A picture tweeted from Matisyahu’s Twitter feed
In writing about the decision to adapt #BringBackOurBoys as the virtual call to action for the three kidnapped Israeli students — Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frankel — Sigal Samuel expresses her regret that the hashtag appropriates the call to action for the 200 Nigerian school girls captured by Boko Haram.
While I do not know Samuel personally, her presence online has struck me as one of a person with at least her fair share of Internet savvy.
When searching for a hashtag, those activists looking to raise awareness for the three captured teens must have found the current hashtag had a lot to offer: It has instant recall in the mind of the public, playing off of a rallying call we are already familiar with, and is helped with an extra dose of alliteration to boot.
What’s more, to those creating the hashtag at least, the comparison of kidnapping students by a terrorist group seemed to be a common theme between the two hashtags.
One must ask Samuel, aren’t cross-appropriation and meta-reference the lifeblood of any meme?
What’s more, are we playing some game of tit-for-tat over human suffering and terror?
When “Never Forget” became the rallying cry after September 11, did it take away from the cry to “Never Forget” the Holocaust? (A cry, I must add, that only grows in need with each succeeding year.) As friend of mine put it, we’re debating “the pathetic problems of the privileged: How to brand suffering.”
I spend my entire day immersed in the ether of social media. At times I believe that if I were to shut my eyes, hashtags and trending topics would continue to stream past my eyelids like numbers on a slot machine.
Memes and hashtags come and go, and in all honesty, when #BringBackOurBoys started trending, I did groan inwardly at the seemingly inane repetition but I did also think back to the girls in Nigeria for the first time in several weeks. I tweeted and retweeted…and then I went to get another cup of coffee.
And therein lies the real danger that Samuel seemingly missed.
The danger in appropriating the #BringBack hashtag is not that it takes away from the girls held captive in Nigeria, it’s that it lulls us into thinking we’re actually doing something. #BringBackOurGirls may have garnered positive media coverage for the plight of the 200 girls, but it has not set them free, and #BringBackOurBoys will do no more for the three students.
These are, you know, just hashtags. A series of characters shared online, as much for the excitement of feeling like part of a movement or a cause as for any actual true calling. On the Internet everyone wants to feel like the voice of his or her generation, the hardened reporter with a press card in the band of his fedora and cigarette pressed between his lips as he frantically types out his latest report to send to the newsroom.
That does not mean that I am despondent of the Internet’s power to effect change. Rather, it is the voice and message behind the hashtag, the call to action that galvanizes me to do something, that has true power: a power that is not diluted by the actions of others, but rather grows as we fight for a common cause of justice and peace.
Mordechai Lightstone is a rabbi by training, a director of digital communications by profession but a blogger by choice. He can be reached on Twitter @Mottel