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May 9, 2014

Is hashtag activism better than doing nothing? Or about the same?

More than 1 million people — including first lady Michelle Obama — have tweeted the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. But whether they're helping the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria or hopping on some kind of first-world digital bandwagon depends, frankly, on whom you ask.

We've heard this debate before — first over "slacktivism" in the '90s, then over "clicktivism" in the aughts. "Hashtag activism," a term apparently coined around Occupy Wall Street, is just the latest iteration of a long-standing debate between people who think "awareness" is its own kind of protest and people who, for various reasons, do not.

The case of the Nigerian schoolgirls, abducted by a militant Islamist group in northeastern Nigeria three weeks ago, is perhaps particularly instructive. The girls — who militants have said will be sold into slavery — earned little attention outside of the country or from the Nigerian government until supporters took to Twitter to demand their safe return.

That seems like a pretty uncontroversial demand — who doesn't want the Nigerian schoolgirls brought back home? — but it hasn't sat well with everyone. The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole went on a sort of Twitter rant against #BringBackOurGirls, arguing that the recent spate of Internet interest has not only oversimplified and sentimentalized the country's issues, but failed to achieve anything. "For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing," he said as part of his statement.

Of course, critics of lazy or "slacker" activism love to blame its existence on the Internet — as if signing petitions or sending postcards to Congress wasn't equally passive (and, in many cases, equally pointless). It's difficult to pin down exactly when the preferred form of slacktivism switched from analog to digital, but the change appears to have happened in the past three years. In 2007, Twitter users began unofficially organizing groups and conversations around hashtags; in 2009, just in time for the election protests in Iran, the network had adopted them officially. By 2011, references to "hashtag activism" — most of them negative — began popping up in the media, always in connection to Occupy Wall Street.

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