In Summary
  • After the celebrities, presidents and social media pundits have had their fill online, they seem to quickly move on to support the next crisis, tweeting and Facebooking their objections to all the world’s wrongs but doing little to cause change on the ground.
  • The question then begs: does this hashtag activism really work? Is it all talk and no action? The examples from Cairo, Abuja and Nairobi tell an intriguing story.

On the morning of June 9, a crowd stood outside where the shadows of the Hilton Hotel and Corner House kiss on Kimathi Street, Nairobi. Their eyes were fixed on a man who had chained himself onto the Dedan Kimathi statue, the freedom fighter after whom the street is named.

The protester identified himself at Dedan Kimathi Waceke, carried a Kenyan flag and wore a hat bearing its colours, and shouted that he would not free himself from his prison unless he was given audience with his grandmother, Mukami Kimathi.

He claimed to be the third grandson of Dedan Kimathi, yet despite such an impressive pedigree he was languishing in poverty.

As the drama unfolded, someone in the crowd whipped out a smartphone, took a picture, and posted it on Facebook. It went viral as those who were not there discussed the merits of Waceke’s demands.

And, with that simple action of “point, shoot and post”, the symbiotic relationship between social media and activism was once again put to test.

Six months earlier, on December 29, 2013, three journalists working for the Al Jazeera television network had been arrested on accusation of spreading false information and aiding a terrorist group in Egypt.

However, Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstay had protested that Baher Mohamed, Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy had been placed behind bars simply for doing their jobs, sparking off a worldwide online campaign dubbed #FreeAJStaff that saw more than 40,000 people demand the “immediate release” of the journalists.

On the same month that the young man chained himself on a Nairobi statue, and despite #FreeAJStaff having gathered about 80 million impressions on Twitter, Mohamed, Greste and Fahmy were sent to jail for between seven and 10 years. The world erupted in protest, but Cairo upturned its nose to the digital dissent and went about its business of serving its version of justice.

#BringBackOurGirls

Two months earlier, on April 15, the Boko Haram extremist group had driven into a girl’s boarding school in Chibok, northern Nigeria and kidnapped over 200 girls. A hashtag campaign — #BringBackOurGirls — started by a little-known NGO worker named Jibrin Ibrahim, quickly took root and spread to the world and resulted in protests in the major capitals of the world.

Bowing to the pressure, President Goodluck Jonathan broke his silence on the matter a month after protests began, while US president Barack Obama announced plans to assist Nigeria with counter-terrorism measures.

So, a man chains himself in Nairobi seeking audience with his grandmother over “historical injustices” and people spend a few hours blogging it before they move on to other business. In Cairo, journalists working for an international broadcaster are jailed despite protests from the highest offices on the planet.

And in Nigeria over 270 girls are still being held by terrorists months after they were abducted from their boarding school despite a social media campaign that went viral for days.

The question then begs: does this hashtag activism really work? Is it all talk and no action? After the celebrities, presidents and social media pundits have had their fill, they seem to quickly move on to support the next crisis, tweeting and Facebooking their objections to all the world’s wrongs but doing little to cause change on the ground.

“The reality is that social media will never replace people in the streets,” says photographer and activist Boniface Mwangi. “People keep talking about the Arab Spring, but that wasn’t a Twitter revolution! Tahrir Square wasn’t the Internet, but a physical ground, so let’s not lie to ourselves that one day social media will replace street activism.

“Let’s look at what Dedan Kimathi’s grandson Waceke did that June morning on Kimathi Street; if he had tweeted about poverty nobody would have listened to him, but him chaining himself to that statue was a strong statement.”

Boniface, who has had numerous brushes with the law over his social activism, says it is quite easy for people to mistake a strong social media following with real numbers.

“Look, for instance, at how people voted for presidential aspirants Martha Karua and Peter Kenneth. They were very popular online but not as popular offline. The number of followers on Twitter, clearly, is not an indication of the clout you have on the streets.”

Boniface, however credits social media with bringing at least 20 per cent of people who had never met or spoken to him to the protest against MPs’ salaries, proving that it is a great mobilisation tool.

“Social media can be a very powerful voice for the people, but you have to go beyond trolls, insults, paid tweets, handles run by the government and tabloids that pick up tweets and put them out of context,” he says.

For Edwin Kiama, a social media activist, however, a revolution starts by changing mindsets, and one of the ways of doing this is by engaging Kenyans on social media and helping to change the narrative.

“We let a lot of things happen to us and nobody wants to take responsibility,” he says.

Blogging at Wanjiku Revolution and running related accounts on Facebook and Twitter has enabled him to reach a large number of young Kenyans and thus effect change through engagement and discussion.

He gives the example of a tender notice that the government ran in the local dailies a month ago. The first item on the list was a tender to airlift government speeches at a cost of Sh500,000.

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