Discussions of news through social media often consider it a threat toward traditional media in informing, mobilizing, and empowering the public. While this medium may grant more accessibility, it also comes with its own set of drawbacks and as such, social media movements -such as the recent #BringBackOurGirls campaign- often have mixed effects.
On April 14th, over 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped from a school in the Northern town of Chibok, Nigeria by the insurgent group Boko Haram. 53 of the kidnapped girls managed to escape but 276 remain in captivity a month later.
On May 12th, Boko Haram released a video of the remaining girls, stating that they would be released in exchange for the Nigerian government’s release of Boko Haram prisoners.
These kidnappings are only the most recent strategy used by Boko Haram who claims that it will not stop until it overthrows the current government.
The insurgent group’s political objective is to remove all forms of Western influence in Nigeria -including Western attire, elections and secularism- and replacing it with a form of Islamic governance that is based on traditional systems and Sharia law.
The group has previously used violent means in attempts to achieve these objectives. It has claimed responsibility for attacks on Nigerian journalists and media organizations, government employees, farmers, schools, military barracks and international organizations.
More than a month later, over 260 schoolgirls still remain in custody of Boko Haram. These kidnappings are only the most recent strategy used by the insurgent group, which had previously launched attacks on Nigerian journalists and media organizations, government employees, farmers, military barracks, international organizations and even schools.
Indeed, the scale of these kidnappings sets it apart from previous attacks and shows the continuing ability of Boko Haram to operate even in light of the region being under emergency law.
Social media: Western uptake
Despite the scale of the Chibok kidnappings, international media did not immediately pick up the story. Protests in response to the Nigerian government’s initially false statements on the girls’ and the advent of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls belatedly catapulted the issue onto the front pages of international newspapers and newsfeeds.
Thanks to the traces left by online content this can be well documented: The Chibok kidnappings took place April 14th, #BringBackOurGirls was first created April 23rd, and in-depth coverage by the Western media began in late April and early May. Political and social figures have also participated in the campaign and have thus increased its visibility.
First Lady Michelle Obama posted a picture of herself with the hashtag on Instagram and broke convention to deliver the weekly Presidential address alone, stating “In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters. We see their hopes, their dreams – and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”
Activist Malala Yousafzai also tweeted her support and penned an article titled “Save my Nigerian Sisters,” connecting the Chibok kidnappings to the global problem of difficulties faced by women in pursuing education.
The high degree of coverage of the kidnappings has also spurred political action by the international community. China, Britian, France, Israel and the US have offered their own specialized investigative teams to aid the Nigerian government in locating the girls.
The United States in particular, is reported to have also shared intelligence with the Nigerian government, and has deployed manned surveillance missions in attempts to locate the girls.
In this, the positives of the social media movement cannot be denied. It has brought the story of these schoolgirls into everyday conversation and has helped mobilize international resources and support.
However, there is a limit in the ability of social media campaigns to inform and to effect change. The high volume and short word limits of social media posts do not convey the complex political context in Nigeria. Instead, social media can further promote sensational narratives that exclusively focus on the threat of violent extremist ‘Islamists’ and/or an underdeveloped Africa.
Such generalized conversations can then divorce the link between the Chibok kidnappings and the broader social and political context specific to Nigeria.
Indeed, the fact that Boko Haram was able to orchestrate the Chibok raid in a region under emergency law and counterinsurgency measures demonstrates how vital structural factors –such as government corruption, sectarian tensions, socioeconomic inequality and military incapacity- are to the making sense of the crisis.
Social media also provides a platform for critics to voice their opinions and to engage in debates with those promoting the movements. Michelle Obama’s tweet was met with criticisms of hypocrisy as users employed the hashtags#BringBackYourDrones and #AllInnocentLivesAreEqual to counter that the Obama administration’s foreign policy decisions in the Middle East and South Asia has also jeopardized the lives of children.
The virality of hashtag #BringBackOurGirls also means that it has been hijacked to raise donations and promote external causes and parodied insensitively.
None of this is to say that the kidnappings do not warrant international attention. Indeed, social media was instrumental in challenging the initially lackluster responses. However, the virality of a social media campaign does not necessarily guarantee resolution of the issue it champions.
#KONY2012 is a powerful reminder of social media’s selective attention and of its ability to distort, exploit, sensationalize and #BringBackOurGirls has similarly experienced much of the positives and the negatives of a social media campaign.