By Sarah Dahl,
Michelle Obama, Harrison Ford, Kurdish women in Syria, and Harvard University students have all pledged their support for the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls stolen from a boarding school in mid-April by the terrorist group Boko Haram. With the help of social media, particularly the Twitter hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls, the story has gone viral, with millions of outraged citizens from around the world voicing anger online.
Here is what the world learned. The abduction took place on the evening of April 16 in the rural town of Chibok, which is located in the northeastern state of Borno. According to newyorker.com, despite area violence from the anti-education radicals, the school had briefly re-opened for the night so the girls could pass their final exams. But the school was unguarded, and group members marched in and set the place on fire, taking the girls with them. In the aftermath, around 40 managed to escape, but over 200 went missing. Parents of the lost girls became outraged and desperate, and the government was doing nothing to help. It had even blundered by issuing a false statement—promptly retracted—that all the girls had been rescued.
Boko Haram is notorious for violence in rural northern Nigeria. “Nigerians have become inured to daily tales of horror that come out of the north, and politicians are not exempt from this.” reported the BBC about the Nigerian government’s lack of response. Reuters.com wrote in February that 59 schoolboys were shot and burned to death in a province neighboring Borno with little public outcry. The girls’ kidnapping was a tragedy, but not unprecedented, which makes their particular story’s global reach come as a shock.
Did the hashtag campaign account for the difference? What do awareness campaigns on social media actually accomplish?
According to the BBC, a lawyer in Abuja—Nigeria’s capital—first used the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on April 23. By May 7 it had been tweeted 1 million times. Websites like change.org then sprouted petitions, calling on site users to give their names and emails in uproar against the Nigerian government.
In the sphere of BB&N, Sophie Taibl ’16 said that compared to many of her friends, she caught on to the movement early, but still she felt saddened about not hearing the news sooner. A week after the crime, Sophie read a Tumblr post about the kidnapping.
“I was angry that it wasn’t more publicized,” Sophie said. “I felt really ignorant, but then I talked to other people and realized they didn’t know about it, either.”
So Sophie took to Facebook, sharing the story with her 1,000-plus Facebook friends. By now, Sophie said, thanks to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign she thinks most of her peers know about the abduction.
Yet the girls remain in danger, and that raises the question of whether social media has the power to effect real change.
Paul Sand ’16 said he didn’t think the Internet was a bad way of getting word out, but he worried that people might get the false impression of doing good when all they’re really doing is clicking a button.
“[Hashtag campaigns] might make people less likely to go out and do things that actually help instead of sitting at home being Internet warriors,” he said. “Often [it’s] just a bunch of rich white kids pretending they’re helping without actually do[ing] anything. They don’t really deserve to feel better about themselves just for hitting ‘share’ or typing a paragraph.”
Former Going Global president Jaclyn Licht ’12 has a different perspective on social media activism from the club’s support of a previous international campaign, KONY 2012. The cause targeted terrorist Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), by sharing a powerful documentary of his crimes online and tweeting the slogan #KONY2012.
“The objective of KONY 2012 was to make Joseph Kony ‘famous,’” Jaclyn said. “If enough world leaders, celebrities, and citizens around the world saw the documentary, there would be enough international outrage to incite a more aggressive effort to bring the LRA to an end.”
The video’s original goal had been to gain 500,000 views within a year, Jaclyn said. In six days it had reached over 100 million. She noted that even President Obama first learned about KONY 2012 after one of his daughters saw the video online.
Jaclyn sees similarities between her efforts and those for the captive schoolgirls today.
“The popularity of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign [has] created an important ripple effect,” she said. “When there is a large public outcry, it attracts media attention and thus stirs institutional leaders to respond.”
And when she met with congressional leaders to discuss attacks on Kony, Jaclyn said they were much more interested, thanks to the explosive online campaign.
Skeptics like Paul, however, remind that widespread attention doesn’t always lead to real change.
Nigerian author Teju Cole seemed to share that opinion when he took to Twitter on May 7 with his own message about the decades-old crises in his country.
“The story behind the story: Nigeria itself has been missing for years,” he tweeted. “For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing,” he added, in reference to Boko Haram.
In a May 10 Associated Press article, Villanova University new media professor Gordon Coonfield explained that oftentimes, outrage over world tragedy sizzles and then dies.
“People can care so fiercely at this moment only on the condition that they can completely forget about it tomorrow,” he said. “Social media won’t find [the girls]. This will happen only if we can sustain a network of attention longer than 140 characters.”
Cearah Peck ’16, who learned about the event from a Facebook post, voiced a similar sentiment.
“If [the awareness-raising] keeps being just a social media thing, if we don’t get an organization, or petitions, or something concrete to help [the girls], people will forget about it,” she said. “It has to go beyond hashtagging. That’s only the first step.”
The girls are still missing. It has been over a month. But, Sophie noted, Boko Haram has released a video of the girls, alive and praying.
“I’m not sure if this is good progress,” she said, “but at least it’s something. And at least we know about it.”