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Hashtag Activism and the Power of Attention: An Ethics Case Study
By Irina Raicu
In mid-April 2014, more than 250 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from school by an Islamist group called Boko Haram, which is opposed (among other things) to what it calls "Western" education. After weeks passed and the Nigerian government proved unable to rescue the girls, mainstream U.S. media began to cover the tragedy. On May 5, for example, CNN commentator Frida Ghitis decried the prior lack of media coverage and noted that relatives of the girls, with "a social media push, including a Twitter #BringBackOurGirls campaign," were "seeking help anywhere they [could] find it."
By mid-May, the social media campaign had become a worldwide phenomenon—with celebrities, politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to focus attention on the kidnapping. Various governments, including the United States, sent experts (and other resources) to Nigeria in an effort to help rescue the girls.
As much of social media focused its anguished attention on the heartbreaking kidnapping in Nigeria, the U.N. reported that 5,000 people (including children) were being killed each month in the protracted civil war in Syria. That news did not get the kind of sustained social media attention generated by the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
Researchers are working hard to determine why certain content goes viral. So far, the answer has proved elusive.
Have activists just not found the right hashtag for Syria? Should we hope for one?
Some critics have argued that "hashtag activism" is an ineffectual response that just makes the participants feel like they "did something." Other critics, however, raise different concerns. For example, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written that "hashtags can and do generate attention, and attention has never been powerless." If attention—a limited commodity—is "never powerless," how should we focus attention, and what should be the effect of social media campaigns on policy?
Are effective social media campaigns a way to crowdsource foreign policy? If so, does that development serve the common good?
Is the process of generating and targeting attention through social media more fair than such processes had been prior to the advent of social media? Less fair? The same?
Do social media change the dynamics, or is hashtag activism similar to pre-Internet efforts to petition the government? Do politicians respond differently to social media campaigns than they did (or do) to petitions, phone calls, or letters from citizens? Should they?
Does hashtag activism help people develop habits that will make them more ethical? After reading the essay "Ethics and Virtue," consider how hashtag activism might be perceived through the perspective of virtue ethics.
Irina Raicu is the Internet ethics director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.