#BringBackOurGirls: The side effects of successful social media

Michelle Obama tweeted this picture in support of the campaign. --Twitter/Bloomberg

The Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls has helped galvanize world attention to the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. As social media, it has of course also quickly been hijacked and spun off in different directions, spawning controversy.

With global leaders and celebrities joining the calls to #BringBackOurGirls, the media began doing more reporting on the crisis – which was for a week or so failing to grab headlines. Protests in Nigeria and around the world have shown that people will not rest until the girls are brought back home. Foreign government and international players have also been applying pressure on the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to take more action and rescue the girls.

Around the edges of the main campaign, other discussions and disputes have arisen – with pundits using the popular meme to promote their own, unrelated agendas and the brief-but-strange debate over who started the Twitter campaign.

Observers have rightly praised the success of #BringBackOurGirls for having a big impact. A call by Vice President of the World Bank for Africa Oby Ezekwesil to “Bring back the girls!” and a tweet by Ibrahim M. Abdullahi of her statement established the hashtag that quickly captured global attention.

The campaign also caused some concerns about what hashtag activism can achieve and what people are actually trying to accomplish. The worry was that the hashtag would serve the needs of individuals, rather than the kidnapped girls.

“We need to understand how everything fits into everything else. The job of the hashtags and press statements and campaigns is not to bring the girls back, but to make sure they’re not forgotten,” said Tolu Ogunlesi in the Nigeria publication Punch.

In the case of #BringBackOurGirls, the hashtag has been appropriated to support US military intervention, comment on the state of US politics and promote a documentary on girls.

The hijacking of #BringBackOurGirls by self-interested individuals has proved to be a distraction and illustrates the baggage that can quickly attach itself to an impressive social media campaign.

Perhaps the most reviled alleged hijacking was that of activist and documentary director Ramaa Mosley.

Mosley claimed to media outlets that she started the hashtag leading to stories like “Los Angeles Mother of Two Creates Viral Hashtag” reported by ABC. A Wall Street Journal piece on Mosley describes how US media featured her in the early stages of reporting on the kidnapping. It says she neglected to disclose that she was involved in the making of the documentary “Girls Rising,” a feature that tells the stories of the challenges faced by girls around the world.

“I quickly noticed that there was no social media presence, no petitions, no action cry. So pathetically I set out to create a Facebook page and Twitter account for the cause…then I began tweeting and hashtagging one particular phrase #bringbackourgirls,” she said in an April 30 message about herself on her Facebook page.

But Mosley’s statements were soon challenged and her claim met with a strong backlash. She then denied ever claiming to say she started the hashtag.  Meanwhile, conservative US pundits have found ways to use a tweet in support of the campaign by First Lady Michelle Obama as fodder for criticizing her and the current administration. Ann Coulter mimicked the sad-faced Obama with her own tweet and hashtag.

With the power of photo editing, people struck back against Coulter with their own variations on her photo (see some less polite versions here).

Coulter was joined by radio host Rush Limbaugh in criticizing Obama’s tweet. He pointedly questioned the effectiveness of her hashtag activism in bringing the girls back home.

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“I just think this is pathetic. I’m just stunned. We got 300 Nigerian girls kidnapped by an Al Qaeda group, and nobody cared or talked about it for a while, Hillary [Clinton] wouldn’t call ‘em a terror group. Now all of a sudden, for some reason, we’re on a big push to get ‘em back and this is how… ?” said Limbaugh.

Both Limbaugh and Coulter have been criticized for their callousness in using the occasion to score political points. Daily Show host Jon Stewart mocked Limbaugh and called for people to start the #F*@kYouRush hashtag in response. Despite that, the way that the hashtag has been used is not beyond reproach.

Ogunlesi and other Nigerians have expressed caution in regards to what #BringBackOurGirls can accomplish. They also argue that the issue is and should be Nigerian led.

“[W]hen you pressure Western powers, particularly the American government to get involved in African affairs  and when you champion military intervention, you become part of a much larger problem,” writes Jumoke Balogun in Compare Afrique.

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The reality of a US-led intervention is closer than even she may have expected. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) told the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin that the US should send in special forces to recover the girls, regardless of whether or not the Nigerian government is on board.

“If they knew where they were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country,” said McCain. “I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan.”

The hawkish views of McCain are not necessarily shared by everyone. The man who lost to President Obama in 2008 has been one of the more eager politicians to seek military interventions in international affairs. The recent statements are not a new stance for McCain on the issue of the Nigeria girls, he told CNN last week that everything possible should be done to recover the girls once they are found.

His dismissive reference to Nigeria’s president is indicative of his lack of respect for the sovereignty of the country.

There are arguments for stepping in if the government of Nigeria cannot follow through on its obligations to protect the kidnapped girls.

“Legally and politically, the burden of protecting Nigerians does lie with the Nigerian government,” says US lawyer Marissa Jackson, in response to Balogun.

“However, it is a well-recognized human rights principle that when a state completely fails to protect its people as the Nigerian government has, the world community has a moral obligation to step in.”

It’s too soon so say if #BringBackOurGirls will produce the desired end, of returning the abducted school girls to their families. As was shown by the #Kony2012 campaign – which exploded thanks to a viral video – successful social media can produce a lot of activity but still fail to achieve the main end. And there are always the unforeseen consequences.

Stepping in virtually, with a click of a button on your computer, can rally the world community. The unpredictable and wide-open nature of social media is what has allowed #BringBackOurGirls to take off and have an impact.

We can only hope one of the impacts is bringing back the girls.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.