Actions Speak Louder Than Hashtags

Every so often, the carefully curated microcosms of our social media feeds become saturated with series of posts that seem utterly bizarre without context. In 2010, girls updated their Facebook statuses with seemingly random colors for breast cancer awareness. In September, scores of cartoon characters populated Instagram for Child Cancer Awareness Week. And most recently, pictures of safety pins stuck to breast pockets, sweaters, and lanyards popped up all over the internet.

After a bit of research, I learned that the safety pins were worn by white Americans in an effort to show their allyship with the marginalized who would be most negatively affected by Donald Trump’s presidency. With a cursory evaluation, one may characterize this campaign as harmless, even beneficent, but the real intentions behind this movement reveal a pervasive problem with modern activism, frequently seen in such “solidarity” and “awareness” crusades.

By posting thousands of pictures of neat little safety pins under #safetypinmovement, some white people feel better about themselves, announcing that they are not one of those “white racists” who elected Trump. But other than attract an audience of at least a couple hundred followers, these posts do little to actually support or comfort marginalized groups. In fact, such posts are mostly unproductive, serving simply to show that some white people “get it” and allowing them to avoid having actual discussions about sometimes uncomfortable subjects.

Other examples of problematic social media campaigns include the #nomakeupselfie for cancer research, Australia’s #illridewithyou for solidarity with Muslims, and various Facebook profile picture filters for tragedies and awareness days. With each of these movements, the poster is often benefited more than the people they wish to support. In 2014, a digital activism survey found that 64 percent of Americans surveyed said they would be more likely to volunteer, donate, or share information after interacting with a nonprofit or charity organization online, but fewer than 35 percent actually did.

By no means am I condemning the use of the internet as a vehicle for change. In fact, huge ground was made by social media campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which made over 115 million dollars to fund the discovery of the NEK1 gene — the gene partially responsible for the disease. I admit that sometimes a hashtag offers space to start discussing an issue, or alter social norms and change behavior.

In fact, Andover students have done an excellent job using effective social media strategies to achieve real world influence, with campaigns such as “Feminism=Equality” and “I, Too, Am Andover.” As our society evolves and social media becomes a larger part of our everyday lives, online activism is becoming one of the most productive manners of organizing fundraising, rallying voices, planning events, and authoring petitions. We should continue to utilize every outlet we can possibly employ to push for advancements in social reform. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds; it starts with “hashtag activists” putting their money and time where their mouth is.

After updating your Facebook profile picture for World Autism Awareness Day, make a donation to the Autism Coalition for Research and Education. Volunteer for the Abilities Network after posting that picture of your safety pin, and make sure you find a way to actually make a difference in the lives of those who may be negatively affected by Trump’s presidency. Use your privilege to assist marginalized movements campaigning for changes in existing legislation or broaden your exposure to underrepresented voices in popular culture and academic literature. These internet trends can be tools for change if used properly and as stepping stones  towards real change.