“Hashtag Activism” or Hashtag “Activism”?

I was vaguely aware of the little #CancelColbert Twitter tempest-in-a-teapot. Sorry, should I say #TwitterTeapotTempest?  Apparently while mocking Dan Snyder’s miserable efforts to make “Washington Redskins” socially acceptable, Colbert (in character) used some words that annoyed some people.  So a young “hashtag activist” struck out to #CancelColbert.  She obviously didn’t succeed in anything but getting some people riled up and earning herself some marvelous publicity.  Which kudos to her, I suppose.  No such thing as bad (free) press.

I’ve never understood the intended mechanism of action for “hashtag activism”.  By this I mean the use of social media to rally around some sort of sentiment and then…what?  In this case, it consisted of one “activist” grabbing a lot more followers and some headlines for herself.  As far as I understand, the implicit model for this tactic is:

  1. Make provocative statements and hit Twitter’s trending list
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

The aim certainly can’t be to change minds, because Twitter is mainly used for communicating with pre-existing ideological communities.  It can’t be to spread awareness generally, for the same reason.  It could plausibly be defended as a method for ideological activation or to increase issue salience in order to drive real actions.  But in order for that the plausible mechanism of political change, a furious Twitter campaign needs to be followed up by…actions.  Organizing a boycott of Colbert’s advertisers, for example.  But this wasn’t happening because said activist’s goal wasn’t even to get Colbert canceled.  The hope was to “start a conversation”, which inevitably centered around the messenger rather than…well, I’m not sure what the message was.

I admire our valiant hero’s gumption, but this is a pretty silly mental model of political change.  It reminds me of Corrine McConnaughy’s article from the Monkey Cage a few days ago asking us to forget Susan B. Anthony.  The reason is that idealizing Ms. Anthony ignores the what actually made change happen in America – the boring and dull work of partisan competition, angling for advantage, and picking tactical fights.  The women who picked up her cause organized pressure campaigns, corralled voters, traded horses, rolled logs, worked the streets and most importantly built institutions for sustained political movement.

Finally, the New Yorker article I cite up top includes the absolutely infuriating phrase “after speaking to [our hero] about what she hoped to accomplish with all this (a paternalistic question if there ever was one)…”.  That’s not a paternalistic question, it’s a reasonable adult one.  I hope the activists that represent my political ideals are actually trying to accomplish things, especially when deciding where to donate my time or money.  The idea that we should ask the partisans of our cause what they hope to accomplish seems like a basic question, one which all activists be able to answer.


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