Michelle Obama supports #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign

Anyone who was paying close attention to either world news or social media back in April will remember a campaign called #BringBackOurGirls. It has been nearly six months since almost 300 schoolgirls were abducted from the Chibok boarding school in northern Nigeria by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The media covered this story extensively, and the public reacted. Marches took place in several cities, and there were endorsements from celebrities and other high-profile individuals including Michelle Obama. A Facebook page was created, and #BringBackOurGirls could be found throughout social media. Despite all this attention, however, there are still more than 200 girls who remain missing and have yet to return to their families.

Although many girls escaped shortly after the initial kidnapping, nothing more was heard from any of them until September 24th, when one of the missing girls was found wandering through a field in Hong. It is still unknown whether she escaped or was set free, as she is still unable to talk about her experiences due to being in an extreme state of trauma. According to The Guardian, “previous escapees…spoke of multiple rapes, mutilations and forcible conversions. Several entered a catatonic trance at the mention of the sect’s name.” Since the located girl hasn’t been able to talk, authorities are still in the dark as to where the missing girls are being held. The Nigerian government has been in negotiations with Boko Haram in attempts to secure the girls’ release, but so far they have been unsuccessful as Boko Haram is asking for the release of senior commanders being held in prison.

Nigeria itself is clearly not equipped to deal with Boko Haram. The military complains that they don’t have enough weapons, and soldiers have been fleeing and refusing to fight the violent militant group. In addition, Nigeria’s own security forces have been accused of kidnappings themselves, along with other human rights abuses directed at anyone who might be connected with Boko Haram.

Destruction caused by one of Boko Haram’s many attacks

Although #BringBackOurGirls had good intentions in its attempt to draw public attention to the girls’ kidnapping and spur action in securing their release, it is also clear that this social media movement was not entirely successful. The most obvious reason for this is the fact that the girls are still missing. Public attention lasted for a short amount of time, and while celebrities and public figures supported the campaign, no political figures or authorities went to any huge lengths to actually help Nigeria find the girls. As The Huffington Post points out, another downfall of this campaign was that it didn’t tell the whole story, and actually gave the public the wrong idea about Boko Haram. This group does not specifically target women or girls, but posits itself against Western education. Boys have suffered just as much, if not more, at the hands of Boko Haram. In less publicized incidents, nearly 50 students were killed when Boko Haram gunmen attacked the College of Agriculture in September 2013. The gunmen attacked the male dorms, but actually left female dorms untouched. In February 2014, between 30 and 60 male students were brutally murdered in an attack on the college of Buni Yadi. Boko Haram has targeted boys in abductions as well, forcing them to join their ranks and commit acts of violence.

Both the kidnapping and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that ensued raise important questions about the effectiveness of social media in both reporting and making a real difference in human rights situations. It is clear that social media will play a role in promoting human rights in the future. An example of this is shown by the U.S. Department of State’s creation of the Internet Freedom Fighters program, which consists of a group of experts promoting human rights through blogs and other forms of social media.

Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council, said that “around the world people are using new media in the call for freedom, transparency and greater self- determination. We must always remember that it is not the tools, but the courageous people who use them – journalists and reporters and individual citizens – who are the human voice of freedom.”

There are two problems with this idea, however. One arises when the people communicating through social media leave out important facts and details. Anyone can make a blog, a twitter account, or a Facebook page, and say anything they want. The second problem is when people paying attention to social media blindly accept everything they read and hear. Social media users need to be proactive in following the news closely and checking facts and details themselves. It is easy to follow the trend of caring about the latest human rights violations, but the #BringBackOurGirls campaign showed that without a significant portion of social media users putting in real time, effort, and dedication to the cause, the trend will end. In the case of the kidnapped Nigerian girls, this means that media attention is gone before a resolution is found, and the public forgets that the missing girls they claimed to care so much about have yet to come home.

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