Hashtag Power

I used to think hashtags were obtrusive to text and a way to seem funny or cool. When the Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake skit became a hit, it nearly confirmed its place for me as a humorous approach to content on social media. Hashtag classic. 

Hashtags can still be wildly funny, but it's a serious matter when it comes to something like criticism over a news organization's reporting. This week CNN had to change their headline to a story about President Barack Obama's trip to Kenya, calling the country a "hotbed of terror." A hashtag campaign, #SomeoneTellCNN, was re-ignited after its origination in 2012 by a Kenyan who originally criticized the organization for their coverage of an explosion at bus station in Kenya. Many believed the CNN coverage exaggerated the story to portray a country erupting into violence.

The recent hashtag campaign ignited outcry from Kenyans and globally that CNN did correct their headline to refer to the 'hotbed of terror' as a regional, rather than country-wide threat. Kenya neighbors Somalia, also home to jihadist group, Al-Shabab, which has been responsible for terrorist attacks in Kenya in recent years. There is no apology from CNN for the oversimplification despite wide demand. However, CNN did issue a correction with a note from the editor:

Editor’s Note: The headline and lead of this article has been recast to indicate the terror threat is a regional one.

But the country's interior minister demanded an apology from CNN, among the onrush from Twitter. How far should the news organization go to minimize the harm they caused? It seemed only necessary to change the headline and lead, but without an apology readers are left still wanting the organization to admit their mistake and claim accountability. 

Going halfway to only change the wording leaves out the opportunity for CNN to use their moral authority, apologize for their misrepresentation, and increase their credibility. 

The news value of associating Kenya as a "hot bed of terror" did not justify the harm in this case. There was no journalistic purpose to report this story. Changing the wording to encompass the region doesn't even lessen the fact that Kenya is still considered part of this region, which is why the hashtag continues to be widely used across social media. 

If it weren't for so many Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) voicing their outcry and the pickup from other news organizations among other tweets around the globe, I doubt CNN's headline or lead would have changed. That's part of the power of hashtags today. It's much harder to make broad sweeping generalizations about entire countries from an international news organization today, especially about Kenya - one of the most successful countries in Africa. The terror threat is a real one for Kenya and their stability, but as a news story linked with President Obama's visit had no purpose. 

In fact, President Obama's purpose in visiting Kenya has almost entirely been left out of the onslaught of criticism. His main purpose is to speak at the Global Entrepreneurship summit, a topic that represents opportunity, in a country that the World Bank considers to be the fastest growing economy in Africa. It is yet another kind of power of hashtags. We can more easily misdirect our attention to a harmful headline, than what the news story should have focused on. 

CNN could have reported on why President Obama was traveling to Kenya and focused in on this topic. Even working an angle of how the fastest growing economy deals with terrorist group, Al-Shabab, is an interesting perspective. Unfortunately without an apology, CNN will continue to easily expose their unethical journalism, though it comes at the cost of working against their community of viewers who seek the facts. 

Emily Turner3 Comments