It’s not unusual for us to hear disdain for the ‘Keyboard Warriors’; the sadsacks whose ‘Hashtag Activism’ is useless, inconsequential, or just an exercise in personal vanity. We’re told the idea that social media could be used to orchestrate real change is worthy of scorn or dismissal, and that politics is only ‘worthy’ if you’re passing bills through parliament. At the very least, if you’re writing to your MP or marching on the streets.
Frankly, this is bollocks.
Partly, it’s an incredibly elitist view to take; if you are from any kind of minority or oppressed group, you can more or less guarantee that your identity is not well represented in government or in political journalism. The UK Parliament, for example, has more men MPs currently than it has ever had women, and the vast majority of newspapers are edited by men (a report from 2012 shows just one woman as Editor in Chief of a National.) Even in the lefty-favourite Guardian, an enormous 72% of by-lines go to men.
Media Diversified also notes that “in 2009, across the UK, 6.7% of people working in the media were from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. Back then this was already under the 9% national figure of BAME people of working age in the UK, but by 2012 that figure had dropped to just 5.4%”
Through traditional channels, women’s voices are not being heard, and BAME voices are actually falling. But blogging is changing the way in which we consume media, and social media provides unprecedented opportunity for oppressed groups to gain a platform. This isn’t inconsequential. This is revolutionary.
Too, if you are a Person of Colour (POC), taking your political activism to the street carries with it the risk of arrest, police brutality and with tragic frequency, murder – a risk that vastly eclipses that of white people. To demand that POC who favour online activism ought to literally risk their lives to do politics ‘properly’, or fail to be taken seriously, is blindingly misguided.
In 2015, it’s farcical to pretend that our lives online are not ‘real life.’ The Everyday Sexism Project has mobilised hundreds of thousands to come forward with their stories of the daily harassment they face, and yes, it has even changed policy. It was through Everyday Sexism that Project Guardian was launched, and 2,000 members of the British Transport Police were retrained on acting on sexual harassment and assault on public transport. A new study shows that the catharsis of sharing experiences of sexism online in itself improves the well-being of women.
Hashtags like #YouOkSis, #BlackLivesMatter and #WhyIStayed proved their ability to communicate ideas widely, and from a grass-roots perspective. They give the mainstream media a nudge when it fails; there was barely a whisper about the mass abduction of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram in the Western press, until #BringBackOurGirls asked why.
Of course there are immense issues when politics is taken to Twitter; the problem with allowing everyone a platform is that the racists, misogynists and fascists can also disseminate harmful ideas widely, and the ease with which an individual can be subjected to a vile mob of hatred through the internet is astounding. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo himself recently said he was ‘frankly ashamed‘ of how poorly the social network responds to abuse and trolling.
But when used for good, ‘Hashtag Activism’ forms communities, provides relief, and diversifies the sources of our information invaluably. It is a highly valuable tool, and it does incite change – it works.