The Hashtag Metaphor, Social Media Activism and Creativity

Picture of Aisha Yusufu, which has become an icon of the #EndSARS protest

The hashtag is a type of metadata tag used on social networks and microblogging services that allows users to apply dynamic, user-generated tagging on their posts to enable other users find messages relating to a particular theme or content easily. For this reason, modern protests around the world have always applied hashtags as a rallying cry for people everywhere to lend their voices to the cause. However, many times, the hashtag becomes symbolic for other unexpressed passionate issues that help fuel the protest.

In Africa, recent protest hashtags have embraced wider issues to become a metaphor for the frustration being experienced by the youth in various countries. In Zimbabwe, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter is a call to end human rights abuses in the country. In Congo #CongoIsBleeding is a fight against Congolese men, women and children being tortured, starved, raped and killed. #ShutItAllDown is a protest against femicide and Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in Namibia. While, #EndSars in Nigeria is a call to proscribe the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police infamous for extrajudicial killings, torture and extortion.

A #ZimbaweanLivesMatter Tweet
A #CongoIsBleeding Tweet
Image Source: After Break, a Namibian Teen Magazine

In an age where consumers are increasingly awakening to their potential to compel companies, celebrities and brands to identify with certain values and movements or lose patronage, many social media activists are using this to their advantage. The result is that more and more brands and celebrities are being drawn into protests increasing the share of voice, creativity and other resources available to the cause.

The #ZimbabweanLivesMatter gained more prominence following tweets by rapper Ice Cube and actress Pearl Thusi. In Nigeria #EndSars moved from a random tweet on 3 October 2020 by Chinyelugo, who had just 800 followers as reported by BBC, to a massive 3.3 million tweets with 744,000 retweets of posts containing the #EndSARS hashtag on 16 October 2020.

This is not the first time that Nigerians have asked for SARS to be proscribed. TechCabal reports that the #EndSARS has been active for more than 2 years. What made the change this time was the involvement of brands and influential personalities.

When some Nigerians set out on a name and shame strategy, they were able to get support from notable celebrities and social media influencers. The tweets by Nigerian-British boxer Antony Joshua and Star Wars actor John Boyega, Nigerian Afro Pop singers Wizkid and Davido were part of the game changing events. The celebrities also started calling out their fellow colleagues to join. For instance, Tiwa Savage, another major Nigerian Afro Pop singer, made a video, where she called out Beyoncé to speak on the issue. Of course, not all those called out will respond. However, consumers or fans have a long memory and will wait patiently to strike back. The rights of brands or famous people to keep silent or hold an unpopular view vis-à-vis the new power of consumers without being victimized is a subject for debate.

One more thing to note about these protests, especially the one in Nigeria, is the depth of creativity. The share number of amazing ideas that have been generated within such a short period of time are indeed commendable. This may not be too surprising considering that ad agencies, banks, media companies and other professional organisations have all thrown their weight behind the protest. But, even materials created by regular social media users and street protesters display a lot of creativity in them, showing that talent abounds in Africa and so much can be achieved if this can be properly harnessed.

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