Hashtag activism proliferating, but is it effective?

May. 30, 2014 @ 07:53 AM

In the wake of the April 14 Boko Haram kidnappings, where 276 girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, the Internet has born a new sensationalized campaign: #BringBackOurGirls.

As Americans, we are incredibly adept at using social media to express our disgust, outrage and contempt for global issues, domestic policies and even drugged-out celebrities. However, when it comes down to action, society is just as negligent as those we criticize.

Hashtag activism, as it is known, uses Twitter, Facebook and Instagram hasthtags to promote a cause. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has become the symbolic phrase for standing with Nigeria. From Michelle Obama to Amy Poehler, many individuals have taken to posting a somber photo along with the message to further enhance the movement. The hashtag has garnered over a million usages internationally. Although even FLOTUS has embraced the social media response, it took weeks before the US government began to respond.

With the proliferation of social media in the past decade, no news goes uncovered. In fact, the mass kidnapping in Nigeria was not only fully reported on, but fell under the radar to other high profile and social media friendly trends, including #HappyMothersDay and #BostonStrong. Twitter with its 140-character limit invites distortion into its coverage of current events. It is a quantity, not quality news source, where users buy in to the newest trending topic.

The roots of hashtag activism can be traced to the 2012 Invisible Children movement known as Kony2012. In 2012, the #Kony2012 movement brought an obscure war criminal who had eluded the Inernational Criminal Court to international celebrity status. The viral campaign shot into public view just as fast as it withered away. The #Kony2012 movement is now considered an international joke on all those who participated. Nothing was done to capture Joseph Kony and the violence continues in Central Africa.

Hashtag activism has lulled American society into a false sense of engagement in current events. Many o bolstering the movement would be hard pressed to locate Nigeria on a map, let alone describe the extremist group Boko Haram. The international spectacle has developed out of the inaccurate messages and emotional images, as well as the impetus of many under-applied young adults.

Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, do you know the difference? But, the better question is: Why don’t you know the difference? Mass media have become interconnected with the modern social existence. But, substance never triumphs over flash. Educating the people through the Internet is short, incomplete, and usually concentrates on single events.

What most do not know from the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is that Boko Haram has been wreaking havoc over Northern Nigeria for multiple years. Since its inception, Boko Haram has planted numerous bombs in public and in churches in Northern Nigeria. In 2011, Boko Haram bombed a United Nations building in the capital of Abuja, killing 23 people and injuring more than 70. President Goodluck Jonathan reaffirmed his commitment to combating terrorism, but the weak political institutions in Nigeria made results unlikely. In 2012, more than 12 public schools in Maiduguri were burned down forcing students out of education. In 2012, there was another set of attacks targeting three government buildings, which resulted in the deaths of more than 200.

Now the international community stands, hands behind their backs, as the Nigerian government faces another Boko Haram episode of violence. The mass kidnapping in Cibok is being cited as unprecedented. Yes, in the fact that Boko Haram has never executed a coordinate act to this scale, but the Nigerian government was warned about such attempts. If even the Nigerian government does not respond to these kidnappings, what good does the #BringBackOurGirls campaign do?

Not much. 

Social media will continue to be used to ignorantly reassure the American people that they are involved in something larger than themselves. This guise of international activism allows the public to pretend that they are making a difference, while they resume daily activities. International notoriety does not a solution make. We need leadership, action, and coordination from the Nigerian government. Without this, it will be nearly impossible to #BringBackOurGirls.

Katherine Hodges of Durham is a graduate of Durham Academy,  a politics and economics major at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and an intern this summer at The Lugar Center.