Hashtag activism: A powerful venture or pointless exercise?

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Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Online activism is about using social media messages with a common hashtag  

Research on Social Media Consumption in Kenya done by the Social Media Lab Africa in 2019 found that 88.5 per cent of Kenyans use Facebook and 27.5 per cent use Twitter. 

The report also shows that at least 66 per cent of social media users in Kenya have participated in online debates. The findings indicate that people aged between 21 and 35 in Kenya spend at least three hours on social media each day, lending credence to the fact that local youth are actively engaging with online campaigns and participating in trending hashtags.

But does participating in these online conversations and trending topics influence their perspectives or change how they actually live their lives?

It is no secret that many organisations are pushing various hashtags to advance their ideas, products and services, and sometimes to send messages about behaviour change.

This week, we sit down with four organisations and individuals who consistently use the online space to mobilise and rally youth towards different causes. The question to them is straightforward: How do they go about converting the hashtags to action?

dokoti@ke.nationmedia.com

Sylvia Moraa Founder, Andyspeak4Special Needs Persons Africa

#IamAndy was set up to raise awareness about neurodevelopmental disabilities, which are disorders that affect the brain such as autism, cerebral palsy and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

“I am a mother of two autistic children so I understand the challenges that those living with the condition and their families endure. That is why I decided to speak out and invite others to join me in raising awareness,” Sylvia says.

Through the hashtag #IAmAndy, Silvia holds conversations daily on Twitter on a variety of topics.

“The discussions are usually thematic. For example, April is Autism Awareness Month, so our campaigns and conversations during that period will be guided by that,” she says.

Silvia also organises fundraisers for families that need financial assistance.

“#IamAndy has been running or a year and a half now and I leverage my digital marketing and PR skills to drive the campaigns. This has helped us make the conversations more impactful,” she says.

To further increase her reach, Silvia usually tags influential people, policy makers or those who are vocal about brain disabilities, and other stakeholders,

“Continuity is also very important when building a credible online presence. Your brand, the graphics you use, and the tone of your voice must be consistent so that your audience can easily identify with them,” she says and adds:

“I can tell if a chat has been successful from the number of posts that have been retweeted, or if the conversation moves from one platform to another. For example, if I post something on Twitter and someone shares it on WhatsApp, or if people are still discussing the issue even after the live chat has ended,” she says.

Compiling reports from the conversations and sending them to relevant authorities for action is usually a key step that follows many of their critical conversations.

“Early this year, we managed to push Google to use the proper Kiswahili translation of the word “autism”. It initially brought up “ujinga”, which means stupidity. We also got Jambo Jet to stop using the words “mental disability” on their platforms and replace that with “neurodevelopmental disabilities” which is less disrespectful,” she says.

Her greatest challenge is that she has a lean team running the online campaigns. Also, the language used during the Twitter chats can sometimes be filled with jargon, thereby isolating a section of the audience.

Rachel Mwikali Convener, Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders

Racheal’s organisation aims to make those living in informal settlements around the country aware of their human rights.

“We are based in Mathare slums but we have members in all slums in Nairobi. We usually start by identifying an issue of human rights violation and then we rally the masses to fight against it. For example, if a child is abused in Migori, our members in that area will mobilise locals to champion for the arrest of the perpetrator and justice for the child through social media hashtags,” she says.

Rachel mainly uses physical methods of mobilising the public because most of their activities target those living in informal settlements.

“We go to social media only to make our campaigns public and to attract mainstream media attention, but we mostly engage physically with members of the community,” Rachael says and adds:

“We do not want to be very active and visible on social media while nothing substantial is happening on the ground. However, social media helps us broaden our reach. For example, we started #endfemicideinkenya to get the President to do something about the gruesome murders of Kenyan women. Within no time, the civil society joined us and it moved from a hashtag to a countrywide campaign,” Rachael says.

Because of the demographics of their audiences, their activities are always issue based. 

“When Covid-19 became a pandemic, we started advocating for better access to water so that regular hand washing could be possible in slums. We then began advocating for feeding programmes for our members.

We believe that everything that happens in our country has both a personal and political aspect, and that all interventions must take into consideration the gender issues as well as human rights.

In Mathare, for instance, social distancing is almost unachievable, and there is no access to clean, running water to regularly wash hands as recommended,” Rachael says.

“We always encourage our members to tag the relevant officials to our chats and to retweet our posts until something is done by the authorities.

Rachael and her team also get support from influencers to shore up their numbers online. 

“We recently organised #pangabizzaftercovid19 with the aim of supporting business women whose enterprises had been affected by the pandemic. Through the hashtag, we received donations and gave business women in Mathare and in informal settlements in Kisumu Sh10,000 each so that they could stock up and stay in business,” she says.

Mobilising the public to join their online campaigns is still a big challenge for Rachel and her team since most of their members are not able to be active online.

“Internet is quite expensive in Kenya. Many of our members desire to take part in our campaigns but they don’t have access to smartphones or computers. Another challenge is that detractors sometimes come and try to stifle our campaigns,” she says.

Racheal’s organisation aims to make those living in informal settlements around the country aware of their human rights.

“We are based in Mathare slums but we have members in all slums in Nairobi. We usually start by identifying an issue of human rights violation and then we rally the masses to fight against it. For example, if a child is abused in Migori, our members in that area will mobilise locals to champion for the arrest of the perpetrator and justice for the child through social media hashtags,” she says.

Rachel mainly uses physical methods of mobilising the public because most of their activities target those living in informal settlements.

“We go to social media only to make our campaigns public and to attract mainstream media attention, but we mostly engage physically with members of the community,” Rachael says and adds:

“We do not want to be very active and visible on social media while nothing substantial is happening on the ground. However, social media helps us broaden our reach. For example, we started #endfemicideinkenya to get the President to do something about the gruesome murders of Kenyan women. Within no time, the civil society joined us and it moved from a hashtag to a countrywide campaign,”  Rachael says.

Because of the demographics of their audiences, their activities are always issue based. 

“When Covid-19 became a pandemic, we started advocating for better access to water so that regular hand washing could be possible in slums. We then began advocating for feeding programmes for our members.

We believe that everything that happens in our country has both a personal and political aspect, and that all interventions must take into consideration the gender issues as well as human rights.

In Mathare, for instance, social distancing is almost unachievable, and there is no access to clean, running water to regularly wash hands as recommended,” Rachael says.

“We always encourage our members to tag the relevant officials to our chats and to retweet our posts until something is done by the authorities.

Rachael and her team also get support from influencers to shore up their numbers online. 

“We recently organised #pangabizzaftercovid19 with the aim of supporting business women whose enterprises had been affected by the pandemic. Through the hashtag, we received donations and gave business women in Mathare and in informal settlements in Kisumu Sh10,000 each so that they could stock up and stay in business,” she says.

Mobilising the public to join their online campaigns is still a big challenge for Rachel and her team since most of their members are not able to be active online.

“Internet is quite expensive in Kenya. Many of our members desire to take part in our campaigns but they don’t have access to smartphones or computers. Another challenge is that detractors sometimes come and try to stifle our campaigns,” she says.

Grayson Marwa Programmes Officer, Siasa Place

“I’m involved in the running of #SiasaWednesday, a weekly one-hour chat on Twitter. Our primary target group is youth aged 20 to 35 years,” Grace says 

Siasa Place is a youth-led organisation that aims to encourage young people to take interest in local politics. Before setting up the weekly hashtag, the organisers had observed that many young people were reluctant to be involved in political discussions yet almost all of them were active on social media. To combat this, Siasa Place decided to take the political conversations online.

“The Twitter chat, which is now four years old, was conceived as a platform where young people in the country and those abroad could discuss salient issues affecting them such as unemployment, corruption, embezzlement of public funds and proper healthcare,” Grayson says.

“Apart from issues of governance, we also talk about things like cyberbullying and the importance of family. However, we have realised that political topics draw bigger audiences,” Grace says.

Grace and Grayson use tools such as Tweet Binder and Keyhole to understand their reach and audience patterns.

“To shore up our audience numbers and increase the impact of our chats, we usually bring in guests or partners who are knowledgeable or vocal about certain topics,” Grayson says.

The duo have learnt that to set up a successful online conversation, one must consider his or her target audience in every step of process.

“Planning is very important. At Siasa Place, the team usually spends two days deliberating on the upcoming chat and the expected guests. During this time, we think through the questions to ask and ensure that everything else is in place ahead of the live chat.

“How you curate your content will determine whether you will draw the right audience. And did you know that you can have your flier promoted by Twitter for as low as Sh150? This makes the audience know about the chat in advance,” Grace says.

During the public participation stage of the Building Bridges Initiative, Siasa Place ran #Sautiyavijana, where they asked young people to table their views and suggestions about the BBI and the referendum.

“Beyond just trending on social media, more youth got to understand what the initiative was all about. We then put together a report based on the conversations we had and submitted it to the BBI taskforce. This report influenced policy decisions,” Grayson says.

For this duo, the greatest challenge in their job is that majority of the younger audiences, those aged between 18 and 23, are more active on Facebook than on Twitter. Another issue is poor internet connectivity which can prevent both guests and the audience from following the discussions.

“Also, there are some topics that are so controversial that even the guests fear delving into them,” Grayson says.