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Posted: May 10, 2014

#BringBackOurGirls: Why hashtag activism has its critics


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By Elizabeth Hagedorn

By now, chances are you've seen the tweets. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has gone viral on social media — drawing attention to the plight of the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped from their dormitory last month. (Via Twitter / @FLOTUSTwitter / @AriannaHuffTwitter / @AJSteamTwitter / @MalalaFund)

In a matter of weeks, #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted nearly 2 million times worldwide. (Via Vine / Buzzfeed News

The BBC reports while 22 percent of the tweets were from Nigeria, some 44 percent came from the U.S. It's raising awareness but also raising criticism over what's been dubbed "hashtag activism" from the West. 

Think back to the #Kony2012 campaign — at attempt to raise awareness of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The campaign quickly made Kony the Internet's most hated man and his atrocities well-known. (ViaInvisible Children

But despite the video's viral success, the attention surrounding Kony lost momentum, and two years later he remains at large. (Via Bloomberg

Critics pointed out Kony had been terrorizing Uganda for decades, and Americans only started noticing after it became a convenient and popular hashtag. And that has some making comparisons to the #BringBackOurGirls movement.

The Wire puts it this way: "Nigerians live with Boko Haram's terrorism for five years, and when the western media finally takes notice, it latches onto a hashtag and wrongly identifies the creator of the hashtag as an American woman." 

That writer’s referring to Ramaa Mosley — a Los Angeles filmmaker who recently suggested to several news outlets she was behind the viral hashtag. (Via Wikimedia Commons / Cameron Gray

"So I just started hashtagging what I heard the mothers saying in Nigeria which is bring back our girls. … So I started shouting it on social media." (Via ABC

Thing is, as The Wall Street Journal reports, that hashtag actually came from by an attorney based in Nigeria. Mosley later denied ever taking credit for the original hashtag. (Via Twitter / @Abu_Aaid)

Then there were these widely-circulated photos. (Via Twitter / @chrisbrownTwitter / @pdnetwork, Twitter / @tdaniadi)

Turns out, as The New York Times later reported, “The photos are of girls from Guinea-Bissau, more than 1,000 miles from Nigeria, who have no relationship to the kidnappings.”

Critics argue that's essentially the problem with these social media campaigns — they oversimplify the complexities of events abroad, and even if well-intentioned, rarely affect things on the ground. 

A writer for The Washington Post describes the sentiment surrounding "hashtag activism" this way: "it’s a frictionless convenience, conducted from the safety of a computer screen, that often serves more as a flattering public symbol of concern than concern itself​."

On the other hand, supporters argue a hashtag campaign, at the very least, can't hurt — even if those participating in it aren't don't fully understand the cause. (Via Twitter)

As a writer at Time puts it "It’s not everything, but it’s a start. And the world is now talking about 276 stolen girls in Nigeria when before it wasn’t talking about them at all."

 

 

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