By Natasha Francis

29 years old

Advocacy trainer & freelance writer

As an advocacy trainer, I have been following the #bringbackourgirls campaign really closely. As we all know, more than 270 school girls were abducted from the Chibok district in Nigeria by Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group operating in the country. Abducted – and in some cases, converted to Islam – these girls have been strewn all over the media as a result of #bringbackourgirls, a global social media plea to the Nigerian government to intervene and save these girls. The plea (hashtag activism) has worked with President Goodluck Johnston vowing to use everything in his power to #bringbackourgirls with the aid of Western governments.

Social media as a platform has created an online network that has seen the emergence of a revolutionary generation promoting change. Consider the Arab spring and “Occupy” campaigns that spread like wildfire across the world, garnering support from the disempowered populations in the world. Hashtag activism is a clear example of the phenomenon as it has generated the concerns of celebrities and politicians globally as well as the common man.

Social media as a means to garner support for the activist platform is not new. The examples I sited above generated momentum and profound commentary and support from people around the world. So powerful was this online platform where young revolutionaries shared ideas and successes, it has evolved and poses a threat to totalitarian and pseudo democratic leaders everywhere.

The impact of social media has created a tidal wave of change where active citizenry is the game-changer in international politics. Previously, where global citizens were docile in their political environments, they have now become the movers and shakers. Hashtag activism has found a place beneath the revolutionary banner of social media activism and is currently gaining momentum especially being the key component in the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapping.

Politics of Advocacy and #bringbackourgirls

Activism is not just about standing up on your soapbox and pandering for some change. It is about a crafting a phenomenal campaign that WILL important people to change their attitudes and implement the change that is being sought. At the heart of any activist campaign are messages. Simply put: messages are the fuel of your campaign. What do you want to say? How are you going to say it? How can the message be refuted – that is, why should people care? How do your messages ignite change within parties that you want to influence? Messages make or break your campaign!

#bringbackourgirls presents the situation as ours and not just that of the desperate parents. It personalizes the experience of the girls by labeling them as our sisters, and daughters. We all share the experience and it is just this sentiment that has allowed the #bringbackourgirls campaign to be profound. However, as simplistic and profound as the messaging is, one cannot but think SO WHAT?

Boko Haram has a militant agenda of eradicating Western influence in government and Nigerian society. They are disciplined and are not afraid to die for their cause. These girls are just spoils of war, a means to an end; why would they care? How will this social media campaign motivate Boko Haram in releasing those girls? How does this challenge Boko Haram’s Islamist agenda in a way which ensures the safety of everyone? There is certainty that Boko Haram will ask the question as to why should they care if celebrities and politicians are advocating for the release of these girls.

According to Morse in her article “Bringbackourgirls why the campaign is not working”, Boko Haram should be afraid of the hashtag, getting celebrities to pose with #bringbackourgirls placards is not a mission accomplished. Normal people use the hashtag because they do not have the power to release these girls whereas leaders do, therefore, they need to act and not update their statuses. But, what Morse fails to realize is that this tactic – celebrities and politicians posing with placards – will (and has) spread awareness of these captured girls around the world.

Politicians use the hashtag because there is something called state sovereignty which prevents politicians from dictating what other countries should do. Furthermore, having celebrities pose with placards means that that they have traction with diverse groups of followers on social networks and this creates a marketing campaign of sorts for the kidnapped girls.

Because messages are generated from campaign goals, the problem with social media campaigns is the fact that not all sources of information are legitimate, therefore, jepordising goals and the campaign itself. Morse suggests that information is spread so quickly on social media platforms that the truth may get lost somewhere between the continents of Asia and North America. False information creates false ideas.

Consider the recent example where the BBC uncovered that a girl on one of the placards was not actually a kidnapped girl but a girl from Ghana. The impact of this error is that any random African girl can be photographed and labeled: #bringbackourgirls. While this incident has been heavily criticised, it says a lot about the vulnerabilities of the girl child elsewhere in Africa. It has, in my opinion, supported the sentiment that “OUR” girls need to be protected.

Boko Haram has proven that the body politic of females in Africa is still contentious. By kidnapping girls, converting them to Islam and threatening to sell them into slavery, supports the sentiment that the female body is a blueprint of society’s history – whether women will it or not. Whether the experience will defile their bodies or not, is not a choice women have. The act of kidnapping these girls has opened up the debate further on the power of women in society.

What Boko Haram has done is not new; women’s bodies have always been a commodity in times of war and conflict. The fact that the threat of human trafficking is now on the table pushes the experience of these girls into the realm of the conceivable because this is what happens in war. Women are victimised as they represent some semblance to the nation state and are used as proof that the nation state is vulnerable. History shows us this time and time again.

Has the #bringbackourgirls campaign dealt with this? At a political level, the triumph of the campaign is that international focus has been mobilised to find these girls. By assisting the Nigerian government, France and the United States have proven that this is OUR issue.

A final criticism of the campaign is due to its lack of a coherent strategy, messaging and senseless targeting, the #bringbackourgirls campaign will undoubtedly lose steam as the search for these girls drag out. The problem with social media is that it needs catchy projects to get support. The search for the girls will be long and arduous; will Twitter still hashtag their plight a year from now?

I feel that this campaign will never lose steam on Twitter and other social networks. It may lose face in terms of breaking news articles as the media is always looking for the next hype. But, even if it is not making front page news, these girls will remain in our prayers, hearts and Twitter Feeds until they are reunited with their families and Boko Haram is brought to justice.

How can this campaign fail then? It has done what any advocacy campaign seeks to do – create awareness for change! If you try to politicise it then the campaign moves into a realm where criticism will tear it apart; but, this is a humanist campaign. By that logic, has achieved its goal.