How Active Is Hashtag Activism?

Social media campaigns have created offline change for religious organizations.

All it took was a hashtag. Forget handwritten letters to the editor and readers calling to cancel subscriptions — when Leadership Journal recently published a controversial article, it was a hashtag that rallied the movement against it: #TakeDownThatPost.

On June 9, Leadership Journal, a publication of Christianity Today, posted a story by an unnamed former youth minister who had a relationship with one of his students. He was convicted as a sex offender and is currently in prison.

Two days later, a backlash of readers rallied behind the hashtag #TakeDownThatPost, saying it wasn’t right to give a platform to the “predator” instead of the victim. The editors apologized and removed the post five days after it was first published.

It’s a sign of the digital times: whether for large-scale social movements or smaller-scale community conflicts, writers and bloggers are turning to Facebook posts and 140-character tweets to advocate for change.

Online, an outcry for changes in the church

The online rally against Leadership Journal culminated in just two days. According to Topsy, a social analytics site, #TakeDownThatPost generated nearly 6,000 tweets.

Drew Dyck, managing editor for the Journal, said he couldn’t comment on this story, but pointed to a posted apology, which acknowledged that the article never should have been published.

“Things didn’t really get going until [June 11], when [blogger] Tamara Rice started the #TakeDownThatPost hashtag,” said Dianna Anderson, who blogs on faith and feminism. “That hashtag provided people with a unifying banner under which they could assemble, and it helped those of us who had discovered the article to feel less alone in our protest of it.”

Hashtag activism, a term coined for Twitter campaigns, has spiked in the Christian community. Earlier this year, pastor and founder of the Passion Movement Louie Giglio’s #endit campaign mobilized young adults to help end slavery around the world. The campaign, which also spread on Instagram, has drummed up $152,000 just this year for Christian anti-slavery groups.

In March, the large humanitarian organization World Vision trended on Twitter when it reversed its decision to allow employees to be in same-sex marriages. World Vision announced the initial policy change, then withdrew the change two days later after blowback from supporters, including an online outcry.

The reversal still came at a cost, with Christian leaders and bloggers calling World Vision’s actions a “betrayal.”

“This whole situation has left me feeling frustrated, heartbroken, and lost,” author Rachel Held Evans wrote. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more angry at the Church, particularly the evangelical culture in which I was raised and with which I for so long identified. . . . Honestly, it feels like a betrayal from every side.”

“Farewell” gestures

The influence of online campaigns can be far-reaching, leading to reversals, apologies, and sometimes even high-profile resignations.

In March, Bill Gothard, an Illinois-based conservative leader, stepped down from the Institute of Basic Life Principles, a Christian organization that provides training programs for biblical living. Gothard’s resignation came after 34 women told the website Recovering Grace, a ministry dedicated to people impacted by Gothard’s teachings, that they had been sexually harassed by Gothard. Four others alleged that Gothard had molested them.

Recovering Grace had published stories from some of the women allegedly harassed, drawing thousands of Facebook and Twitter shares. Gothard said he resigned because he wanted to give his “full attention” to the accusations.

“The fall of Bill Gothard occurred because of these networks,” said Libby Anne, a Patheos blogger. “The bloggers at Recovering Grace collected stories, stories people then shared and shared again. As people connected, more stories came to light. Without social media, Bill Gothard would very likely still be president of his own domain.”

After Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Rob Bell released Love Wins, in 2011, John Piper tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell” in a prediction that the controversial book would lead to the downfall of Bell’s church career.

Piper’s three words were retweeted nearly 1,000 times, and his “farewell” gesture has been echoed throughout the Christian social web.  That tweet has been revised by others, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Professor Denny Burk, who tweeted “Farewell, World Vision” after the organization’s controversial policy changes. Piper himself recently tweeted, “Good-bye, Burger King” after the fast food chain introduced a rainbow-wrapped whopper in support of LGBT equality.

Are hashtags the bumper stickers of today?

According to the social media consulting site Social Caffeine, tweets that include hashtags have two times more engagement than those without. However, hashtag activism has been criticized as being only as effective as a bumper sticker or T-shirt.

In the case of the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, viral protestors demanded #JusticeforTrayvon, and even managed to gain support from President Obama. While police reopened the investigation against shooter George Zimmerman, he was acquitted of murder and the justice campaign seemingly failed.

A Facebook campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls” started after an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria kidnapped hundreds of high school girls. The movement sparked a divided discussion about the success of hashtag activism.

“Protesting Boko Haram is like lighting candles to cure cancer,” Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole tweeted in May.

Still others have argued that social media campaigns give greater visibility to what otherwise may go unnoticed. The interest also generates discussion and provides an outlet for overlooked minorities, proponents say.

“One thing is clear: sustained citizen action halted original intention of the Nigerian government to gloss over #BringBackOurGirls as usual,” tweeted Gbenga Sesan, Nigeria’s information technology youth ambassador.

Wisdom from the Internet margins

While the debate still carries on about how effective social media campaigns are, online rallies have amplified more voices, said Pastor Keith Anderson, a “digital ministry” expert from the Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Philadelphia.

“Today people can leave comments on the article itself, blog about their concerns or objections, and share those broadly through social media outlets,” he said. “They don’t have to rely on traditional news outlets to be heard. They can reach people online immediately. Social media also gives a voice to people who are historically underrepresented in leadership roles in the church.”

Suzannah Paul, a blogger and contributor to A Deeper Story, said that the “way social media amplifies grassroots and marginalized perspectives can be really healthy for a church whose leadership ideal often fails to represent the entirety of the diverse body of Christ. “The church needs wisdom from the margins in order to thrive.”

And the online campaigns aren’t going away any time soon, said Samantha Field, who blogs at Defeating the Dragons.

“Many people have criticized ‘hashtag activism’ because they see the Internet as some form of ‘pretend,’ that because it’s happening on the Internet, it’s not a legitimate conversation,” she said.

“Twitter has given women, especially non-straight, non-white women, a powerful voice,” she added. “We don’t have to go through old white men anymore to even have our ideas be public. Not only are our arguments public, they have power now. The Internet is leveling the playing field.”

Image via Shutterstock.

Amanda Casanova
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