With a hashtag and the click of a button, people are standing up for what they believe in.
Di-Tu Dissassa, a graduate assistant at University of Missouri-Kansas City, posted an Instagram photo of herself holding a sign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls in support of the more than 200 missing girls in Nigeria.
She says she posted the photo as part of an initiative by her school’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, where she works.
If she were one of the captured Nigerian girls, Dissassa says, she would want someone to do the same for her.
“I know that although I cannot go to Nigeria and find those girls myself, at least I can raise awareness and pray that the girls are found,” she says.
Dissassa first learned about the campaign through social media, and she says she looked up information about the campaign to see where it started and why the hashtag was related.
Signs have always been a symbol of protest surrounding activism. And the presence of signs and posters has remained prominent in the ever-growing digital world, if not more popular.
Selfies, photographed self-portraits, have exploded with the growth of social media. In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries named the term the Word of the Year. Hashtag activism, which gained momentum during the Occupy Wall Street movement, has also been on the rise with several recent campaigns.
The combination of the two brings selfies beyond narcissistic tendencies.
First lady Michelle Obama recently tweeted a picture of herself holding a sign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. She is one of many high-profile figures, including Malala Yousafzai and Amy Poehler, who have shown their support for the missing girls.
Susan Olzak, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, says there is a persistence of signs as a tactic in social movements, despite all kinds of other tactical forms that could be used, like videos or music or artwork that can be disseminated easily across the Internet.
“And what’s interesting to me is the persistence across thousands of years of signs in protests remains strong,” she says.
In the Philippines last year, people used selfies with the hashtag #StrikeTheHike to protest hikes in train fares. The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network asked people to photograph themselves with a sign that answers the question: What are you doing to end the silence around anti-LGBT bullying and harassment?
A selfie with a sign immediately personalizes a campaign and also shows a strong commitment from individuals. Posting a photo of yourself with a message makes a bigger statement than simply tweeting a hashtag or anonymously signing an online petition.
“There’s evidence that particular signs — as well as other visual symbols — diffuse across locations, regions, countries, and movements,” Olzak says. “People believe they’re useful, and they probably are.”
Lauren Katz works on the social media desk at NPR. You can follow her @Laur_Katz.