How to Hijack a Hashtag

Conservatives have hijacked the public outrage over the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls in order to criticize the Obama administration. This started with Rush Limbaugh wanting a go at Michelle Obama.

Well apparently it wasn’t just Rush that doesn’t understand the power of Twitter. A new photo was making the rounds of social media last week.

The photo shows a man holding a sign that reads:






It’s unclear why he (and the people who keep sharing it) chose to use a purportedly worthless means of activism to rile people up about worthless means of activism, but logic has never been very good at politics anyway. Sarah Palin shared the photo on her Facebook page, reminding us that Conservative foreign policy is like a teenage boy so eager to prove he’s a man he goes looking for a fight that only a surge of testosterone and the naïve arrogance of youth have convinced him he can win.


Maybe not. To be honest, by now those girls have probably been subjected to rape, forcible marriage and abuse, and it’s quite likely many of them have been taken across international borders and enslaved. Hashtags themselves will not bring back those girls, but neither will corrupt governments.

The hashtag started when Nigerian mothers tweeted #BringBackOurDaughters. Faced with a corrupt, incompetent government that thought it could sweep the tragedy under the rug, the moms used Twitter to get attention. That was the smartest thing they could’ve done.

Because Twitter is Twitter, the hashtag got the attention of the media, and morphed into #BringBackOurGirls. This “lazy” hashtag activism spread around the world as people tweeted support for those mothers and made the missing Nigerian schoolgirls an issue that will not go away.


When Michelle Obama (who, by the way, is neither an elected official nor a member of the administration) got on board, she used her position as First Lady to boost the visibility of #BringBackOurGirls. Maybe she was just acting like a teenager, as many Conservative critics like Palin have claimed. Or maybe she knew exactly what she was doing.

The Obama administration, along with other governments, initially offered assistance to the Nigerians, who refused. But since the Twitter firestorm, President Goodluck of Nigeria has accepted aid from the United States, Israel, Britain, France and China.


So this hashtag activism has done exactly what it was meant to do, and all it could do. It’s made rescuing the kidnapped schoolgirls a popular enough cause among citizens for them to pressure their governments to offer assistance, and pressured the Nigerian government, through public opinion, to accept help (albeit pretty late in the game). Besides educating ourselves, this is what civilians can do.


Because of Twitter, an international team of skilled individuals may have the chance to make a difference in the lives of these girls and their families.

A lot of the Conservative criticism is that hashtag activism makes the Obama administration look weak, that we have the resources to get the girls back using brute force. But if it weren’t for Internet activism, most American probably never would have heard of this tragedy. It might have been a line on the ticker at the bottom of the 24-hour newsfeed, sliding off the screen into nothingness the way most of these stories do. Twitter is peer pressure on steroids. Undoubtedly, a lot of people just jump lazily on board with the latest trend, but even if that is the case with some of the #BringBackOurGirls Tweeters, those people now know that 300 girls were kidnapped by terrorists in Nigeria. They may know nothing else about Nigeria, but they know that, and that in itself is valuable. The kidnapping is extraordinary in terms of the number of girls abducted, but this kind of thing happens all the time.

Not to mention the fact that in the past decade, military might has failed to defeat Al-Quaeda and the Taliban.  How many schoolgirls have the Taliban killed in that time?


Hopefully, with the help of the foreign governments, all of the girls will be saved. But they might not. There may just be no happy ending. But that’s the reality of life for people in Nigeria and much of the world, and it’s something Americans aren’t comfortable reckoning with.

As taboo as it is not to elevate the US military to infallible hero status, warriors are only one piece of a bigger issue. Ordinary people have just as much power to make a difference as warriors do, if not more. Yesterday I tutored a student from Nigeria who wanted me to help her write an essay that could convey her emotion over the latest attacks in Abuja that killed over 100 people and injured even more. She’s been in the U.S. for seven years. Not too long ago, she climbed out of the shower ready for a day of shopping when she received a message from a friend back in Nigeria. It was a video taken by a witness to the Abuja attacks that showed, in vivid detail, pieces of people littering the ground: a man with his skull sliced in half and his brain in pieces around his body; a woman attempting to bend a leg that wasn’t there, her exposed bone feebly twitching as if it had been pushed by a gust of wind. The cameraman walked slowly around corpses and body parts, occasionally fixing on an unidentifiable piece of flesh smeared on the pavement. This is the reality of much of the world that Americans never see. And all of America’s military might cannot vanquish it.

I watched that video with this young woman and listened to her talk about her country. These immigrants are our neighbors and we ignore them. They come from hell and we don’t listen to their stories, we don’t put our arms around them while they are waiting to hear that their loved ones are safe at home. Our answer for everything is to send our soldiers and avert our eyes. But social media might just have the power to make us look.



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