#JeSuisCharlie: What does Twitter activism accomplish?

In the wake of the terrorist attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Twitter responds with the #JeSuisCharlie solidarity hashtag. Is it doomed to the short lifespan of previous activism hashtags?

Michel Euler/AP/File
Stéphane Charbonnier, also known as Charb, the publishing director of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris in September 2012.

As usual, when tragedy strikes Twitter rises up in response. Within hours of the Islamic terrorists’ attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris Wednesday, the solidarity hashtag #JeSuisCharlie – “I am Charlie” – was trending worldwide.

The tweets generally fall into three categories.

First, those in solidarity, offering their sympathies and prayers for the families of the victims. 

Second, those fighting for freedom of speech and quoting that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

The majority of the twitter conversation is within these two categories. But a third, smaller, category was spawned by those who are see the shooting as an opportunity to attack Islam for the actions of three individuals.

Twitter often breaks down this way: the heartfelt sympathizers, the outraged lesson finders, and the gratuitous finger pointers.

However, in this case there is also a small but vocal group of commentators who were showing their support for the terrorists, including a few users calling for further terrorist action.

But there are also more fruitful conversations arising from this.

Once again, Muslims are speaking out against the actions of the terrorists so as not to be grouped in with their violence simply because of shared religious beliefs. 

The satirical nature of the Charlie Hebdo calls for the reiteration that freedom of speech always applicable – even when it is offensive. Islamic activist Anjem Choudary repeatedly made the point that Charlie Hebdo’s content was in poor taste and offensive, only to be given a lesson in freedom of speech by Brad Thor.

Of course, Twitter activism is often fleeting. Even powerful hashtags are often forgotten, regardless of whether the goal was achieved or not. Not long ago, Michelle Obama started the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag and the rest of the world followed with gusto. Yet the girls still have not been recovered from the Boko Haram militants and public outrage has dropped to a largely unnoticeable murmur.

#WeAreN sprung up when the Islamic State began marking Iraqi Christians’ door’s with the Arabic letter “n,” meaning Nazarene, to single them for execution unless they converted to Islam or paid an additional tax, or left the country. Like so many other hashtags, it flared up as quickly as it died down despite a lack of true progress.

“I don’t know that [#WeAreN] has done anything except make people feel like they are doing something when they are doing nothing at all. Until this energy translates into real dollars... until it makes a difference in the lives of my friends on the ground, I’m not all that interested in measuring that,” creator of the #WeAreN hashtag Jeremy Courtney told Religious News Service.

There are instances where activism hashtags have been successful. For example, #I’llRideWithYou, which was aiming to protect Muslims after the Australian hostage crisis this past December by offering to ride with Muslim people on public transit to protect them from derogatory comments. The difference between this hashtag and others being that wasn’t simply an arbitrary show of support, but a promise of personal action.

The main virtue and flaw of a Twitter hashtags is that they are succinct (and sometimes sensational). They may capture a sentiment or bring attention to an issue, but the rest requires more than just a tweet.

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