TORONTO – As the urgency to find nearly 300 kidnapped schoolgirls intensifies, the world’s eyes are focused on Nigeria – due, in large part, to a hashtag.
What began as a rallying cry in the country, the social media campaign known as “Bring Back Our Girls” (#BringBackOurGirls) has spread to nearly every continent as international social media users rally the Nigerian government, along with their own, to find the 276 girls taken by militant group Boko Haram.
As of Wednesday, the hashtag has been tweeted over 1 million times.
Countless images have been shared on Instagram showing support for the cause and it has topped Facebook’s list of trending topics for days.
And though the militant Islamist group has been terrorizing Nigeria for almost five years, the growing international attention seems to be igniting new hope that Boko Haram can be stopped.
“I believe that the kidnapping of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria,” Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said Thursday.
But can social media really help save the kidnapped girls and prompt an end to terrorism in Nigeria?
That remains to be seen.
Josh Greenberg, associate director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication who studies social movements and media activism, said while the campaign has already ignited some action it’s unclear how long it will be maintained.
“The campaign has already registered some impact on the Nigerian government, but it’s difficult to know how much or how long this can be sustained,” Greenberg told Global News.
“It will require activism to be firing on several fronts: not just internationally, by shocked and outraged westerners who will continue to pressure their own political leadership to keep the campaign visible, but also, and significantly, for activists and citizens within Nigeria who have the most at stake.”
READ MORE: Can online campaigning #BringBackOurGirls?
Canada has promised it will provide surveillance technology to with the search, but not without Canadians to operate it.
“We obviously would have concerns with Nigeria, with their human rights record… of just simply providing millions of dollars of military equipment as some sort of permanent gift,” Baird said following Question Period in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The U.S. will also send military aid.
“Social media, in itself, cannot force anyone to act. [But] it can send a strong message to the international community that action is warranted, and that other governments could play a role with the Nigerian government to get these girls back,” said Robert Huish, associate professor of International Development studies at Dalhousie University.
Huish, who has done research in activism and the organization of social resistance, maintains that social media itself can be a tool for change – when used correctly.
“Kidnapping school girls is so morally reprehensible that no one in their right mind would take exception with a message to demand their return,” said Huish. “Because there is no ‘other side’ to this story, because it is a brutal crime that societies find repugnant, there is a strong chance for immediate action and policy response.”
#BringBackOurGirls has drawn some comparisons to other viral social media campaigns that dominated headlines for weeks before losing momentum altogether – like #Kony2012.
The #Kony2012 campaign, started by U.S.-based NGO Invisible Children, served as a call to action to find Ugandan militant Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that recruits children as soldiers.
The video accompanying the campaign quickly became one of the most viral videos of all time, igniting a fury of social media support from politicians and celebrities – but a second video, released just a month later, failed to resonate with audiences and the campaign all but disappeared.
Joseph Kony and the LRA continue to operate in South Sudan.
“Kony2012 caught on like wildfire because it gave a clear call for action, but the campaign was morally problematic in how it represented the issue […] it called for a very narrow and militarized path of action, amid a broader arena of debate and scholarship on the issue.” Huish said.
“What we’re seeing in Nigeria is very different. This is a call for help from the ground, from the people affected by this crime, and it has been scaled up to create international solidarity.”
Both experts agree that #BringBackOurGirls has a better chance of succeeding long-term because it was started by Nigerians, not Westerners.
#BringBackOurGirls has caught the attention of more than just an international audience and big celebrity names (from the Kardashians to Anne Hathaway), the campaign has been embraced by political influencers like Michelle Obama which may help drive real results.
But every viral campaign will have a following of so-called “slacktivists” – those who participate in social or political causes just to feel good about contributing. In the Internet era, this largely includes people who “copy and paste” social networking statuses or hashtags without really understanding the issue at hand.
“As these kinds of movements gather international momentum and profile, there will inevitably be growing numbers of so-called ‘slacktivists’ who fail to understand the complexity of the region’s politics, and that real political change requires more than just discourse or publicity,” said Greenberg.
© Shaw Media, 2014