International shock and anger resounded after last week’s kidnapping of three Israeli youths in the West Bank, widely attributed to Hamas and deemed a “despicable terrorist act” by John Kerry. The flames of outrage have been fueled by a growing social media campaign known by the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys, launched by the University of Haifa Ambassadors in reference to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that brought attention the 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by terror group Boko Haram.
The campaign has helped the Israeli kidnapping gain a similar viral awareness, with the hashtag receiving up to 2,800 Tweets per hour and the Facebook page up to 98,000 likes as of Wednesday. And its message — “Children deserve life without being kidnapped by terrorists,” in the words of Ambassadors Network founder David Gurevich — seems fairly hard to criticize. But, perhaps predictably, the campaign has still managed to spark controversy.
Some Palestinians have decried that placing the spotlight on Israeli victims overlooks injustices being done to the Palestinian side, while others speculate that this is just another instance of ineffective internet slacktivism. One of the campaign’s first PR mistakes, as Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote on Haaretz.com, may have been its swift adoption by the Israel Defense Forces, which posted it on their Twitters and Facebooks. The military endorsement left many with the taste of government propaganda in their mouths, and created a foothold for impassioned voices on both sides of the Israeli-Palestian debate. Wrote Sommer:
The IDF’s adoption of the hashtag was like waving a red flag in front of pro-Palestinian activists, who rapidly “hijacked” the hashtag, loading it up with pictures of dead and injured children from their side, and laying out their plight. The Palestinians, for their part, launched their own social media campaigns, changing their Facebook profiles, posting pictures of themselves holding up three fingers to represent the three kidnapped Israelis. Very quickly, things descended into the regularly scheduled one-upsmanship that anyone who follows the conflict online is familiar with.
As an example of an impassioned voice on the Palestinian side, Jessica Purkiss quickly reminded readers of the Middle East Monitor about the need for anyone supporting the Israeli campaign to also recognize ongoing Palestinian casualties:
“The grave consequences Netanyahu mentioned for the kidnapping of the teens could be the weekend airstrikes on Gaza that injured two women- a 10 year old boy succumbed to his wounds sustained in an earlier strike on Saturday, or the dawn raids that saw 80 Palestinian men arrested, probably in front of their children, a 20 year old youth shot dead and the door of a family home bombed open in Hebron. The Israeli boys’ disappearance has ignited a national campaign, led and encouraged by Israel’s politicians, that is working to fuel age old hatreds – when it should be fuelling the realisation that any child should not be a legitimate target in a conflict, and any mother should not go through this pain.”
But with thousands of likes, clearly many felt the campaign was a powerful force for hope. On Communities Digital News, Doni Kandel went so far as to say it was our moral obligation to use the powerful media tools at our disposal to keep the issue in the public eye:
“The sheer power of the #BringBackOurBoys campaign cannot be denied. If anything, the movement needs to be promoted further and louder than ever before … with news cycles endlessly turning over, as they inevitably do in the media-oversaturated society that we live in, the persistent outcry by people who refuse to let Eyal, Naftali and Gilad be drowned out by the other noise will keep them right where they belong; on the front-burner of the public’s conscience every second of every day.”
And on The Jewish Daily Forward, Mordechai Lightstone argued that the campaign chose the perfect hashtag to create resonance and channel public sympathy — in response to criticism that the hashtag took power away from the original #BringBackOurGirls:
“It has instant recall in the mind of the public, playing off of a rallying call we are already familiar with, and is helped with an extra dose of alliteration to boot.
One must ask … aren’t cross-appropriation and meta-reference the lifeblood of any meme?”
Of course, Lightstone also raised the larger question: does any social media campaign really have a meaningful and lasting effect? Back to Sommer at Haaretz:
“Yes, a hashtag campaign may marginally increase awareness of the story. But is “calling attention” and “raising awareness” really the same as doing something? By papering the Internet with these hashtags, are Israelis and their supporters doing something to change the situation?
Much as we would like, nothing we do online is actually going to get the boys home any faster – just as it hasn’t solved any of the fundamental problems in the conflict that has brought us to this unfortunate point.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, also at Haaretz, had an answer. In the end, the campaign isn’t for the victims–it’s for us. Sharing hashtags is a symbolic act of solidarity, similar to a yellow ribbon, “a digital vigil”:
“When tragedy strikes or when we are outraged by injustice we can feel helpless. That’s mostly because when it comes to our ability to stop Kony or rescue hundreds of high school girls in Nigeria, we are pretty much impotent. Hopelessness is a scary and dangerous emotion. When we are alone in our fears and we don’t trust the world to be safe and comfortable, we can discover dark places in our hearts that can harm us emotionally and even physically. So we hashtag and we connect with others who share our concerns and anxieties and all of a sudden, the world is not so dark.”
Hashtag campaigns: problematic panacea or online community of change and support? Let us know what you think in the comments.