Can Twitter activism #BringBackOurGirls?

July 23

Three months ago, the conversation about Nigeria’s kidnapped girls was electric online. Now, much of the digital chatter around the girls has faded. On April 15, more than 200 girls were taken from their school in Chibok by the extremist group Boko Haram. Nearly 60 girls have managed to escape their captors since then, but the majority of them are still being held.

It took weeks before that news started to make international headlines, all thanks to an online campaign. But as time wears on, the hashtag activism that started #BringBackOurGirls has gotten quieter and quieter.

Twitter activity has dropped sharply–from 488,000 tweets sent globally in early May to just under 7,000 tweets sent around the world earlier this week.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) is determined to get the kidnapped schoolgirls back into the headlines, using the same Twitter tactics that got them on the front page in the first place. She has been furiously tweeting and re-tweeting, hoping to put pressure on the Nigerian government to do more to bring the girls back to their families.

“Twitter is so easy,” Wilson said. “And to galvanize people around an issue over the days that we’ve been able to and help these young women is phenomenal.”

After visiting Nigeria in June and meeting with some local Nigerian activists credited with starting the online movement, Wilson promised she’d keep tweeting “#BringBackOurGirls” and keep the Twitter traffic going. “Everyday we sit around…and try to come up with places, people: ‘Who can we get on this campaign?’” she said.

Her congressional colleagues are also speaking out–tweeting about the girls and taking to the House floor.

After a slow start, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, garnered international attention in May when it went viral. It attracted the attention of celebrities around the world, and even first lady Michelle Obama joined the campaign, becoming the most shared tweet on the issue, with more than 57,000 retweets.

More than 4 million tweets have been sent using that hashtag since the girls went missing. Nigerian lawyer, Ibrahim Abdullahi is credited with coming up with it. He said that he has tried, unsuccessfully, to launch Twitter campaigns with different hashtags like #ChibokGirls, #BornoGirls, #AbductedBornoGirls.” But nothing took off like this one did.

“Before the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls came into being, there was almost a total news blackout [about the] abduction of the schoolgirls,” said Abdullahi. “Most of the media…and the world became aware of the abduction through the online campaign. It created awareness to the plight of the schoolgirls and people of the northeast Nigeria in the hands of Boko Haram.”

The Twitter offensive has caught the attention of Boko Haram, which recently released a video mocking the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

“[It] is the height of wickedness and mercilessness,” Abdullahi said in response to the video.

No doubt, Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets brought the news of the missing Nigerian girls to a worldwide audience. But they’re still missing. So what is it that hashtag activism can really do? Slate’s Ben Scott doesn’t think it can save lives, but says Internet activism shouldn’t be written off as meaningless.

Hashtag activism is a gateway between politics and popular culture, a platform to educate the ignorant and draw attention to the operation of power in the world. And when it shines a spotlight on a burning crisis in Africa that has been raging for years, that matters.

Malala Yousafzai is taking the boots on the ground approach to activism. The Pakistani teen who was shot by the Taliban for advocating education for girls, asked for one simple birthday wish: “Bring back our girls, now and alive.” She spent her 17th birthday in Nigeria, meeting with parents and with girls who had escaped the kidnappers. She also brokered a meeting between Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and the abducted girls’ families.

Jonathan met with the parents for the first time on Tuesday. He told them that the Nigerian government is doing everything in its power to secure the release of the girls from Boko Haram. But some parents will never see their daughters again. The AP reports that since the abduction, nearly a dozen parents of the girls have died.

Back in the United States, the Obama administration says it is providing assistance with the investigation, but continues to emphasize that the responsibility ultimately rests with the Nigerian government. “We are advising on issues of survivor support, humanitarian assistance, criminal investigations, intelligence, and strategic communications. All the while, we recognize that this is a Nigerian-led effort,” said a White House spokesperson for the National Security Council.

Nigeria’s president has been widely criticized for being unable to contain a string of terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, and being unable to find the missing schoolgirls. Wilson thinks the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is continuing to put pressure on President Jonathan.

“The Twitter campaign is lighting a fire under him,” Wilson said. “People think the Nigerian government is not doing enough to find these girls. And there’s more that should be done and could be done.”

Pamela Kirkland is a video producer for PostTV.
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