Photo by Ben Stansall
Artillery Row


Will hashtag activists start the next world war?

They say charity begins at home, but over the last decade it appears charity has both started, and ended, online. While I have often aimed to ignore the hashtag activism of my Gen Z peers, there is just something about a swathe of teenagers inadvertently advocating for the potential nuclear destruction of my house that renders me indignant.

In an endeavour to appear more culturally aware, the past decade has seen a ballooning of youth activism a generation far more privileged than its predecessors, yet still eager for something to fight for, indeed without fighting at all. “Hashtag activism”, a term coined over recent years, refers to modern activism in its most popular (and powerful) form: social media.

Zelenskyy thanked Zuckerberg’s social media contributions to the Ukrainian war effort

It stems from the intent to raise awareness on topics believed to have gone unnoticed by the media and public. In the beginning, it seemed that hashtag activism was simply a new means of spreading important information in a speedier manner. Then, in almost no time at all, hashtag activism moved onto more social, and provocative, issues such as #HeForShe, #TimesUp, #MeToo, #FreePalestine and #BlackLivesMatter — all movements that have led to large scale and, in some instances, incredibly violent protests. It has also long been used to aid cancel culture — famously seen with Harry Potter author JK Rowling in 2020 when she backed #IStandWithMaya, a “cancelling” still happening today, almost two years later. Online activism has given people who wish to eradicate certain beliefs the ability to pile on from the comfort of their phones, while attempting to exile “bad” people from wider society.

Hashtag activism has given public figures, and their impressionable audiences, trouble-free methods of jumping on social justice bandwagons. Often driven by intense stories and desires of change, the young have been vulnerable to joining such movements. As a result, this era of teens and twenty-somethings have long been blind to when good intent comes with contradiction. It is only natural the young have always had an inbuilt tendency to place emotions at the forefront of rationality, and those who wish to gain their support have never failed to tug at heartstrings; they know we all want to be the good guy.

Their latest crusade for “good-guy” points comes straight out of the recent Russia/Ukraine conflict — a new, bright, shining opportunity to be on the “right side” of history, while (again) oblivious to the potential mass conflict they are advocating for. In most recent events, President Zelenskyy, himself, went so far as to thank Mark Zuckerberg’s social media contributions to the Ukrainian war effort. This came after Zuckerberg permitted calls for violence against Russians and praise for Ukrainian neo-Nazi battalions on Facebook — again, supported unsuspectingly by the same naïve digital moralisers. It shouldn’t surprise us that the same groups of people who have preached about Covid restrictions and mask-mandates for years, all while attending Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police protests in their masses, would also fail to recognise their irrationality in demanding direct and dangerous government intervention for the sake of worldwide social justice.

Mass outrage from protesters would not be as rife if it were not for social media

In an age where many have known and grown up with technology, much of the online generation has mislaid scepticism — following the crowd in whatever public movement is most trendy, as a duty to themselves and others to accumulate social credit. In this instance especially, it is undeniable that the mass outrage from protesters would not be as rife if it were not for social media. The Russia/Ukraine situation is an undeniable atrocity, but similar conflicts have been happening for years: 377,000 people have been killed in Yemen through airstrikes, backed and funded by western forces — this has included the tragic killings of over 10,000 children since 2015. Brands and businesses have failed to pull out of the countries who support such atrocities, but the usual illustrative activists have failed to make online infographics, few celebrities have made public statements, and hardly any flags have been seen in western city streets.

To clarify, there is nothing wrong with caring about the Russia/Ukraine conflict, but selective outrage has long ruled social media activism; people pick and choose their battles. Unfortunately, the most recent bandwagon is one that threatens us all: the advocacy of no-fly zones. Of course, very few people wish for this conflict to continue, and I empathise with the desire for world peace, but promoting “no-fly zones” brings us far from it. Government intervention should remain diplomatic at most. Too many have failed to understand that this is not a third-world country with a meagre, outdated air force; this is Russia — a nation that could easily wipe us out if it so wished to. We cannot simply engage with and shoot down Russian planes for the sake of Ukraine; to do so would be an immediate declaration of war, a war few of its advocates would be willing to fight.

War is destruction, pain and anguish; it should be avoided at all costs. It is all too understandable that a generation who has never had to endure these hardships would end up unconsciously advocating for it. War leaves innocent lives brutalised and stripped away at the hands of few men believing they have something to gain. Yes, they may be the “bad guys”, but we cannot risk unleashing Armageddon for the sake of playing martyr.

I suppose not wanting to risk nuclear war for the sake of Ukraine makes me selfish. Maybe so, but we should recognise that this issue may leave us with no “next time” to be on the right side of history.

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