I just deleted an email whose subject line was “Stop anti-conservation bill from harming Arizona ocelots!” It was one of at least 25 emails I’ve received this weekend (it’s a lot worse during the week) about some cause or other, most of which I didn’t look at before deleting. It’s not that I want Arizona ocelots to be harmed. But there comes a point where even opening most of such messages, let alone taking in what they’re agitating about and clicking on “contribute” or “sign” or whatever, seems simultaneously time-consuming and quite futile. (They’re evidently never going to go away, though—once you’ve given some money to the Obama campaign or signed a petition, the floodgates open and the requests keep coming.)
Does it really do any good?
Hashtag activism is perhaps the ultimate refinement of this kind of engagement: the instant “liking” or copying to Facebook or retweeting of an issue, a cause, sometimes even just a name. As New York Times media reporter David Carr wrote in a piece in March, “In the friction-free atmosphere of the Internet, it costs nothing more than a flick of the mouse to register concern about the casualties of far-flung conflicts…. In February, the digerati went bonkers after the Susan G. Komen foundation (shorthanded as #Komen on Twitter) announced it was cutting off financing for Planned Parenthood. And then #KONY2012 started popping up on my Twitter feed and I, along with 100 million others, watched a video about the indicted Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony.”
There’s something intrinsically sneery about a phrase like “hashtag activist”—it carries the same odor as “armchair critic” and “champagne socialist.” After all, how can becoming the 29,567th person to “like” not bashing baby seals on the head actually stop men who need the money from going out in fishing boats armed with baseball bats? It isn’t that Joseph Kony video that’s going to end the Lord’s Resistance Army’s reign of terror, it’s the combined efforts of armed forces in Congo and Uganda and Darfur and the Central African Republic, with some equipment and encouragement from U.N. missions and peacekeepers.
Well, maybe, yes—sometimes!
And yet. You might have heard recently about a precocious Scottish nine-year-old named Martha Payne—nom de blog: “Veg”—who earlier this year began recording (photographically and in writing) each hideously un-nutritious-looking lunch she ate at school every day on her blog, Never Seconds. The local school board panicked and told her to shut it down, creating a storm of protest, a ton of publicity for Martha, and a flood of interest on the part of, presumably, hashtag activists that has bumped up the fund that Martha had been supporting for lunches for children in Malawi and Kenya from £7,000 to £110,000. That does seem like a victory. Plus it appears that the Argyll and Bute school dinners might now actually be getting a much-needed injection of green vegetables and fresh fruit. Perhaps that’s a win-win for hashtag activism after all.—TAMARA GLENNY