On the 14th of April, at least 300 female students were abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, a rural town in the state of Borno in north-east Nigeria, by a group commonly referred to as Boko Haram. This is a fundamentalist Islamic group – the name ‘Boko Haram’ roughly translates as, ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the local language of Hausa – which violently promotes a version of Islam where it is forbidden for Muslims to take part in any activity that is associated with Western society, including secular education, participation in elections or wearing Western dress such as shirts and trousers.

It is thought that the group took the girls, who were a mixture of Christians and Muslims, into the remote and inaccessible Sambisa forest which borders Niger, Chad and Cameroon, although this hasn’t been confi rmed. They have subsequently released a video showing around 130 of the girls in full-length hijabs, and another threatening to sell the girls as ’slaves’. It is still not known for certain where the girls were being held, although it seems that around 50 were able to escape on the initial journey. The Nigerian government did not comment publicly until the 4th of May, two weeks after the kidnappings, and President Goodluck Jonathan took almost 20 days to offi cially promise to find the girls.

The government silence following the events in Chibok fuelled a great deal of confusion and growing public anger. Several sources gave conflicting reports of the number of students taken, with numbers ranging from 100 to more than 300, whilst the Nigerian military back-pedalled on the reported rescues and claimed that, whilst they had not actually rescued any of the girls, their original report had not been intended to “deceive the public”. As media out- lets rushed to cover the story, people across Nigeria protested against the apparent government indifference to the situation and took to social media to express their anger and distress. On the 22 April Ibrahim M Abdullahi (a lawyer in the Nigerian capital of Abuja) sent the first tweet featuring the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. By 7 May this hashtag had been tweeted 1 million times, reaching its daily peak three days later where it was tweeted 434,910 times in 24 hours. High profile political figures such as Michelle Obama, David Cameron and Pope Francis have joined the campaign, along with large numbers of celebrities.

As #BringBackOurGirls exploded across the internet, so too did scrutiny of just how effective such ‘digital activism’ can be in tackling real world issues. It has been two years since “Kony 2012” – the viral video that called for the arrest of LRA militia leader and war criminal Joseph Kony – a campaign that is perhaps most notable for the huge contrast between the global buzz it created and the subsequent lack of
any discernible results. Similar concerns have been voiced about the current campaign, particularly by conservative commentators who believe that outrage on social media has little offline currency and serves mainly as a balm for the conscience of the West. At the height of the movement Republican Senator John McCain stated that, “Tweets and hashtags are appreciated. They may make people feel better but they do not liberate prisoners”, whilst his onetime running mate Sarah Palin posted, “I kinda-sorta doubt a tweet will intimidate the kidnappers much.” The backlash was perhaps not helped by a picture posted on Instagram by model Irina Shayk – where the girlfriend of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo poses topless with a sign featuring the hashtag – which has been heavily criticised for attempting to seek personal publicity from the crisis. Can ‘hashtag activism’ actually be a useful form of protest? Is the West just tweeting while the rest of the world burns?

It would be ungenerous to argue that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has had no effect at all, particularly when the events that followed the abduction are viewed in the context of terrorism in Nigeria over the last decade. Boko Haram has killed over 2000 people since 2009 and is by far the most long-lived of any terrorist group in Nigeria, operating since 2002. Violence against schools in the North-East of the country by the group are commonplace (it is believed that one of the reasons why so many students were at the Chibok school was that many other schools in the region had been forced to close), for example in March another school attack saw 29 male students killed. Such incidents are frequently ignored by the Nigerian government and the terrorism of Boko Haram is often subsequently unnoticed by the international community. Now, however, global attention has pushed the Nigerian government into unprecedented levels of action which has included accepting foreign assistance – a subject Nigeria is notoriously prickly about. The UK, US, France, China and Israel have all now sent counter-terrorism teams to Abuja, undoubtedly in response to international pub- lic pressure. There is also hope that the negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram might soon come to fruition. In the last week, reports have appeared stating that the group is willing to conduct a gradual release of hostages in return for the freeing of Boko Haram prisoners in Nigerian jails. This appears to be a significant concession from the original demand for the group’s top commanders to be released.

It seems, therefore, that hashtag diplomacy does have some uses. However, if the allegations that it is chiefly an exercise in allowing the West to feel good about itself are to be dismissed, then complacency over small victories must not be allowed to set in. It may have done some good but a week after its peak, #BringBackOurGirls is already disappearing from social media (it was only featured in around 40,000 tweets on May 19, less than 1/10 of its highest level) and the Nigerian schoolgirls have not, as yet, been brought back.