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Ferguson Spurs Hashtag Activism

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Social media reacts to the killing of Michael Brown.

The ubiquity of social media and in particular, Twitter, has spawned hashtag activism which possesses both strong drawbacks and merits. On the one hand, online outrage is easy and the impact is iffy (often referred to as ‘slacktivism’). Take the #BringBackOurGirls campaign which focused on the abduction of over 250 girls in Nigeria and gathered over a million tweets, but failed in sustaining interest and ultimately helping any of the girls actually be found.

On the other hand, social media sites provide a space for voices to be heard and are increasingly a source for real-time news and information. The recent killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, illustrates the ways social media can be harnessed to bring awareness and counter mainstream media's stories. In addition to basic hashtags like #Ferguson which spread across the world, three hashtag campaigns have brought increased attention to the situation. The first that emerged was #HandsUpDontShoot which gained a following particularly on college campuses after a Howard University student photographed a large group of students with their hands up and tweeted it out. The hashtag became a protest chant and a number of photos from Ferguson emerged showing protesters with their hands up, often in the face of a highly militarized police force or in the midst of tear gas.

The second in the trend, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, takes aim at how Brown has been portrayed in the media, in particular critiquing the images of Brown that outlets have chosen to show. It also points out that a single image, used to epitomize someone’s life probably doesn’t tell the whole story of their identity and lifestyle, accomplishments, and failures. Twitter users have responded by posting contrasting photos of themselves. For instance, one tweet shows a girl flipping off the camera right beside a photo of her at graduation followed by the question: Which picture of me would be on the news?

The most recent campaign also calls out the media. #NoAngel was started in response to a New York Times article that profiled Brown, saying that he had used drugs and alcohol, talked back, and that the suburb where he lived had some rough areas. The author remarks that Brown “was no angel.” The Twitter backlash quickly ensued with users tweeting out admissions of what made them #NoAngel, stories like sneaking out at night as a teenager or listening to offensive music. The Times’ public editor has since written a piece saying, “That choice of words was a regrettable mistake.”

The reason this sort of hashtag activism is important is because it represents the creation of an online collective identity and creates awareness and solidarity. It also has the potential to start meaningful conversations, with angles that the media often misses or ignores. Of course to be most effective, the ideas and actions spurred by social media also have to be acted on away from the computer (or phone) screen— and for longer than the hashtag trends on Twitter.

Photo by Light Brigading, licensed under Creative Commons.