Viral Justice

STJfvaeEIf you’ve been pretty much anywhere on the internet in the past week or two, then you’ve probably seen something about the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, or the similarly significant #RealMenDontBuyGirls. Maybe you’ve read about how Ann Coulter tried to troll the former hashtag but failed, or how the latter was really a campaign started by Ashton Kutcher years ago. Maybe you’ve even read a little bit about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, or learned something new about human trafficking.

What I haven’t seen out there is anything questioning whether or not this is the best way to go about bringing back these girls or preventing men from buying them. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong to use these hashtags or that people shouldn’t do it – I’m just kind of amazed how everyone seems to be using them, without question (except Ann Coulter, but that’s different). And yeah, I’m a little skeptical. If you visit my Twitter page, you’ll see that I haven’t used either of these hashtags, even though I fully support everything they stand for.

I guess I’m processing this a little bit – that is, the role that social media plays in solving deeply nuanced problems of justice. I like to call what’s taken place over the past couple over the past couple of weeks “viral justice.” Here, a significant social problem has gone viral the same way that a meme or a video of a funny cat might. This isn’t the first time that this has happened, and I think the assumption is that taking to social media to write about (or, hashtag about – is hashtag even a verb? Did I just make it one?) social justice will raise awareness of issues and ultimately help in solving them. Last year I attended The Justice Conference here in Philly, and there were multiple seminars about how nonprofits and activists can use Twitter in their efforts. So this is serious business, and now is as good a time as any for me to think through this a little bit, and what it means for us as individuals and a society. For the sake of organization, I’ve made a pro-con list (classic).

Things that are great about this kind of viral justice:

It’s raising awareness of huge social problems. Through this crisis in Nigeria and the resurfacing of the #RealMenDontBuyGirls campaign, I hope that tens of thousands of people now know a little more about human trafficking – namely, that it exists, and it exists everywhere. I don’t think I knew about this issue until I got to college, and even then it was only because I attended a school that cares a ton about justice issues. For those that aren’t in the loop about such problems, I hope Twitter and all this media hype is shedding some light on one of the world’s darkest secrets.

It’s bringing people together in an unprecedented way. Leave it to social media to shrink our big, diverse world. It seems like every decent person with access to a smartphone is demanding that Boko Haram #BringBackOurGirls, regardless of where they’re from, who they pray to, and how much power they have. I can’t think of another time – a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a global crisis – where this many people have united so smoothly, with hardly any controversy or debate. I love that celebrities, politicians, and normal people all over the world have a way to come together during this sad and scary time. It demonstrates that at the end of the day, we’re all ontologically good and want good things for our world.

Things that make me second guess this kind of viral justice:

Is it really activism? Maybe this is what justice-work looks like in 2014, but I’m not convinced that using a particular hashtag will convince terrorists to release their victims, or world leaders to go after those terrorists (but if it does – wonderful!). And – here’s a predictable critique – it’s really easy to press “send” on a tweet when the people who are really suffering here are on the other side of the world. I don’t know what better or more tangible activism would look like here – I’m not about to go after Boko Haram myself, so maybe tweeting is better than nothing.

What about all those other justice issues that don’t go viral? To be sure, 276 kidnapped children is a really big deal, and this justice issue should probably get a little bit more media attention than others, at least for now. But aside from this, it seems like certain issues of justice have a fad-like appeal to them – they become trendy, or in season. When they’re no longer trendy, it’s rarely because the issue just went away. And in the meantime, what about all of the other problems that are happening in this broken world?

Is social media distracting us from empathy? 276 kidnaped children are in the hands of terrorists – some, if not all of them (God forbid), have probably been sold as sex slaves. How should one react to this chilling fact, and the kind of evil underlying it? It’s really easy to post a (public) tweet or status rallying folks to #BringBackOurGirls and then move on with our days, without much thought or empathy. But 276 children are missing, and we should be mourning, praying, and feebly trying to imagine what they and their families are going through. We can’t fight terrorists, but we can empathize with victims and try to recognize evil for what it really is. And we should let this – the brokenness of our world – affect us deeply, in a way that a hashtag doesn’t satisfy.

So, I’m leaning towards thinking that tweeting about social justice issues might not be the best way to solve them. But if everyone’s going to do it anyway, then I sincerely hope that something good becomes of it. Maybe I’ll even join them. Whatever it takes to #BringBackOurGirls.