Following new support from Michelle Obama, we look at whether the potential benefits of the viral campaign outweigh the potential risks
As the search for over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped at gunpoint on April 14 continues, responses to the crisis have swept across social media like wildfire, with the #BringBackOurGirls slogan trending worldwide.
— The First Lady (@FLOTUS) May 7, 2014
Standing in for her husband in delivering the weekly presidential address on May 10, Michelle Obama made a powerful statement in both her words and actions.
After tweeting a picture of herself holding a piece of paper emblazoned with the hashtag slogan on May 7, the First Lady used the broadcast as a more formal opportunity to call for action to be taken in securing the release of the girls taken from their school in Chibok on April 14, all the while serving herself as a formidable contradiction of the message spread by the group responsible.
The abductions have been claimed by radical Islamist group Boko Haram. Officially recognized as a terror organisation in 2013, the group stands against Western education systems and is particularly opposed to the education of women. The group has since threatened to sell the predominantly Christian girls as slaves, maintaining that they should never have been allowed into school and should be married instead.
— AmnestyInternational (@amnesty) May 7, 2014
The president’s wife is joined by countless others in posting her support for the girls, their families and the Nigerian people. As well as a host of celebrities including ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, actress Emma Watson and singer Alicia Keys, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, first tweeted by Abuja lawyer Ibrahim M Abdullahai, has also been taken up by such key figures as Pope Francis, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and perhaps most significantly, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, whose desire for an education led to her being shot by the Taliban in 2012.
Why Not Hashtag?
Reactions to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign have been varied. One of the most common arguments against the online movement is that it could be seen as trivialising what is ultimately a very grave and dangerous situation for the people in Nigeria. We all know that in reality, seeing western celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Cara Delevigne holding up a piece of paper is unlikely to move those who have it in their power to get the girls home.
If we suppose that our aim is to create a virtual army with one unified purpose, then one need only look at the comments box of any viral post to realize that social media has its inherent problems. Social media is a breeding ground for conflicting view points. Regardless of intentions, education or prejudices, people can quickly publish whatever they want on the internet and it is unlikely that everyone will agree.
Or is the situation more sinister than an online debate? Beyond simple ineffectiveness, could it be that such a campaign runs the risk of showing dangerous groups that acts of violence now have the power to command the attention of the world in a whole new way?
Do the potential benefits of the social campaign outweigh the potential risks?
The internet excels at generating a feeling of solidarity in the face of life’s evils. Just look at April’s “No Make-Up Selfie” campaign in the UK.
It spread quickly, got people sharing their stories and quickly raised over £1 million for cancer charities. Yet while creating awareness about a terrifying political situation is certainly a worthy cause, avoiding a situation which could be harmful to the Nigerian people must remain a priority.
Nigeria is a sovereign African state. So long as we are not Nigerian citizens, we should tread carefully in matters of Nigerian political conflict and take care not to undermine Nigerian democratic processes, even if only online.
Writing for Compare Afrique, Jumoke Balogun has warned against the, “insistence on urging American military power” which she feels may “ultimately hurt the people of Nigeria.”
Action or Awareness?
If we decide that these are indeed “our” girls to save, is simply talking about the crisis enough? And if not, what action, if any, should we take? Many of the negative reactions online to #BringBackOurGirls draw comparisons with #Kony2012, generally considered to be a failure (Joseph Kony is still at large).
Yet surely doing something is better than doing nothing. Atrocities are committed all over the world every day. Yet just because we can’t fix everything, does this mean we should stop trying altogether?
The #BringBackOurGirls movement on social media is at least a wonderful thing because it is spontaneous and driven by ordinary people coming together as a global community to express their outrage. Wouldn’t it be of comfort to the schoolgirls to know that much of the world is on their side and that they haven’t been forgotten?
It could be that the campaign is aimed as much at the Nigerian government as it is at the terrorists themselves and as observed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, anything that “mobilises” people is worth doing.
The Nigerian government has been criticised for releasing incorrect information about the state of the crisis and the number of girls missing during the early stages of the crisis. If there is even the possibility that the hashtag has the power to prompt increased aid and action from those who like Michelle Obama have the power to help, then ultimately it has some value.
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