The Pros and Cons of Hashtag Activism

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March 26, 2012; Source: New York Times

In this thoughtful article in the New York Times business section, David Carr considers the relative importance of collective online activism. He starts by discussing the fact that, in terms of effort, the act of signing an online petition is much like a favorable vote for this season’s first episode of “Mad Men,” but, he observes, this has not stopped online campaigns on social issues from being effective, although maybe not across the board.

For instance, Carr was in Moscow during the Russian presidential vote and was with Aleksei Navalny, an anti-government Russian blogger, on election night. Hopeful and interested media “swirled around” Navalny, says Carr. But by the next day Navalny was in police custody and Putin had been re-elected. Comments Carr, “Social media activism may prove to be a durable force in Russian politics, but in these early days it is no match for offline might.”

Still, Carr is mindful of the waves of collective online action on such issues as Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s now-rescinded decision to remove Planned Parenthood funding, the “Kony 2012” video campaign, digital SOPA and PIPA protests, and now the online backlash regarding the forthcoming movie “Bully.” Carr has some reservations about the latter. The movie was rated “R” but that would likely cause it to be less accessible to those for whom it might be most relevant: teens. In fact, more than 460,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the rating be changed. While Carr raises some concerns about the possibility that filmmaker Harvey Weinstein might have courted the controversy as publicity, it looks like the rating may in fact be changed.

The article concludes on a positive note:

“Many of the folks who made the unpopular decision at Komen are gone and the policy has been amended. Trayvon Martin’s death is under investigation and the president is now weighing in directly. And who knows, perhaps the Web-enabled sunlight on Joseph Kony will end with him being brought to justice, finally.

Sure, hashtags come and go, and the so-called weak ties of digital movements are no match for real world engagement. But they are not only better than nothing, they probably make the world, the one beyond the keyboard, a better place.” –Ruth McCambridge