The debate over social media activism -- specifically, whether it actually accomplishes anything -- has never gone away and is unlikely to ever be resolved, but needless to say that doesn’t stop people from arguing about it. In the latest example, people around the world are responding to the kidnapping of almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group, with a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls -- and other people are questioning how useful this really is.
Some facts about the situation itself are inarguable: the kidnapping, and Boko Haram’s subsequent vow to sell the girls into slavery, are vile and inhuman; the girls should be rescued as soon as possible; and foreigners should help in the rescue efforts since Nigeria on its own pretty clearly isn’t up to the job. After the girls are home safe and sound (God willing) Boko Haram ought to be wiped off the face of the earth, as it should have been years ago. Bring on the drones!
The #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign began in Nigeria, apparently inspired by a phrase in an April 23rd speech byOby Ezekwesili, vice president of the World Bank for Africa; it quickly went viral globally, thanks in part to retweets by Hillary Clinton and other notable figures. But as Time.com asks: “Can A Social Media Campaign Really #BringBackOurGirls?”
Are we really still having this conversation? The short answer is “no, Time, only people with guns and planes and spy satellites can do that.” The longer answer, however, is that social media campaigns of this kind can raise public awareness and -- perhaps most importantly -- help maintain pressure on governments around the world, including our own, to commit resources to helping rescue the girls. That is all social media can do, that is all it will ever be able to do, and it is pretty darn impressive if you think about.
Predictably Time draws comparisons between the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and Kony 2012, the social media phenomenon that raised awareness of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army -- the gist being that Kony 2012 basically failed, as “Today, Kony and the LRA are still free and continue to recruit child soldiers.”
Measured against the expectation of immediate and complete success in apprehending Kony and dismantling his organization, yes, Kony 2012 was a failure. But this criterion of success is absurd, and always was: Kony and the LRA, like Boko Haram, have been roaming over thousands of square miles of rough terrain with lots of hiding places, and finding them was always going to be extremely difficult. It certainly wasn’t likely to be all wrapped up by the end of 2012, despite the campaign’s call to action.
But lots of activist campaigns and social movements set compelling and at the same time unrealistic goals in order to get people motivated, in the hopes that their interest will be sustained. And while it’s true Kony hasn’t been apprehended yet, in March of this year the U.S. committed even more resources to the hunt. Now the question is: would the U.S. continue to be so involved if Kony 2012 had never happened? My guess is no, we wouldn’t, because most Americans would still have no idea who Kony is or why he needs to be stopped. In other words, if all Kony 2012 did was raise awareness and educate 100 million-odd people about Kony, well, that seems like quite a lot for a social media campaign to accomplish. The rest is up to us, who have to let the powers that be know we haven’t forgotten.