March 21st, 2016 was the ten-year anniversary of the launch of Twitter. The next day, March 22nd, 2016, the Belgian city of Brussels fell victim to a brutal terrorist attack.
Twitter responded the way that it normally does during a crisis of the modern era: illustrations signifying support, hashtags and new information, as released. But somehow, amidst all of the breaking news bulletins, one random tweet from an online stranger jumped out at me:
What’s your hashtag going to do?
Honestly, I’ve often wondered the same thing. I didn’t understand the temporary French flag filter that Facebook offered after the Paris Attacks in November 2015. I didn’t tweet out #JeSuisCharlie after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of that same year. I never made any sort of online indication that I wanted to #BringBackOurGirls when Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls in mid-2014. I never understood the significance of these social media pushes that happened every time something bad happened. But now I think that I’m starting to get it.
So, what is my hashtag going to do? In a physical sense, nothing. My hashtag isn’t going to rebuild a city. My hashtag will not prevent future attacks from happening. My hashtag can’t even give you a hug.
But my hashtag will show you that I care. It will show you that millions of people across the world care. Social media has allowed for people across the world to send their messages of standing in solidarity with victims of unspeakable crimes. #JeSuisBrussels, #PrayforBrussels and the broader #PrayForPeace allowed for upwards of 1.5 million supportive, encouraging tweets to be sent out in just a matter of hours.
And it’s not only about support. While my tweet from nearly 5,000 miles away from the attacks may only be able to illustrate my support, ones closer to the scene of the incident play much more of an important role.
As transportation was cut off in Belgium following the attacks, many were left stranded without ways to get back to their homes. Hashtags like #IkWilHelpen, or ‘I Will Help,’ popped up to offer safe places for victims to stay. Social media was also used to aid the government in delivering crucial information. Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, used Twitter to promote social media usage instead of making phone calls in order to “minimize saturation of phone networks.”
“Post-Disaster Twitter” may flood your timeline with similar posts about the same incident, but is that really such a bad thing? Yes, I will admit that it is a bit jarring to jump immediately from ‘I’m madly in love with this boy in my stats class’ to ‘30 dead, 100+ injured, terror alert raised. #Brussels.’ And, yes, social media can often spread false information. But it seems to me that more times than others, these tweets bring people together.
During the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the images of the Twin Towers crumbling were broadcast around the world. People saw what was happening, but they lacked the technology to instantly tell someone that they were praying for them. We have the power to do that now. We can express our concerns, support, and love from thousands of miles away.
So, yes, I’m fully aware that my hashtag probably won’t save the world. But I’m also aware that it shows everyone how even in the face of disaster, we are still in this together.