There’s nothing like a good hashtag when big news breaks. The social media tool is indispensable when it comes to aggregating coverage and commentary on any particular topic from around the globe into one convenient spot. Hashtags allow you to closely keep track of everything that is being said and published in real time - moment by moment - and truly watch a story unfold.
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But there are hashtags, and then there are hashtag campaigns. The big international campaigns that really made a splash were #StopKony in 2012 and this year's #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which thrust the issue of the kidnapped Nigerian girls from the back pages of the newspapers into the spotlight.
Both campaigns made Americans aware of struggles in Africa that hadn’t been covered by the media. They were also part of a phenomenon that has sparked something of a backlash against hashtag “slacktivism” in the United States, with charges that they simplify and sentimentalize complex situations. But that appears to be why they work. An article detailing an academic paper on the phenomenon showed that the more simplistic these campaigns are, the more they succeed in going viral and producing moral outrage.
After reading these pieces, I remembered how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn’t really lend itself to hashtags. It is just too terribly complicated to reduce to three or four words, though there have been attempts - such as before and during Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, when hashtags like #StoptheRockets were used to call attention to the plight of southern Israel.
Hashtags now seem to be a new part of the crisis routine. Seconds after military censorship on the news of the kidnapping of three yeshiva students in the West Bank public on the fateful Friday June 13, hashtag campaigns were launched. There were a few versions at first, but finally, one, #BringBackOurBoys, became the dominant hashtag. It was, clearly, a twist on #BringBackOurGirls.
Ido Daniel, one of the activists who launched it, said, “We based it on the campaign calling to bring the Nigerian girls back home. We thought this was a similar story, a terror organization kidnapping kids, and wanted to clear any misunderstanding regarding who is the attacker and who is the defender. Those boys were on their way home from school and someone abducted them."
Predictably, some in the Israel-advocacy community quickly gravitated to the hashtag and began sending in pictures and links carrying the hashtag, in the style of previous hashtag campaigns. Across Israel and the US, folks began snapping selfies holding up pieces of paper reading #BringBackOurBoys, or going one step further and scrawling the hashtags over various body parts. Many organizations adopted it, most notably the Israel Defense Forces, who began using it on Facebook and Twitter. The campaign probably could have done without that bear hug. The moment the hashtag was pushed by the IDF, the campaign no longer appeared to the world like a grassroots cry of pain and concern from the Israeli public, but like government propaganda, and blurred the message that these were civilian teenagers, not soldiers, since the military was calling them “our boys."
In addition, the IDF's adoption of the hashtag was like waving a red flag in front of pro-Palestinian activists, who rapidly “hijacked” the hashtag, loading it up with pictures of dead and injured children from their side, and laying out their plight. The Palestinians, for their part, launched their own social media campaigns, changing their Facebook profiles, posting pictures of themselves holding up three fingers to represent the three kidnapped Israelis. Very quickly, things descended into the regularly scheduled one-upsmanship that anyone who follows the conflict online is familiar with.
The whole exercise left me feeling rather sick to my stomach, and wondering why the idea of a hashtag has made me so uncomfortable in this particular situation - and whether hashtags are really the right way for those who are worried about the three Israeli young men to take action.
It is true that they call attention to a news story that is getting buried in the mainstream international media. Israel-advocacy activists say this is because Israelis are the victims, not the victimizers - just wait until Israel strikes back in some way, they grimly predict. But there are less nefarious reasons. The kidnapping is heavily overshadowed by unfolding events in Iraq and Ukraine. The major geopolitical shifts in these two big stories have the potential to affect the average European and American’s lives to a far greater extent than the boys in distress in Israel.
So yes, a hashtag campaign may marginally increase awareness of the story. But is “calling attention” and “raising awareness” really the same as doing something? By papering the Internet with these hashtags, are Israelis and their supporters doing something to change the situation?
Television writer Shonda Rhimes got to the heart of the matter in her recent speech at Dartmouth College's commencement. “A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething. Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show."
Even if you take the effort really seriously, the #BringBackOurBoys hashtag is far too vague to be truly meaningful. Because really, WHO are we telling to bring them back? Hamas? I have a feeling they don’t have too many pro-Israel Facebook friends. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders? The Israeli government? And, at what price - at the price of negotiating with terrorists, releasing prisoners with blood on their hands?
Hashtags are the expression of a lovely pie-in-the-sky wish that they will somehow be magically ‘brought’ back - dodging all the messy complicated questions. That’s why - as the research shows - we like them.
For me, the justifications for the hashtags that makes the most sense are those that are honest about the fact that using them helps the person tapping on the computer it more than the cause it advocates.
When I ask friends who are hashtagging why they do it, they say that it eases the frustration of knowing that there is nothing they can really do, and this gives them the feeling they are doing something besides pray. They find comfort in that - and in the symbolism, like wearing an armband or a T-shirt or a bracelet. They know it trivializes and simplifies. But it helps them. One friend active in hashtaggery said, “those of us using it feel a sense of solidarity with others using it.”
Perhaps there is value in the solidarity and in helping people feeling less alone. But let’s not fool ourselves. As media critic Howard Kurtz has said, the Internet “is much better at enlightenment than enforcement.”
Much as we would like, nothing we do online is actually going to get the boys home any faster - just as it hasn’t solved any of the fundamental problems in the conflict that has brought us to this unfortunate point.