On 14 April 2014, 276 Nigerian school girls were abducted by Boko Haram, to minimal outrage or global press coverage.
Two weeks later, a fire was lit in the form of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign, and three days later still John Kerry issued the first official US government response to the situation.
By 6 May President Obama had vowed to send 30 personnel to Nigeria to assist in the rescue of the remaining captive girls; and on 22 May a further 80 military personnel were committed to Nigeria.
There’s no doubt at all that since the first #BringBackOurGirls mention by Nigerian lawyer Ibrahim M. Abdullahi on 23 April, the hashtag has pushed this crime from regional to global news and has contributed to Obama’s decision to commit personnel to Africa.
Why, then, has the hashtag had such an impact?
Firstly, this is not a divisive issue. Unlike hashtag campaigns that have come and gone before, #BringBackOurGirls has unified a global audience and, apart from a microscopic percentage of Boko Haram supporters, the whole world is behind the message, if not the means, of the campaign. Hashtag campaigns about everything from Orca captivity, to gay marriage, to Invisible Children; even the #YesAllWomen hashtag have all divided national and global opinions (rightly or wrongly) where #BringBackOurGirls has united the world’s population in solidarity.
Secondly, the message is clear and resonates: when Ibrahim M. Abdullahi first delivered the hashtag it was directly referencing the Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, Oby Ezekwesili’s real-world press statement demanding the release of the abducted girls. Specifically she said ‘Bring back our daughters’ which translated to #BringBackOurGirls when posted to Twitter. There is no argument as to what the hashtag means or what it is asking you to do: share it, spread it, tell the world.
Thirdly, Boko Haram’s abduction of the 276 Nigerian girls comes at a time of a global heightened sensitivity toward women’s rights causes. Following such world news events as the horrific Delhi gang rape and in particular the Taliban’s attempt on Malala Yousafzai’s life, both in 2012, governments and IGOs have stepped up their focus on reducing a global education deficit. The UN Global Education First Initiative, established in 2012, seeks to put every child in the world in education by 2015. This is at odds with the ideals of Boko Haram (Boko Haram literally means ‘Western education is sin’) who have been known to target schools, killing and abducting teachers and students.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has helped to proliferate worldwide awareness of Boko Haram’s ideals, and in turn forced the UN to take action against the group to avoid losing face and appearing impotent. The UN announced earlier this week that they would be imposing sanctions on Boko Haram; a symbolic gesture perhaps as the group lacks the kind of assets that the UN can realistically go after, but a gesture nonetheless.
Finally, support from celebrities and politicians; Michelle Obama in particular, has helped #BringBackOurGirls to gain incredible momentum. The First Lady’s account tweeted the hashtag on May 7th, and pinned the tweet to the top of its feed. That tweet alone has since generated over 58,000 retweets. Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, Amy Poehler, Leona Lewis, Cara Delevingne and Alicia Keys, to name a few, have all been instrumental in increasing the reach of the campaign on and offline, providing the catalyst for a sizable chunk of the 2 million mentions the hashtag has received and the billions of impressions it has made.
The chart below, courtesy of Brandwatch, shows the trend line for #BringBackOurGirls mentions.
The first hashtag mention was posted on 23 April. For the next few weeks the hashtag generated next to no buzz whatsoever until on 5 May it was tweeted by @CNN, @BBC, @Time and @PiersMorgan. On 7 May it was tweeted by @FLOTUS (Michelle Obama) and on 8 May by @TheEllenShow. The timing of the US Government’s decision to deploy advisers to Nigeria (6 May) followed by troops (22 May) is no coincidence.
Some of the millions of individual mentions of #BringBackOurGirls might constitute Slacktivism; they may not be entirely altruistic; they may in fact be entirely for the benefit of the poster. But #BringBackOurGirls has propelled the recent kidnappings into a global limelight where previous Boko Haram activity has gone unchecked by governments and IGOs. In doing so, the hashtag campaign has helped to force the hand of both the US Government and the UN, and therefore, short of literally joining the search yourself; tweeting the hashtag may just have been the best thing that you could have done to help #BringBackOurGirls.