Don’t mistake hashtags for activism

In her Dartmouth College commencement address, television writer and “Grey’s Anatomy” producer Shonda Rhimes had one important message for the graduating class of 2014: “Don’t be an a——.”

Taking some time on the podium to ask the graduates to meditate on the experiences they had during their time at Dartmouth and to understand the privileges they have as graduates of an Ivy League institution, Rhimes urged the students to contribute to at least one cause. Her advice was accompanied by one stipulation: a hashtag doesn’t count.

In the world of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, the hashtag has become a sacred emblem of Internet pseudo-activists, also known as “slacktivists,” with trending hashtags such as #yesallwomen, #notallmen, #takebackthenight, #bringbackourgirls, and the dated, but infamous #kony2012. 

Earlier this year, dozens of Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped in the middle of the night by the Boko Haram militants opposing education for women. Celebrities including Alicia Keys, Amy Poehler and Ellen DeGeneres took to social media donning somber faces and holding signs reading “#bringbackourgirls.”

This recent incident illustrates the nature of Internet activism: everyone is now thinking about the issue, but few are willing to do more than post a sulking selfie and slap a hashtag on it. 

Hashtags are not the only form of slacktivism taking over the Internet. People can now retweet, reblog, share and like charities and causes they do nothing to support. However, it makes them appear as though they are informed, engaged and want all of their friends to know about global issues.

Of course, hashtag activism may not be monetarily progressive for a movement, but it can have psychological benefits that can lead to world-changing action. Artist and writer An Xiao Mina recently explained at the Personal Democracy Forum, a conference about technology’s effect on politics, that this sort of activism is beneficial to building a stronger community and providing “emotional fuel.” 

Though it is possible this fuel can cause social change to occur over time and with enough exposure, Internet activism has been known to spread ignorance and incorrect information to the masses creating more harm than good. 

For instance, a pivotal moment in the existence of slacktivism occurred in March 2012 with the release of a video titled, “Kony 2012,” created by Invisible Children, a social activism group that attempted to raise awareness of the acts of war criminal Joseph Kony against Ugandan children. 

Social media activists quickly took to the Internet to raise awareness for a cause they were blindly supporting. 

Days after the release of “Kony 2012,” Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire stated on Al Jazeera’s “The Stream,” the video simplified the situation in Uganda, explaining the war was much more intricate than Kony and was initially more “about resources and about marginalization of people in northern Uganda.”

Walking around town, one is likely to see faded red stickers urging “STOP KONY,” an antiquated emblem of ignorance, most likely adhered to a lamppost by someone whose efforts ended there. 

So when Rhimes asks Dartmouth graduates not to “be an a——,” she’s asking them to do more for the world — to commit time, efforts and resources to a cause that will be beneficial to the future. Those who have the ability to receive an education and hold opportunities for success need to support those who don’t. 


Brandon Shaik is a senior majoring in psychology.