The impact of #SelfieWithDaughter cannot be understated. It was ubiquitous across social media platforms and traveled around the world for two days – all the while having nothing to do with a Kardashian, ISIS, or any of the other usual suspects that trend worldwide. Better yet, unlike almost every other trend on social media, #SelfieWithDaugther did not come from the West. Best of all, it promoted girl empowerment on a completely new level – specifically, to save the lives of girls at or before birth.
One month after its launch on June 28, 2015, here are three reasons that made #SelfieWithDaughter special, and the small role this American in California played in its global reach.
June 28 started as an otherwise uneventful Sunday morning for me. I checked what was trending on Twitter at the end of Meet The Press. The top Trending Topic was #SelfieWithDaughter, which at first blush seemed like another self-absorbed, mindless hashtag.. “Prime Minister of India asks countrymen to use #SelfieWithDaughter on social media to combat infanticide of girls,” was the first headline I discovered. ‘Woah. This is neither mindless nor self-absorbed. This is real,’ I thought.
The gender imbalance throughout south Asia is nothing new. I first read about it as a college student twenty years ago, and distinctly recall a ’60 Minutes’ story on the subject in 2006 (albeit it focused on the problem in China). Thus, I instantly knew the impetus behind the prime minister’s social media initiative. In India, as in China and surrounding countries, girls are seen by some in rural communities as a financial burden; sadly, newborn girls (or the “girl child,” as they’re called by English-speakers in India) are killed at birth or aborted at an alarming rate. Historically, there have been 105 boys born for every 100 girls worldwide. The gender ratio in the United States is consist with the world average: 105/100. However, in India, the ration jumps to 108/100. A report by the United Nations estimates that there are 117 million “missing” women throughout Asia as a result of prenatal or at-birth sex selection. According to India’s own census, there are parts of country where there are only 879 females for every 1,000 males.
Such staggering figures help explain what compelled Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi to launch this initiative during Mann Ki Baat, his weekly radio address (go to 20:24), in which he pointed to the social ills and lost potential that is created by gender imbalance. PM Modi asked for selfies and a tagline. Indians around the world, particularly fathers, responded in droves. According to some estimates, there were over 1.2 million organic tweets in the campaign’s first 48 hours.
By the time I learned of it a half-day later, #SelfieWithDaughters was trending worldwide with contributors from throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere. While I am proud and happy to be the father of three little girls (ages 2 to 9), I am often asked if my wife and I will try for a boy. “Why? My girls can do anything boys can do,” I say. I wanted to add their voice to this meaningful campaign. I used a picture we took on a Sunday before sunset in March 2015 at our favorite place on Earth: Malibu Bluffs Park. The tagline I used was a phrase I first heard when my firstborn, Julia, was a baby: When you raise a daughter, you raise a nation!
— Filiberto Gonzalez (@gofiliberto) June 28, 2015
In its first hour, my tweet received 219 retweets. And for the rest of the day, my phone would not stop lighting up. Later that same day, PM Modi himself (or whoever manages his personal account) replied to my tweet and retweeted it. To date, my tweet is by far the most viral of all #SelfieWithDaughter tweets not from India, and according to Twitter‘s native analytics, it has had a total of 535,553 social impressions and 30,106 engagement (times people interacted with the tweet) to date.
A number of Indians who were moved by the image responded with comments, such as: “Look at what foreigners can see that we don’t?” and “Thanks to people like you, people in India have a different view of girls.” Suffice it to say, I was blown away.
If this was the entire story, it would not be a story at all. The profound and humbling experience I had because of my tweet notwithstanding, there are three important reasons why #SelfieWithDaughter is truly noteworthy:
#1: Girl Empowerment: On A Whole New Level
Impromptu social media campaigns, such as #YesAllWomen in May 2014, have succeeded in making sexism and rape culture – taboo subjects that heretofore are rarely if ever discussed in polite company – trending topics online and IRL (in real life) in the United States, presumably, for the first time ever. As a father and person of conscience, campaigns that call attention to sexism or promote girl empowerment are important to me – as they are to millions of brothers, fathers, and good guys in the United States and around the world. The (far less impromptu and) professionally produced social campaign #LikeAGirl, which was produced for Always products by Procter & Gamble, succeeded in challenging the public to consider how “like a girl” is used as an insult, especially when it is said by and to other children. #LikeAGirl, which debuted in June 2014 and received more than 4.4 billion social impressions in its first two months, earned several Shorty Awards for its efforts.
Without discounting the aforementioned social campaigns’ value and importance to American social and political discourse, #SelfieWithDaughter is special and different for many reasons.
Indeed, it confronts – albeit in a roundabout, non-confrontational way – the infanticide of girls for being girls. As a form of discrimination against women, I would have to rank this one at the same point or above all others. Thanks to the instant and overwhelming response from parents of girls in India and around the world, #SelfieWithDaughter has already succeeded in changing the narrative among its target audience. Selfies from foreigners, it seems, accelerated its momentum and helped convince many in the target audience that the prime minister’s message was, in fact, a valid one.
#2: …But When He (or She) Says It
#SelfieWithDaughter did not start organically or as part of an ad campaign. It was launched by the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who happens to be the leader of the second most populous country in the world. (FYI: India has 1.3 billion people; that’s more than four times the population of the United States [the population nerds reading this already knew that].) Prime Minister Modi is also the world leader with the second most Twitter followers: 14.1 million. Whether we like-it or not, when a head of state speaks, it packs the power of the bully pulpit and becomes unavoidable on the world stage. When Pope Francis (yes, he’s also a head of state [world government nerds already knew that]) recently released his encyclical on climate change, it made headlines around the world and forced political leaders around the world – both those for and against it – to respond. In the United States, President Barack Obama often draws attention to an issue, and can change the debate about it, even when it’s unscripted, as was the case when he, essentially, called Bill Cosby a rapist from the podium at the White House earlier this month. The president’s choice words became the coup de grâce for Bill Cosby.
In short, had it not come from the prime minister, we never would have heard of it.
#SelfieWithDaughter’s global impact was so successful, it seemed to catch the prime minister off guard, based on his reaction on Twitter. The day after it began, he tweeted his amazement (seen below) and shared a blog post about it, which happens to include my tweet.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 29, 2015
#3: From East To West
Unlike the course of the sun, pop culture tends to travel from the West to the East. As a matter of course, American pop music, movies, and even sports figures are known around the world. The same goes for social media memes and hashtag trending topics. It is also true that trends from around the world tend not to make it back to the United States – but not this time. #SelfieWithDaughter is also noteworthy for beginning in the East and taking off around the world. #BringBackOurGirls, the global social media campaign that began in response to the kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria in April 2014, is possibly the only exception. Several weeks and millions of tweets later, it received a helping hand from First Lady Michelle Obama, whose tweet with the hashtag instantly garnered tens of thousands of retweets.
— The First Lady (@FLOTUS) May 7, 2014
Twitter has been called the global ham radio, which sounds cool, but really cannot be true unless information flows in all directions. The global reach and popularity of #SelfieWithDaughter – and #BringBackOurGirls before it – is finally making it so.
Finally, I extend my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to PM Modi and the people of India for their kind words to my daughters and me. I look forward to thanking you all in person one day.