it should be willing to persist until change is achieved. I believe that many but not all social media movements fail on both fronts.
In Africa, more specifically Zimbabwe, Twitter, the birthplace, and home for hashtag activism is not accessible to the majority. The cost of data on this continent is simply just too high which means that the people who engage in online discourses particularly those on Twitter are in the minority. Ultimately, many African hashtag movements never make the offline impact that they intended to. Another thing that I struggle with at times is that activism is synonymous with trends – yes, I know that hashtag movements are just under “Trends” on Twitter- but a movement should be more than that. A trend speaks to what is popular at a particular point in time but many real social movements should be able to outlast fads, going on for months, years, or even decades until they eventually succeed or fail, whatever the case may be. Am I digging a rabbit hole here? Probably, probably not but because movements are topical they are in danger of being perceived as “trends.” They can attract people who join not because they identify with or feel passionate about the cause but because they seek social currency or clout. It is after all social media. Hitting the like or retweet button, or using my favourite hashtag doesn’t automatically turn me into an activist. I have to be willing to stand by the cause even when it’ no longer under the Twitter “Trends” section.
I may sound a bit cynical but I shall forever be a cyber-optimist who believes that technology can be used for social good. History has shown us that it is possible. Policies have come into effect, people have taken to the streets and lives have changed but we may need to avoid limiting the impact of our causes by thinking that a Twitter hashtag is enough to address them. Hashtag movements are here to stay and we will continue to watch and see whether or not their potential will be fully realized.