Why #BringBackOurGirls May not be as Impactful as it Seems
Twitter activism has been getting a lot of press as of late, particularly related to the #BringBackOurGirls trend advocating for intervention to rescue the young women kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria just weeks ago. For the sake of this post, I am going to set aside the obvious tragedy, and focus on the social trend itself and the context immediately surrounding the incident and the trend.
As Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe stated on The Colbert Report, “This is the best we could do … reminding ourselves we have to shout about it and put an end to it.”
To put this into perspective, Five Thirty Eight reports that, “The recent mass abduction of school girls took place April 15; the [GDELT] database records 151 kidnappings on that day and 215 the next.”
This incident is not isolated, in fact GDELT (Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone) noted that there have been more than 2,300 kidnappings of girls in Nigeria in the first four months of this year.
Although one of Nigeria’s most violent extremist groups, Boko Haram is also one of the least supported and smaller militant Islamic groups. It is also not the only group responsible for the kidnapping and selling girls into slavery and indentured servitude. The issue is widespread, yet the trend is not -- illustrating the highly specific nature of this, and many related trends.
Activism is a centrally important aspect of social media, offering millions the opportunity to be heard, and to report on things governments and societies do not. Perhaps this is best illustrated by Turkey’s recent Twitter ban. Words and individual voices have increasing audience reach and potential to be heard. In fact, GDELT uses these very reports to amass its database of events and tone. There is power in individual voices, and power in raising them to a larger group of individuals who want to be heard.
Like the KONY 2012 activism campaign, which raised an issue to national and international conscience and prodded governments to get involved, it is highly unlikely that the rescue of these girls will end the problem. However, there is an opportunity to raise awareness, funds and political capital to shape the way this moves forward and hopefully save the lives of the Chibok girls and their countrywomen who have been victimized with very little media attention before now.
The pace of this trend really began to accelerate when it became localized and spread outside of Twitter. In this case, Twitter is both the inciting source and the measurable one. The social network is notable because it is measurable, and clearly shows social media as an integral way to surface topics and trends and break news. News networks with lots of airtime to fill, looking for stories people care about, now have places to look for clear and measurable indicators of interest.
There have been a lot of lofty claims in the last few weeks about how “Twitter is changing mainstream media.” While I agree that social media is an important part of mainstream media, word of mouth is not new as a central news source. It is simply more measurable. After all, I am old enough to recall many letter writing campaigns. I still see petitioners outside my local grocer and street activism on my sidewalks.
It is important for us to contextualize this not just in the frame of other forms of activism, but also in the frame of international incidents. For every #BringBackOurGirls, there are thousands of other incidents that do not attain the level of reach and attention of this event. Going “viral” is not an indicator of the significance of any cause or incident. #BringBackOurGIrls was tweeted more than 3 million times in a three-week period, but so was Beyoncé’s name.