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Why #BringBackOurGirls is actually making a difference for Nigeria

Nigerians rally for the return of the kidnapped girls in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.
Nigerians rally for the return of the kidnapped girls in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.
Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

"Hashtag activism" is one of the most delectable slurs in our modern lexicon. It's a perfect encapsulation of the delusional narcissism and utter pettiness of people who think sharing a photo is the ultimate political act; that enough 140-character missives can put an end to a long-running civil war.

So in theory, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, aimed at rescuing the Nigerian girls abducted by the Islamist group Boko Haram, should be terrible. It's a social media campaign hijacked by a bunch of Westerners who probably couldn't find Nigeria on a map attempting to solve a problem, a violent Islamist insurgency, they only dimly understand.

Yet, improbably, #BringBackOurGirls has been a qualified success. The girls aren't back, but the hashtag campaign has done about as much as anyone could have realistically expected: helped Nigerians make their government, whose inaction is a huge part of the problem, listen to their demands.

Some recent history is useful here. Everyone and their mothers is comparing #BringBackOurGirls to that other well-known hashtag campaign about an African militant group, #Kony2012. That past campaign aimed to pressure the US government to "get" Joseph Kony, the leader of the vicious Lord's Resistance Army operating in and around northern Uganda.

There are lots of various similarities and differences between #Kony2012 — Daniel Solomon has put together a brilliant, comprehensive rundown here. The most salient one Dan lists, to my mind, is their stark difference in goals. #Kony2012 was a campaign by Western activists to push their pet solution to the Lord's Resistance Army problem; #BringBackOurGirls was originally a push by local Nigerian activists to get their own government to pay even the slightest attention to the kidnapped girls. One campaign saw a simple military problem; the other a complex situation where an incompetent government is (arguably) one of the root causes of the instability that allows militant violence to sustain itself.

These differences have shaped everything that followed about the two campaigns. #Kony2012 peddled, as Uganda watcher Mark Kersten puts it, an "obfuscating, simplified and wildly erroneous narrative of a legitimate, terror-fighting, innocent partner of the West (the Government of Uganda) seeking to eliminate a band of lunatic, child-thieving, machine-gun wielding mystics (the LRA)."

#Kony2012 told a simple story because their simplistic, arguably harmful solution required a simple, wrong diagnosis. Likewise with the #Kony2012 promotional material centering on the story of a white, American child (who happened to be the son of one of the campaign's founders). White Americans needed to be the central actors in Uganda's drama because that's the role #Kony2012's creators seemed to believed they should play.

#BringBackOurGirls is, as the New York Times' Lydia Polgren put it, "the opposite of #Kony2012." When #BringBackOurGirls began, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had yet to say a thing about the abduction of hundreds of girls. Nigerians like Oby Ezekwesili and Ibrahim Abdullahi felt like they used the hashtag as a means of coordinating and enhancing the local campaign to pressure the Jonathan government. The Nigerian hashtag activism worked to enhance real, democratic activism by Nigerians — far and away the most important reason to think that social media helped here.

This local-ness also totally transformed the valence of the international hashtag campaign that came after. Western tweeters were serving as a support brigade to local Nigerian activists, whether they meant to or not, bringing international as well as domestic pressure to bear on the Jonathan government's indifference. It's not a Western-imposed solution; it's Western backup for local activists whose weapon is public protest and dissent. The internet serves as an extension of the large Nigerian protests.

This, as a number of scholars of international relations will tell you, is a tried-and-true strategy for putting pressure on local governments. "Moral consciousness-raising by the international human rights community often involves a process of 'shaming,'" professors Kathryn Sikkink and Thomas Risse write. Shaming "implies a process of persuasion, since it convinces leaders that their behavior is inconsistent with an identity to which they aspire."

We can't know for sure how much the specter of international embarrassment complimented the much more important local pressure campaign on Jonathan, but if it did provide an assist, then it's much more productive than #Kony2012 ever was.

Now, #BringBackOurGirls actually helped bring about an American deployment in Nigeria. So if you opposed #Kony2012 on grounds that Western involvement is necessarily bad, that'd be a strike against #BringBackBackOurGirls. However, the structure of the campaign transformed again the outcome. The US deployment to Nigeria isn't a massive ground troop intervention or series of drone strikes. In fact, it's entirely non-combat: law enforcement, hostage negotiation, and military experts are assisting the Nigerian government's search campaign. In other words, the international support could help keep Jonathan honest, helping ensure that he's actually devoting resources to the search for the missing girls. Once again, the international efforts compliment the Nigerian demands for their government to take action.

Not that the campaign is totally unproblematic. Western involvement could spiral out of control, or prompt a violent, inhumane crackdown by the Nigerian government itself (it has a pretty awful human rights record in anti-Boko Haram operations). More directly, it could perversely help Boko Haram. Political scientist Will Moore, noting that terrorist groups can only sow terror if people pay attention to their attacks, worries that all this attention could actually increase Boko Haram's power to intimidate Nigerians. It's a real concern, though I'd note that Nigerians were already pretty well aware of the violent group bombing targets around their country before Americans got involved.

Perhaps most fundamentally, we're still only a few weeks into the sustained international campaign surrounding the Chibok girls. The US Senate hasn't yet held planned hearings on the topic, so there's still plenty of ways the international campaign can go sour. And the local campaign still hasn't succeeded in bringing the girls back.

Nevertheless, what we've seen so far is encouraging. International activists have supported a truly local, democratic demand for accountability from the Nigerian people to the Nigerian government — who themselves were directing and shaping the social media campaign's direction. Not bad for some hashtag activists.

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