Boko Haram must be quaking in their boots. These ‘Islamic’ militants have razed entire villages to the ground, hacked men to death and killed children as they slept, but now the West has a hashtag campaign.
#BringBackOurGirls has exploded across social media, powered by a desire to reunite 200 kidnapped Nigerian girls with their parents as well as a strong sense of outrage. Facebook and Twitter are well adapted mediums for protest, yet often the complaints made were not against Boko Haram, but against what was seen as the mainstream media’s wilful ignorance of the girls’ kidnap. A volley of tweets argued that “if these children were white European girls, countries would do something.” They are right. If 200 girls had gone missing in Spain, whether white or black, there would have been far more coverage. Not because of media racism but because such events in Europe are unheard of and therefore in industry terms, more newsworthy. Many of us have been on holiday to Spain and it is a sad fact of humanity that we care more about things we can imagine happening to us.
The media weren’t ignoring those girls. Reports from the Associated Press and Reuters captured the attention of those who first began campaigning to bring them home. News bulletins didn’t give the issue prominence, but that’s because the media gives their audience what they think they want. All organisations have to shift papers, get clicks and bring in viewers . In February alone, 60 boys were burnt to death as the they slept at a boarding school in Yobe. That same month 150 Christian men were hacked to death and gunned down in a village in central Nigeria. There was no hashtag in February. If readers don’t suggest they are interested in Boko Haram (which given the lack of Western outrage in February, it would be easy to assume), then there will be no primetime coverage.
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. I want influential people to act, not update their status.
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. It was a picture of a girl from Guinea Bissou, a country more than 1000 miles away from Nigeria. It was taken by photographer Ami Vitale in 2000, the girl in question, Jenabu Balde, was not kidnapped, and the tear drop running down her face had been photoshopped on. The original picture is here.
Yet despite being simplistic and at times hypocritical, hashtag activism can work. The media watches Facebook and Twitter to see what issues people care about. Politicians read newspapers: they also want to get votes. If they see a course of action is popular they’ll try and own that issue. France's president offered to host a summit on Boko Haram. Goodluck Jonathan is now willing to accept Western help, and hashtag activism has gone a long way into pressurising him into that decision.
It’s not just politicians and the media watching social media. Boko Haram might be militants, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t on Twitter. Terrorists want to spread terror and are increasingly using social media due to the accessible, affordable platform it provides. Giving their acts of atrocity airtime may fuel their aims, but the widespread condemnation such campaigns bring may also serve as a foil. Either way, they are listening to what we say. Groups like Al Qaeda and Al Shabab use social media extensively: it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine them employing a social media editor in the future. If hashtag activism really spits in their custard, such an employee may tell his boss ‘this #bringbackourgirls meme, well, it’s going to make our lives hell and it’s just not worth it.’ For all that is wrong with hashtag activism, it is only going to get more powerful in the future. It’s not to be sniffed at.