Virtue-signalling emojis and hashtags just send the message that you don't care enough to actually do anything – Kate Copstick

The much-loved and ever politically active Fairy 'Hear What You Want To Hear' had one of her (his/their/its/whatever, she's a Fairy) greatest and most lasting successes in 1839, when playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote: “Beneath the rule of men entirely great, The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Thanks to the allure of Fairy HWYWTH, what has survived to guide those who socially self-identify as right-thinking people is the much more snappy and user-friendly “the pen is mightier than the sword”. How I wish it were. Julian Assange would be a free man, Martin Luther King would still be alive and, of course, we would have Made Poverty History in 2005.

But we are not “beneath the rule of men entirely great”. Over and over, we see the “entirely great” losing any hope of ruling. And, increasingly, “the pen” is used as no more than a virtue-signalling, solipsistic, cheap-but-catchy digital disguise for those who, while not exactly OK with stuff, don't care enough to do anything about it if it involves any personal effort. Hashtag not everyone. Hashtag not just a badtempered Boomer. Hashtag some people are doing marvellous things.

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But for the 'all byte and no bite' generations, even the pen can seem like too much work, when the share button is so easy. Social media means the glow that comes from making the world a better place can pretty much be achieved in your sleep. Couple of retweets, the appropriate flag logo beside your Facebook posts and a semi-regular online assertion that “I stand with… (insert cause of the day)” in a meaningful-looking font and you can rest, in your own self-satisfied dreamworld, where Satan himself quails before a trending meme, and you are a hero.

Online signalling of virtue you do not have is not a global phenomenon. This is the comfy western world of the 'outrage as a fashion statement' phenomenon. However, there are parts of the world where what you post online can have you arrested, imprisoned, even executed. Try putting a Ukrainian flag on your FB page in Russia. Bet you wouldn't.

You are safe here. Although if the best you can bring yourself to do with your every recreational surge of righteous outrage is to send 280 Unicode glyphs into the cyberverse then stop kidding yourself. You just don't care. Which is OK, because there are those out there who do care. And who do do. But doing is demanding. And you are just not helping.

The word is not the deed, much though social media operates tirelessly to persuade us otherwise. I have recently been invited to Stop Bombing Civilians. “Sign the Petition and Save Innocent Lives Today,” says the website. Not entirely sure that is true, given that the petition's stated, immediate demand of people is to “help us reach 600,000 signatures”. It also lets me choose the alternative of “taking the quiz”.

I am asked to “Stop Torture” by buying a variety of badges which say “Stop Torture” from a rather decent charity which has obviously been brought to the depths of pandering to the 'why do it when you can just wear the badge' brigade to get any income to do anything. Being urged to Stop Slavery (because, the website helpfully explains, it is bad) is, possibly, the most frustratingly obtuse. Not only did mere words never stop slavery, but mere words are still not stopping slavery. They didn't even stop the World Cup being in Qatar. Where the slavery was pretty much there in front of our eyes.

If there's a virtue-signalling message you want to send, there's probably a suitable emoji but how much good will it actually do? (Picture: Tengku Bahar/AFP via Getty Images)If there's a virtue-signalling message you want to send, there's probably a suitable emoji but how much good will it actually do? (Picture: Tengku Bahar/AFP via Getty Images)
If there's a virtue-signalling message you want to send, there's probably a suitable emoji but how much good will it actually do? (Picture: Tengku Bahar/AFP via Getty Images)

The very electronic devices on which we are clicking away to Stop Slavery, have – much, much more likely than not – been manufactured using, in some part, the very slave labour we are digi-signing to Stop. A total of 83 global brands were named two years ago as using slave labour, and most of them still are, so if you are feeling a rush of smug happiness about your brave keystrokes and have anything made by any one of them (and you have), please know you are part of the problem. All the tweets in the world won't change that.

At very best, all they do is show you as an irritating, rampaging, hypocrite. But when tweaking your own lifestyle is just too much to do to help Stop Slavery, then sign, share and remember to put “shared!” in the comment box to show you mean it. I am sure there is a gif of a tiny brown person breaking their chains and laughing for joy that you can post. Job done. Feelgood, effort-free opportunity is everywhere online. It is a digital dopamine high with a chaser of virtual moral superiority.

And this soul candy sells. An impressive, high-end charity called, is currently taking plastic-happy food company Danone to court to force them to (in their word) deplastify. You can become a member, get their emails, maybe even fundraise to help pay their global teams of six-figure lawyers. Anything other than simply stopping buying single-use plastics yourself. Because if enough people did that, Danone would stop too. But they probably won't.

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Do not misunderstand me, full-on whistleblowing can be a great thing, real awareness-raising of appalling problems is important. If it leads to action. If it simply leads to more awareness raising, as is usual, then we have an appalling problem of which all right-thinking people are totally aware. I am biased and bitter because I run a grassroots women's charity in Kenya, all very hands on and do-ey. These women really can do with all the help they can get.

Except for shoving a hug emoji and a flag on a social media site. That does nothing. Nothing.

Kate Copstick is founder of women's charity Mama Biashara and a writer



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