The campaign against the Boko Haram was one of the most recent success stories of social media campaign. #BringBackOurGirls had become a worldwide social media cause advocating for the return of nearly 300 kidnapped girls.
On April 14, at a school in the Nigerian town of Chibok, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped while taking their final exams. The girls were taken by the extremist group known as Boko Haram (which roughly translates as “Western education is sinful”), who had disguised themselves as soldiers and forced the girls up into the back of trucks. Yet in the days that followed, appallingly little was done to help. The Nigerian military falsely claimed it had rescued the girls — only to retract the claim the very next day. The story barely registered with the international media.
Then, on April 23, Oby Ezekwesili, vice president of the World Bank for Africa, gave a speech in Nigeria in which she urged the government to intervene and “bring back our girls.” Soon after, Twitter users in Nigeria began to repeat her call, adopting the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Hashtag activism is a new phenomenon and campaigning in this way has its faults. It can be a brilliant way to bring a campaign to people’s attention, but presumably those using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls want to do more than just spread awareness-they want those girls brought home. Getting people like Michelle Obama and David Cameron to hold up a slogan and pull a concerned face is not mission accomplished. We, the people, use a hashtag because we don’t have the power that these leaders have.
The other problem with hashtag activism is that information spreads very fast on social media and an inaccurate image or tweet goes twice around the world before the truth has time to put on his tie. One of the most powerful posters attached to the #BringBackOurGirls was tweeted by renowned feminist and rapper Chris Brown. It was also used by the US embassy in Madrid, Kim Kardashian and global girls rights activist Becky Makoni.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has obvious parallels with #Kony2012, the well-intentioned but ultimately ill-conceived campaign launched by California-based NGO Invisible Children. The #Kony2012 campaign video outlined the organization’s goal to stop the Ugandan militiaman and cult leader Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army recruited child soldiers, and it clearly resonated on social media, becoming the most viral video of all time. Yet, the video lacked important context about the issue and, despite the worldwide attention, the campaign fizzled out spectacularly; a follow-up video on Kony failed to garner even a fraction of the attention on social media, though it was released just a month after the first. Today, Kony and the LRA are still free and continue to recruit child soldiers.
It’s true that a hashtag alone can’t even begin to combat the multiple systemic problems that have worked in conjunction to allow 276 girls to be taken from their very school, but it has shed some light on those problems. And even though it’s true that not every person who has tweeted #BringBackOurGirls will give much thought to the Nigerian schoolgirls, the attention generated by the hashtag means that important people around the world are now doing just that.