Why #I'llRideWithYou worked, and other Muslim hashtags didn't

The Australian hostage crisis spawned the hashtag #illridewithyou. What made this pro-Muslim Twitter campaign successful?

REUTERS/David Gray
Muslim girls and their teacher attend a class about the acceptance of different faiths in Australian culture at Risallah College Primary School in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba in 2005.

From #BringBackOurGirls to #NotInMyName to #illridewithyou, it's been a year of global political activism on Twitter.

More than four million people, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousufzai, and comedian Amy Poehler, have used the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag since the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from their school.

More than 20,000 people have tweeted using the #NotInMyName hashtag to denounce the terror group Islamic State.

And after a Muslim gunman seized a Sydney cafe, sparking fears of a anti-Muslim backlash, the hashtag #I'llRideWithYou was started. As the Monitor reported, the hashtag began with a Facebook post by Aussie Rachel Jacobs, who said a Muslim woman sitting next to her on a train in Sydney had quietly taken off her headscarf.

"I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with u',” Ms. Jacobs wrote on Facebook. “She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute.

Jacobs post was followed by a tweet from Sydney TV content editor Tessa Kum.

The hashtag #illridewithyou quickly went viral, generating 40,000 tweets in just two hours and more than 170,000 worldwide.

But for all the trending hashtags and media attention, do political Twitter campaigns actually work?

Critics are quick to point out the flaws.

"A viral hashtag, it seems, is a fever that breaks quickly," wrote the New Yorker's Naunihal Singh in a piece about the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. That campaign - once a cause célèbre that caught the attention of millions of world citizens, celebrities, and politicians, and the global media – has now been all but forgotten. And more importantly, the kidnapped schoolgirls remain in captivity, evidence of a failed campaign for some.

Ditto #NotInMyName. It's hard to see how the Twitter campaign against the Islamic State redefining Islam accomplished much, especially in the face of the media attention garnered by beheading captives. Both ISIS and Boko Haram have reportedly mocked the Twitter campaigns.

Certainly, broad global political goals are difficult to achieve in 140 characters, especially when the only people who see tweets are personal followers who already tend to share your views.

Which is why the practice has been dubbed "slacktivism," a lazy, less effective form of digital activism.

But Twitter campaigns can be effective in some ways.

“Hashtags are temporary, but knowledge is not temporary," Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian activist and a co-creator of #TakeOnHate told the Religion News Service. "Once you learn something, you won’t forget you had that experience, that conversation. And you don’t have to wait for national TV to call to get your message out."

The key to an effective Twitter campaign, according to some commentators, is targeting the right goal: Raising awareness, cultivating solidarity, and urging specific action.

The #illridewithyou campaign did all three. It raised awareness of anti-Muslim backlash fears by narrating an authentic heartfelt story; it cultivated solidarity by offering genuine, sincere support; and perhaps most importantly, it urged very specific, attainable action – offers to ride with any Muslims who worried about being targeted for their faith as a result of the hostage crisis.

In another example, Walmart was forced to pull a "scary Muslim" costume featuring a shaggy gray beard, skullcap, and South Asian garb after Twitter users slammed the retailer on social media.

Whether it's a "scary Muslim" costume or fears of an anti-Muslim backlash, the key to an effective Twitter campaign is to "pinpoint an exact target, reach people with the power to make change, and tell them exactly what you want," reports the RNS.

As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told the RNS, “Attention has never been powerless."

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