The Blog

Will Social Media Activism #FreeGaza or #BringBackOurGirls?

Is public engagement on social networks, and the gathered momentum produced in involving oneself with social media campaigns enough to bring about change? Can we expect a brief flirtation with a trending hash tag or a concerted online debate with others to bring about seismic change?

It has been over 7 weeks since three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank, the tragic preliminary to nearly 2 months of unrelenting violence, death and destruction in Gaza. As of yet, there appears little to suggest that a resolution is in sight, with Israeli President Netanyahu stating on Saturday that operations will continue in Gaza, even after the documented Hamas tunnel systems have been destroyed: the cyclical pattern of this deadly historical conflict has reared its ugly head again in 2014.

Despite the nature of this long, drawn-out conflict operating upon a set of similar recurrences throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the way in which such conflicts are perceived and reacted towards by the international community has changed irrevocably with the utilisation of social media. Facebook and (perhaps even more prominently) Twitter have become the dominant tools for observing, disseminating and reacting to major global issues as they unfold, whilst online news sites use live blog updates that seek to harness live tweets and other sources of news to fully immerse online users with breaking news. Whilst these social network and media platforms have been around for a decade now, the full effect of their usage has been felt most explicitly within the last 2 to 3 years. Increasing computer literacy and integration of social media functions within mobile technology has led to both platforms being fully embraced by a wide range of the global demographic within this time period; the two boast a combined total of around 1.5 billion monthly active users, with 78% of these using mobile apps to connect to these social networks.

From this unparalleled level of communication and global interaction has spawned a whole host of social media campaigns over the last few years that focused on issues of international interest and concern; the hash tag has become the mighty conductor around which public campaigns grow. Trending movements such as #Kony2012, #BringBackOurGirls and #FreeGaza have all illustrated the tremendous power for social media to galvanise and pressurise the international community to sit up and take notice, if nothing else. Moreover, there is a sense of a tangible, recorded history of discussion and debate that enhances the importance and relevance of these issues: No longer will news about wars, corruption, tyrannical governments or the plight of citizens be consumed passively watching the 10 o'clock news or reading the morning paper, but openly dissected, deconstructed and reconstructed by the people. This can be seen in the maintained focus and discussion surrounding the conflict in Gaza within the online community.

Yet is public engagement on social networks, and the gathered momentum produced in involving oneself with social media campaigns enough to bring about change? Can we expect a brief flirtation with a trending hash tag or a concerted online debate with others to bring about seismic change? I was reminded only recently of the potential shortcomings of this medium of expression upon hearing Theresa Lola's sobering spoken word piece 'Bring Back Our Girls', lamenting the plight of those 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria only 4 months ago.

"I am reminded that the youngest girl was about nine, who will be sold into the hands of a man that will teach her that love is born out of hate, or that bondage is power, or that her beauty is measured by a ransom of money from rich men or that religion can be found in the mouth of a gun, or that freedom is also a synonym for slavery, or that tears are simply a drop of water that have no meaning."

It is a tragedy that sparked international outrage, condemnation and a tremendous reaction from ordinary people all around the world. The words #BringBackOurGirls touched upon the desperation and hugely emotive concept of young innocent life corrupted by deep-rooted sectarian ideology, and in doing so pushed the onus onto those with operational power and resources to instigate a resolution, culminating in some foreign assistance including the passing of an EU resolution calling for "immediate and unconditional release" of the schoolgirls. Yet we are still waiting for signs of a significant cohesive effort to translate this pressure into results.

Perhaps the most ominous example can be found in the long forgotten #StopKony campaign in 2012, which exploded overnight and fizzled out a few weeks later. A viral campaign spawned from a video which garnered close to 100 million views, the core idea of the movement (to stop Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony) falling into the shadows of its seemingly crazed creator Jason Russell, who was infamously seen roaming the streets drunk in public and masturbating.

Theresa's poem reflects the difficulties of a society that believes social media activism is the endpoint to the act of protest. KONY 2012 began with the words 'Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come', yet as Russell discovered, this is only a half-truth, for an idea is only as powerful as its execution. People care deeply about the slaughtering of people in Gaza or the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, but we are misguided in thinking that a few taps on the keyboard represent the full gamut of our power as individuals. A clever marketing campaign by Unicef sums up the sentiment perfectly:

Social media campaigns have illuminated the potential of collective protest, yet it must be developed into further acts of protest, be it public marches, boycotting and divestment, and direct communication with local politicians and people at the heart of public consciousness. In failing to do so, we may see much more suffering slip into the shadows of cyberspace.

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