Not Another Hashtag: Social Media’s Failure to Fight #BokoHaram

A group of Boko Haram Fighters Raise their guns Source: Worldpolicy.org
A group of Boko Haram Fighters Raise their guns. Source: Worldpolicy.org

The power of social media can only extend so far. While our tweets, Facebook statuses, and tumblr posts may be effective at generating publicity, their effectiveness at actually catalyzing change is questionable.

A recent example of social media’s failure to catalyze tangible change is the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign that dominated twitter this past summer. This issue revolved around the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Incidents such as these beg the question of why certain issues are incessantly highlighted across social media platforms one day, and then disappear from cyberspace the next.

First, a little context: Boko Haram is a Nigerian Militant Islamist Group established in 2002 that originally claimed to be a movement against Western Education. In fact, Boko Haram is a term from the Hausa Language that literally translates to “Western Education is Forbidden”. The group preaches an extreme form of Islam that prohibits involvement in anything that is even remotely linked to Western culture. In the past, they have banned various practices in Nigerian communities such as voting, obtaining a secular education, and even sporting western attire. Presently, the group has wreaked havoc through bombing campaigns, mass murders, and frequent kidnappings with a new goal in mind: to remove the current rulers of Nigeria and to establish an Islamic State in its place. Thousands of lives have been lost as a result of the group’s use of violent tactics.

Boko Haram’s kidnapping of over two hundred girls in April 2014 from a school in Chibok, an area in the Borno State, garnered a significant response throughout the world. The students were completing an exam at the time and were forcefully boarded onto trucks and whisked away. A mere fifty-seven girls succeeded in fleeing from the kidnapping attempt soon after the attack, but the others were not so lucky. The ruthless group later released footage in which they announced their plans to “sell” the girls. Moreover, while the terrorist group proposed to exchange the abducted girls for imprisoned fighters, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declined the offer.

At first, this issue received what seemed like undivided attention from influential figures including the recent Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Malala Yousafzai, and Michelle Obama. The hashtag “bringbackourgirls” gained immense popularity and news of the kidnapping spread throughout the Internet like wildfire, sparking outrage. Media corporations scrambled to cover the issue exhaustively and even actively displayed the number of the days since the girls had vanished. However, it seems many of these efforts were in vain, and that what people really cared about was not the issue itself, but the controversy and hype that followed. While Internet searches about the victims skyrocketed in early May 2014 when the viral hashtag first emerged, the excitement died down quickly after. Media reports covering the time period from late May to the present day reveal a major decline in buzz surrounding the #BringBackOurGirls regardless of the severity of the situation. After people on social media stopped posting pictures of themselves holding up “Bring Back Our Girls” signs, social media’s interest in Boko Haram fizzled and as the summer progressed, reporting on the situation basically vanished.

Bring-Back-Our-Girls
Source: liberianobserver.com, May 2014

Even now, a full six months later, more than two hundred girls have still not returned home to their families. No schoolgirls have been released. The world seems to have moved on and forgotten all about the girls who once received their own campaign – well on Twitter, anyway.

There were no new stories flooding our news channels and favorite websites for a significant period. Recently, however, news of Boko Haram has begun to surface once again. In October 2014, Boko Haram’s merciless antics once again captured the world’s attention: the organization abducted an additional thirty boys and girls from a village in Northeast Nigeria. More recently, there are reports that Boko Haram has taken control of Chibok, the hometown of the kidnapped schoolgirls. Additionally, many suspect Boko Haram was the party responsible for a series of recent attacks by suicide bombers around the country.

While Nigeria’s government should be scrambling to take care of these issues for the sake of its people, it seems they prematurely announced that a cease-fire was underway in order to assist particular candidates running for the upcoming elections. Their actions have had severe repercussions, as things have taken a turn for the worst despite apparent “peace talks” taking place. Escalating violence is diminishing any hopes of the rescue of the girls in the near future.

It would seem that currently, social media is too busy generating hype about Ebola and predicting ISIS’s next move to react to an issue that has obviously already received its moment in the spotlight. While social media goes gaga over certain, carefully chosen issues, it seems incapable of producing concrete results. The twenty-four hour news cycle manufactures both stories and outrage, but fails to accomplish much else. Move over, schoolgirls. You had your time.