#BellLetsTalk is Hashtag Activism Done Right… Others, Not So Much

Young Professionals (YPs) are quick to jump behind important causes.

Especially, it seems, if it involves a trending hashtag.

Everyone wants to at least look like they care on social media. And, hey, perhaps we do reflect on a particular cause for a hot second while it’s trending…but does that actually produce real world results?

Dubbed “hashtag activism,” the use of hashtags for online engagement has taken off in a major way. Not that we have to tell you that. Some campaigns – like Bell Canada’s hugely successful “Let’s Talk” initiative – inspire major, lasting changes.

Others, not so much.

One of the first examples of hashtag activism came almost three years back with #Koni2012, the hashtag associated with “KONY 2012,” aka the most viral video of all time. Paving the way for viral activism, the campaign undoubtedly had an immediate impact in generating awareness for Invisible Children and its campaign to help take down African Warlord Joseph Kony and his exploitive Lord’s Resistance Army (such a impact that the organization’s website couldn’t handle the traffic).

In addition to the mass awareness, the campaign also raised $28 million for the organization – way more than could have been expected. But today, Joseph Kony is still free and the LRA still exists. In the wake of backlash and funding shortages, in December, Invisible Children announced plans to shut down operations. As for the #Koni2012 hashtag – it’s become a distant memory.

In the case of the missing Nigerian schoolgirls, abducted by a militant Islamic group Boko Haram last year, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls –a demand for their safe return – raised global attention to the otherwise virtually silent injustice. In May, the US sent 80 troops to Chad to search for them. With the hashtag tweeted by everyone from Ellen DeGeneres and Bradley Cooper, to Michelle Obama, pretty much everyone on social media knew about the missing girls. And yeah, we cared.

Yet, nearly ten months after the kidnapping, the girls have still not been found and Boko Haram continues to terrorize Nigeria, most recently opening fire on the on the state of Borno in mid-January, reportedly killing close to 2000 people. And when was the last time you saw #BringBackOurGirls in your newsfeed?

For many, the short-lived UK-born #nomakeupselfie fundraising campaign was more about showing off how pretty they still were without makeup than anything related to breast cancer. As you’ll recall, the campaign involved women posting makeup-free selfies to Facebook, donating to cancer research, and then nominating others to do the same.

While the campaign was a general success in the UK, raising $12.57 million in six days in March, across the pond, it seemed North American women missed the point, jumping on the bandwagon for the love of the selfie. Most of the posts didn’t even mention the word “cancer. We still don’t get the correlation between a makeup-free face and cancer. As for the #nomakeupselfie, they’re still happening al over social media – but now shamelessly in the interest of vanity rather than a potentially deadly illness.

Indeed, Hashtag activism is often narcissism disguised as altruism; it make us look and feel good, but it does virtually nothing to address the actual issue. Sure, it raises awareness, but doesn’t matter if everyone knows about the problem unless we act on it.

Need more examples? The #illridewithyou campaign in the wake of December’s Sydney Siege disappeared as quickly as it started and failed to produce any sort of tangible outcome (how can we document who actually took up the offer?). And the #haiti hashtag is long gone from your newsfeed, despite the thousands of Haitians who still suffer from the effects of 2010’s deadly earthquake.

All of this brings us to #BellLetsTalk; a campaign with an actual real-world impact. 

Designed to break the silence surrounding mental health – and subsequently erode the stigma – it’s gained steady traction in doing just that, and raised over $73 million for Canadian mental health initiatives in the process.

Last Wednesday was filled with reminders that it was Bell’s Let’s Talk Day.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – it was everywhere.   

Not only did Canadians share the site’s Facebook image and Tweet the #BellLetsTalk hashtag more times than ever – raising 5 cents each time for the cause – a growing number of people chose to break their silence, too.

Backed by familiar faces like national spokesperson Clara Hughes, along with Michael Landsberg and Howie Mandel, the campaign has made it okay for Canadians to speak out about their challenges – and each year, more people are empowered to do so. We know we’re not the only ones with social media friends who revealed their personal struggles this year.

The initiative is also backed by a large-scale multimedia campaign, complete with commercials, billboards, and – this year – a documentary, adding to its visibility and mass popularity.

But whatever it’s doing, it’s working.

When it comes to mental health, breaking the silence is as much a catalyst for change as dollars are. 

As for many other campaigns, however, if you want to really make a difference, it might mean you have to actually get up from behind your computer screen. 


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