You’ve probably heard of the attack that took place on April 14 in Nigeria – in which the Islamic Militant group, Boko Haram, attacked a school in Chibok and kidnapped over 300 girls. But even if you managed to miss the story in the news cycle, you would be hard-pressed to miss the subsequent social media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, which drew in high-profile posts from public figures like First Lady Michelle Obama, Ellen Degeneres, and Malala Yousafzai.
#BringBackOurGirls worked, insofar as it created pressure on world leaders to find the missing girls and return them safely to their families. It also sparked dialogue and conversation about Boko Haram and global rights for women and girls – both valuable areas for education. But what it didn’t do was bring back the girls.
Hashtag activism has limitations, and #BringBackOurGirls is no exception to the rule. After all the buzz, why are there still girls missing? Not all of the blame falls on the limitations of digital activism, but some provide us with lessons in how to bridge the gains of social media movements and leverage them in the real world.
For US, Finding Girls is Not a Top Priority
While many Nigerians celebrated when the US sent drones into Nigeria, few understood the true purpose of the drones’ mission. The drones are being used to gather intelligence on Boko Haram rather than for a rescue operation. According to Cedric Leighton, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel who has advised on the situation in Nigeria, “the freeing of the girls is not the top mission of the drones.”
If it leads to the benefit of freeing those 223 girls, that’s a wonderful humanitarian benefit, but it’s not necessarily the top mission that these drones have.
Although the Nigerian government claims that they are working tirelessly to return the kidnapped girls to their families, some have accused soldiers within the Nigerian army of leaking information to Boko Haram, which leads the US to be reluctant to share information.
#BringBackOurGirls Was Too Little, Too Late
The first few hours of a kidnapping situation are crucial in a rescue mission. According to J. Peter Pham the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, after those first few hours, the trail goes cold.
The trails goes cold. And that’s where the reality is. By the time social media caught onto this, it was well too late.
So – how can we break the cycle of hashtag activism?
One way is to make sure you’re following news – news that matters. In our increasingly fast-paced world our attention span for news stories is nearly non-existent. Almost as soon as our media gets a substantive grasp on a situation, audiences are bored and on to the next big headline. With the World Cup in full swing, much of the world is preoccupied wondering which teams will move forward rather than wondering why these girls have not been returned to their families. Therefore, if you plan to advocate for this issue, or any issue for that matter, it is important that you are using the most up-to-date information available.
Additionally, as Westerners, we have never been adept at caring about international events unless they are somehow related to us or could affect our lives. Although many people participated in the #BringBackOurGirls movement, after tweeting something with the hashtag the situation was out of sight and out of mind. If we choose to be advocates for an issue, we need to stop patting ourselves on the back for doing the bare minimum and forgetting about the issue afterwards and instead truly start working to raise awareness in meaningful ways.