Comedy Central

This hashtag kills fascists: Does social media activism actually work?

Analysis: A tone-deaf joke from ‘The Colbert Report’ and the backlash against it show the pitfalls of Twitter activism

"I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever," read a tweet from “The Colbert Report” last Thursday — in what New Yorker magazine commentator Jay Caspian Kang called a “comedic sin of delivering a punch line without its setup.”

The setup, of course, had been the previous night’s show, during which Colbert had pilloried Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder over his plan to undercut criticism of the team’s name by founding an organization for the uplift of "original Americans." Colbert, in his über-conservative TV persona, referenced an earlier episode in which he’d been captured portraying a racist Asian caricature (Ching Chong Ding-Dong, from Guangdong), then not understanding why it was racist.

But the show’s tone-deaf tweet drew the ire of a 23-year-old freelance writer and hashtag activist named Suey Park. Park had gained prominence last year with the #NotYourAsianSidekick Twitter campaign designed to critique the portrayal of Asian-American women in popular culture; that hashtag garnered more than 50,000 mentions and spread to more than 60 countries.

“I used to respect and enjoy your work, @ColbertReport. F--- you,” she wrote on Twitter. “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.” Since last week, nearly 100,000 tweets have been sent with the #CancelColbert tag. Comedy Central and Colbert delivered an awkward response, and the comedian then went on to issue a sort-of apology on his show on Monday night. Mission accomplished, Park — out of a botched joke came a conversation about racial humor and hashtag activism. For any aspiring activist or advocate, the Colbert flap provides an illuminating crash course in such an endeavor.

How effective is this form of activism? Despite social media’s offering a low-cost means to share information, to organize like-minded people across vast geographical distances and to form powerful bonds among people who have never met in the physical world, some scholars and writers suggest that Twitter activism actually poses significant problems for collective action.

“The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker in 2010. “It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Casting Twitter as a catalyst for social and political revolution is a techno-utopian pipe dream, Gladwell warned. “You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and — in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need — spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.”

The outbreak of widespread protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria a few months after that article’s publication seemed to rebuke Gladwell’s skepticism and belief that the world of retweeting and liking can’t forge social forces capable of effecting real change. “Who says online social networks can't have leadership, strategy and clear lines of authority?” wrote Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic. “Even if we said that no current effort rises to the level of a sit-in, I wouldn't bet against powerful movements developing through social media over the next decade.”

Who says online social networks can’t have leadership, strategy and clear lines of authority?

Alexis Madrigal

The Atlantic

Park's hashtag activism represents the style of modern social media organizing that Gladwell couldn’t envision in 2010. Recent research by University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci suggests that  “networked microcelebrity activism” — that is, “politically motivated non-institutional actors who use affordances of social media to engage in presentation of their political and personal selves to garner public attention to their cause” — is essential in carrying out effective, efficient activism on various social networks. If the goal is attention, singular, strategically savvy voices like Park’s are essential in mobilizing communities to articulate a single message or grievance.

“Mass media’s power as a gatekeeper is most evident when they ignore a movement; however, being covered is just the first step in the attention acquisition process, as the content and shape of that attention in the form of ‘framing’ of the movement message is crucial to prospects of a movement,” writes Tufekci. “Networked microcelebrity activists are distinguished from official spokespersons of movements and are rarely employed in official capacity by an organization, and even if they are, their influence and reach are often significantly greater than that of the nominal organization. These activists tend to be young and offer testimony of their own activism and travails, serve as citizen journalists, and mix mostly political commentary with personal interaction through social media.”

If social and political movements thrive on attention, then viral social media campaigns allow marginalized voices and issues to reach a mass audience. But even with catalysts like Park, social media campaigns often lack the cohesion and consistency to actually advance the causes they articulate. Consider the viral #Kony2012 campaign, produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children and designed to organize young, Internet-savvy humanitarians to press for the arrest of indicted war criminal Joseph Kony by the end of 2012. The campaign, while well intentioned, drew ire from journalists, activists and academics for unconstructively focusing attention on a relatively insignificant warlord rather than larger structural and sociopolitical issues facing African countries. Nigerian author Teju Cole delivered the most scathing critique of the campaign as an outgrowth of the "White Savior Industrial Complex."

“He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated 'disasters.' All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need,” wrote Cole, responding to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's musings on the #Kony2012 campaign. “But I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them."

Being covered is just the first step in the attention acquisition process, as the content and shape of that attention in the form of ‘framing’ of the movement message is crucial to prospects of a movement.

Zeynep Tufekci

sociologist, University of North Carolina

Thus the unintended consequences of hashtag activism. At Deadspin, Tommy Craggs and Kyle Wagner argue that Park’s efforts have entirely eclipsed Colbert’s initial message, which was to critique and lampoon the blind racism of the Washington Redskins’ name. Jay Caspian Kang, speaking with Park for The New Yorker, noted that the young writer doesn’t even want to cancel Colbert (despite the hashtag’s command and the group’s assertion in Time that, yes, it does want to cancel Colbert), but “to critique white liberals who use forms of racial humor to mock more blatant forms of racism.” And the potential to divert attention away poses an incentive for some hashtag activists to pursue Twitter campaigns for the sake of their own "personal brand."

Even worse: The success of one campaign begets others and breeds conflict between activists fighting for the same swath of online attention. The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg recently argued that the attention wars between various feminist groups on Twitter have done more to harm than help communication and coordination between like-minded activists. And in the introduction of a recent issue of the intellectual journal n+1, the editors asserted that aggressive, full-throated activism has turned the Internet from a public square to a "rage machine."

“We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture,” wrote the editors. “But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation. We are all cosmopolitans online, attentive to everything; but the Internet is not one big General Assembly, and the controversies planted in establishment newspapers aren’t always the sort of problems that require the patient attention of a working group. Some opinions deserve radical stack (like #solidarityisforwhitewomen), but the glorified publicity stunts that dress up in opinion’s clothes to get viral distribution in the form of ‘debate’ (Open Letters to Miley Cyrus) do not. We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith. Some people duke it out to solve problems. Others pick fights for the spectacle, knowing we’ll stick around to watch. In the meantime they’ll sell us refreshments, as we loiter on the sideline, waiting to see which troll will out-troll his troll.”

The proliferation of think pieces (including this one) about hashtag activism before and after Park’s impromptu #CancelColbert campaign is a testament to the effectiveness of such campaigns in capturing the attention of thousands of Internet users. But the episode’s lesson may be that the new social media landscape puts many of its protagonists in danger of losing control of their message.

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