Changing the World One Hashtag at a Time

13/05/2014 16:59 BST | Updated 13/07/2014 10:59 BST

Whether you've Instagrammed a #nomakeupselfie, Tweeted #bringbackourgirls or mourned for the #missingplane, no doubt you've felt a small sense of satisfaction in advancing a worthy cause. You've 'raised awareness' in trending a particular issue that has fleetingly grasped the attention of the public and now you can happily put the kettle on, get on with your day and avoid the pang of guilt that gnaws away at Western civilisation every time we confront a news flash of war-torn Syria, terror-struck Nigeria or the turbulent Ukraine.

But the danger of the hashtag is the accompanying sense that the hashtagger has 'done their bit' in a humanitarian crisis. No need to submit a monetary donation, volunteer for a charity or arrange a fundraiser like the good old days; the beauty of social media means that you just have to press a key and you've made somebody's life that little bit better.

But have you? Certainly social media has its benefits. Raising awareness to an issue is instrumentally important; new outlets pounce on Twitter trends and gear their stories to what they understand to be the most compelling topics of the time. This accumulation of press coverage could ultimately lead to what is commonly known as the 'CNN Effect'; studies have shown that mass media has the power to set the agenda at policy level. It's easy for politicians to ramp up their approval ratings by latching onto a public concern 'gone viral' and attempting to at least be seen to do something about it. It is no mistake that 25 countries joined the hunt for the #missingplane, or that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry vowed to take up his pitchfork and #bringbackourgirls. Kidnappings and other atrocities have been rampant in Nigeria for years thanks to the extremist group Boko Haram, but it's tricky to capture pervasive and deep-rooted cultural unrest in a hashtag.

We must concede, of course, that our aim is ultimately political, otherwise all we are doing is raising awareness for awareness's sake. This would imply a grotesque fetishism with the sufferings of others, akin to the public obsession with celebrity news which seeps from the right hand side of the Daily Mail online onto millions of Facebook pages. No, we must concede - for dignity's sake if nothing else - that the hashtag has a political motive.

But the irony is, by satisfying ourselves that a hashtag is enough activism for one day, what can we expect from the politicians we are supposedly trying to coerce? We criticise our government, foreign governments and the United Nations for being all talk and no action. US president Barack Obama has been denounced for his false promise to close Guantanamo Bay and the legal vacuum that his predecessor created with it. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has been despised for promising an easier ride for students before backing the Conservatives' decision to triple university fees. Prime minister David Cameron has been laughed at for announcing that he would end the human rights violations in Syria, only to be outvoted by his own Parliament. But if a hashtag is enough for us voters, we can hardly criticise our leaders for settling for empty speeches.

There can only be two possible reasons for the rise of hashtag activism. Either we don't care about these issues enough and are thus too lazy to take 'real action', opting instead to make a visible stand just so our friends know we read the news. Or we truly believe that a hashtag can change the world. If the former, we are no better than the politicians we are half-heartedly criticising. If the latter, we can log off, get dressed for work and rest assured that Boko Haram are checking their Twitter feed and feeling suitably ashamed of themselves.