In the U.S., the term “hashtag activism” is usually uttered with a kind of derisive sneer, the implication being that social media can’t be used to effect any kind of “real” change. But in Syria, sites like Twitter and Facebook are an integral part of the revolution.
While the Arab Spring brought down the Tunisian government in 28 days and the Egyptian government in 18, the longevity of Syria’s revolution means that activists find it difficult to retain the interest of the international media. But if an activist can post clear YouTube footage of a protest and make sure that it’s shared on social media, then it’s far more likely to wind up on TV. Part of Basatneh’s job is to help citizen journalists make their work as accessible as possible to what can best be described as overseas audiences.
But as her role became increasingly important, her safety became less secure. Basatneh received death threats and was followed around her home neighborhood in Illinois. For her own safety, she used to be escorted to and from class by campus security.
#chicagoGirl is a film about the real-world impact of social media, in a situation where people are risking their lives to share information online. It’s also a story about idealism and obsession, about a teenage girl who decided to dedicate her life to helping people she has never even met: the polar opposite of the apathetic slacktivist stereotype that we often see characterized by people who aren’t familiar with the power of social media.
Following a screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival, we Skyped with Ala’a Basatneh and #chicagoGirl director Joe Piscatella to talk about the film, the revolution, and how #chicagoGirl has inspired teens and college students across the U.S.