When people around the world responded to the recent tragic attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by using the Twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie it became impossible to deny the potential of social media to harness and galvanize public opinion on current events. This followed on from Australia’s experience only a month or so earlier when the #illridewithyou hashtag was used in response to the siege in the Lindt Café in Sydney to express solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims. With the State Library of NSW announcing that it is collecting and archiving key tweets from the Martin Pl siege, social media has solidified its cultural legitimacy.
But what does this mean for public health? Rebecca Zosel, Public Health Consultant reflects on the role of social media and the Twitter hashtag #Illridewithyou in the Sydney siege and more generally as vehicle for combatting racism, discrimination and Islamaphobia in our community. She writes:
The horrific Sydney siege on 15 December lasted just over 16 hours before its violent ending. We all watched as the heart-breaking event unfolded, and listened to news saturated with talk of Islamic extremists and terrorism , questions about how the gunman had slipped through security and legal nets, and criticism of the siege media coverage. It was dramatic. It was scary. It was local. It was an utter tragedy and we mourned the innocent lives lost.
Amidst this crisis the #illridewithyou hashtag-come-social movement was borne and flourished. It arose from the fear of a backlash against Muslims in the wake of the siege. People took to Twitter in droves to offer to ride on public transport with Muslims who were intimidated and scared of being attacked. Alongside this very practical offer, #illridewithyou was also used more symbolically by many to show support and solidarity with the Australian Muslim community. This organic and spontaneous social media campaign gained momentum quickly; within a day over 90,300 tweets using the hashtag had been posted and it was trending globally.
The #illridewithyou movement was not without critics, some very quick and vocal. Critics, amidst other things, called #illridewithyou patronising, and a shallow and ineffective attempt to combat the deeper issues of discrimination, racism and Islamophobia. Of course these criticisms have some validity. Those of us working in public health know all too well that change is best achieved using a comprehensive multi-pronged approach; that it requires sustained effort and investment; that root causes must be addressed, and supportive structures put in place to ensure the desired change is sustained.
A hashtag isn’t everything, but it’s certainly not nothing.
#illridewithyou got widespread traction because it resonated with so many in the Australian and global community. It was the right message at the right time, encapsulating what a lot of people were thinking and feeling. It also said a lot: not only will “I ride with you”, but “I support you” and “I don’t blame you”.
The hashtag didn’t cure all ills – it was never going to, let’s be realistic – but it did do a lot of good. It put values of solidarity, compassion and support front and centre on the global stage. It mobilised the community into action and in doing so, increased community readiness for change. It enhanced community mental health and cohesion, increased participation, and strengthened social structures. These are commendable outcomes, all of which are critical in a healthy and productive society.
#illridewithyou – an exercise in viral empathy – was overwhelmingly and undoubtedly positive. In the current neo-liberal political climate, it is a wonderful reminder to promote and value individual acts of kindness, both practical and symbolic. As with public health’s success in tobacco control which resulted from decades of effort, we must remember that every step forward is a step in the right direction, and to value each step along the way, however small. Population-level change takes time and is often achieved by the cumulative effect of many interventions and sometimes quite isolated events. #illridewithyou is one such event towards a cohesive, inclusive and tolerant society. As Ben Harris-Roxas and Jill Stark so eloquently tweeted:
I was skeptical about #IllRideWithYou, I thought it seemed tokenistic. I was wrong, practical & symbolic acts matter
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Cynicism is easy. Hope takes more effort. On a day like today I’ll go with hope. #illridewithyou
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The #illridewithyou movement fits the description of a number of different strategies used in public health practice: social media campaign, community mobilisation and activism, bystander intervention and health pledges. Regardless of your vantage point (we can draw the boxes but they aren’t real), this spontaneous and beautiful campaign reminds us once again of the power of social media to connect, communicate and advocate for better health. To any remaining social media sceptics who question the legitimacy of social media as a public health strategy: ignore social media at your peril.
#illridewithyou is a timely reminder of the opportunities that social media affords public health. It demonstrated the power of social media:
- To unite people for good, as previously highlighted by @GinnyBarbour here:
- To change the tone of the public conversation, giving prominence to discourses not reflected in traditional media
- To communicate and amplify positive messages, challenging the belief that ‘good news doesn’t sell’
- To address sensitive topics such as inequity, discrimination, marginalised populations and tolerance
- To reach and engage large numbers of people
- To increase participation in online protests, advocacy and grass roots activism.
To be fair, social media is no silver bullet. Like all public health strategies, it has limitations and drawbacks, as evidenced by the speculation and misinformation surrounding the Sydney siege, the negative impact on police operations, and the grossly inappropriate conductof a minority.In light of the appalling public dialogue that often makes headlines, such as Jacqui Lambie’s attempt to ban the burqa or Tony Abbott’s divisive comments, I welcome the positive shift in dialogue instigated by #illridewithyou, however transitory. My resolution then, and now, remains the same:Rebecca Zosel@rzosel Dec 16
I can’t walk in your shoes but #illridewithyou…if it helps. And I’ll keep trying to make this world a tolerant, kind & safe place for all
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Rebecca Zosel is a Public Health Consultant who can be reached via Twitter @rzosel