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#BringBackOurGirls shows the limits of social media

In the history of social media, there are few campaigns that have attracted as much attention as the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The effort to aid 270 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in mid-April became an international phenomenon in early May after former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted the phrase. Her tweet was retweeted more than 11,000 times, according to the BBC. Soon First Lady Michelle Obama, singer Chris Brown, actress Salma Hayek and myriad other celebrities had joined in, multiplying the message across their legions of followers and attracting widespread media attention.

Then the attention went away. “For celebrities we’ve seen a mixed reaction, some joined that campaign because at that time it was the most popular campaign on the Internet,” says Rotimi Olawale, an Abuja-based spokesperson for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. He adds: “At some point after, it was the Ice Bucket Challenge.”

But the problem did not disappear. Some of the girls have managed to flee the group on their own, but 216 still missing. According to escapees, some have been forcibly converted to Islam, married to Boko Haram supporters, sexually assaulted, or used as slaves for the group. No amount of Facebook likes, Twitter retweets or celebrity photographs with the hashtag made a tangible impact on their lives. Though the U.S. and European nations provided some intelligence and logistics support, Boko Haram recently conquered Chibok, the northern town from which it had kidnapped the girls in the April raid.

This maps shows the cities in Nigeria where major attacks have occurred, including the capital Abuja. Map credit: OCHA/ReliefWeb

Cities in Nigeria where major Boko Haram attacks have occurred, including the capital Abuja. Map credit: OCHA/ReliefWeb

Much of the context of the problem was lost in the buzz of social media. Many posts focused on Boko Haram’s opposition to the education of girls–the group’s name translates from Hausa as “Western education is forbidden.” Issues that have fuelled the insurgency: rampant government corruption, the brutal response of the security forces to Boko Haram atrocities, and the political and economic marginalization of predominately Muslim northern Nigeria–weren’t addressed.

“You can’t ‘selfie’ the Boko Haram insurgency,” says Alex Perry, a Newsweek correspondent and author of “Hunting for Boko Haram.” He adds: “There were a few things that were sort of misdirected in the global hashtag social media awareness campaign, one was that this was an issue of girls education. It wasn’t really. The girls gender saved them because the boys were all shot.”

Like the Kony2012 campaign for the capture of the Ugandan militia leader, interest on social media was built around a simple portrayal of the culprits as evil. As Slate’s Joshua Keating has argued, when the public is shown the world as a complex place, the interest disappears. Nigeria’s failure to build a functioning state that can hold in check a group that has a medieval view of the world is difficult to explain in 140 characters. The government’s missteps, including announcing a ceasefire with Boko Haram that didn’t exist and falsely reporting that many of the girls had been rescued muddied the narrative.

The outpouring on social media defied “the simplest analysis of celebrities and president’s wives,” Alain Chouet, a former French intelligence official, wrote on the news site MondeAfrique.

Easy as it may be to mock celebrities posing on the red carpet at Cannes holding signs for a cause, the outpouring on social media could yet yield results. For one thing, even before it caught the attention of the likes of Justin Timberlake or Sylvester Stallone, #BringBackOurGirls had already gone viral in Nigeria—demonstrating social media’s power to give voice to complaints about unresponsive government.

Importantly, the campaign was not launched by rights groups or aid organizations but by Nigerians angered by a false report in April by the military that most of the girls had been rescued. “Initially in the local media there was little or no information about the abduction,” says Olawale. It was not until Nigerians began protesting in front of their parliament two weeks after the abductions that the hashtag was adopted.

And though the campaign has yet to lead to a successful rescue mission for the girls, it has roiled Nigerian politics. After President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election campaign attempted to piggyback on the hashtag’s popularity by emblazoning #BringBackGoodluck2015 on billboards, a spate of media coverage led him to reverse course. “By the next day, all of the billboards in Abuja with the hashtag disappeared,” says Olawale.

That may be a small victory, given that Jonathan is the man the campaign is most trying to influence. But small steps are still better than none.

“The one thing it’s done is put an unprecedented amount of pressure on the Nigerian government who have finally been made to realize they are meant to serve their people,” says Perry. “They’ve yet to turnaround and actually serve those people but they have at least been forced to hear their voices. And that in Nigerian politics is progress.”

Timeline and additional reporting by Alyssa Strickland. 

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