#BringBackOurGirls has been gracing our social media in the last few days. Everyone from the First Lady Michelle Obama to popular rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, to education activist Malala have been photographing themselves with the hashtag. With over three million tweets and counting against Boko Haram’s kidnapping of nearly 300 girls, what has been the actual effect and what does it mean for social media activism?

On 12th May Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist group from northern Nigeria who have kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls, released a video showing their mass conversion from Christianity to Islam. This came days after the worldwide hashtag campaign had been in full swing. Since the girls have not been ‘brought back’, it is safe to say that the hashtag has not adequately moved or persuaded the extremists. #BringBackOurGirls looks likely to join #Kony2012 and #JusticeforTrayvon in the ‘failed hashtag campaign’ archives.

Arguably the hashtag serves as a tool for citizens to pressure their own governments, as well as that of Nigeria, rather than as a direct message to Boko Haram. In that case it could be working, since Britain and the USA are assisting Nigeria in their efforts, but international cooperation with Nigeria on many issues is hardly new. This year alone the UK agreed to send British accountants to train their Nigerian counterparts, and Coca-Cola and the UK have devised an initiative to support the education of Nigerian girls. This was all done without public pressure, and in conjunction with the leftover sense of duty since colonialism, leaving little doubt that the UK would have probably acted regardless to assist Nigeria without the public outcry.

This ‘Hashtag Activism’, defined by Techopedia as ‘the act of fighting for or supporting a cause…that does not require any action from the person other than sharing or “liking” a post’, and which, despite being visually powerful, is basically useless. Techopedia hit the nail on the head when they said that no action is required, and that is both the appeal and futility of it. It allows the ‘activist’ to feel as though they are contributing to an important cause without having to actually think about the issue in any real depth. It has been better coined as ‘slacktivism’. It has replaced donating to charities as the quick-fix to feeling useful. Social media is great for spreading awareness about issues, but solutions for those problems should stem from a different arena. Apartheid would not have come to an end with hashtags alone.

As well as the bitter aftertaste of slacktivism, whenever these hashtag campaigns spring up, such as #Kony2012, I am left with slight confusion as to why so many other tragic events do not get the same attention. At this very moment, there is a raging civil war in South Sudan and people being killed in Ukraine, amongst countless other issues. This is not to say that the Nigerian kidnapping is not deserving of international attention, only that so are many other events. Social media (or more specifically, ‘people who use social media’) are dangerously selective in what they push to the forefront and what is ignored. If the Nigerian girls are our girls, then victims of femicide are our girls, victims of FGM are our girls, and so are the victims of honour killings. Where are their hashtags?

Given that most of the campaigners are not in national government or part of an organisation that can help the Nigerian government in their search, what can the average Joe/Joanna do? The short answer is, very little. In the actual practical search and rescue of the girls, the average world citizen cannot do very much. However, the layperson can use the paper and pen they would use to write hashtag slogans to brainstorm about what led to this tragic event in the first place, and what practical steps they can take to help, if in fact they really want to. Read about Nigerian history and the bloody history of religion in the country. Research into the social and political problems of Nigeria that may have prompted the kidnapping and the inadequate national response. Find NGOs and other organisations that are trying to find practical methods to promote social harmony. Volunteer for these organisations and contribute your skill sets, spread awareness about them (another hashtag), and, only in conjunction with all of the above, donate to them.

Hashtags don’t faze extremists. What might faze the extremists is over three million people demanding the Nigerian government to open a dialogue with the northern Muslim population on religious-specific schooling, or over three million people contributing to the economic development of the chronically poor north. Real change, anyone?

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