By Nikita Gush
You have probably seen on your Twitter feed the trending hashtag #bringbackourgirls.
This hashtag is referring to the horrific kidnapping committed by the Boko Haram Islamist militant group in which over 200 young Nigerian women were abducted from their school in Chibok, Borno State. These young women have been missing since April 15, 2014 and it is feared that some of the group have died or been sold into sexual trafficking. Presidents, politicians, and people with Twitter accounts have been getting on board all around the world in order to shine light on this issue. The movement has caught on like social media wildfire and spread across nations. However, is simply ‘hasthagging’ and ‘sharing’ about the kidnapping of the young women bringing about the right kind of change?
One of the issues that have arisen since the start of the #bringbackourgirls campaign has been misrepresentation caused by the wrongful use of photographs. Photojournalist Ami Vitale’s photos of young African girls have been ‘borrowed’ by the likes of BBC and Chris Brown to embellish their Twitter campaigns. The worst part is that the girls in Vitale’s photographs are not even Nigerian—they are from Guinea-Bissau, and have nothing to do with the horrific kidnapping, but are now the global poster girls for the movement. The misrepresentation caused by these photos is problematic because it contributes to a Western-created stereotype of Africa as a homogeneous continent containing a border-less mass of people confronting poverty. Furthermore, the misuse of these photos also victimizes the girls of Guinea-Bissau whose photos were actually supplementing a story about resilience and hope.
Another overlooked facet of the #bringbackourgirls campaign is the way the abduction has typically been framed as an isolated event without any context of Boko Haram or the numerous attacks they have committed for over a decade. Just last year Boko Haram similarly wreaked terror in Mamudo, Yobe State, Nigeria and massacred over 40 boys in the dormitory of their school. Perhaps the massacre of the male students did not receive the same social media attention as the kidnapped females because their story lacks the most important ingredient for a social media campaign — hope.
Despite the #bringbackourgirls movement’s powerful intentions, less than altruistic strands of motivation are becoming intertwined in the issue. The humanitarian appeal to the #bringbackourgirls campaign is an extremely appetizing dish for people in the public eye. Politicians from various countries support the issue and simultaneously gain public favour—because who will disagree with the assertion that girls should have education and protection of their human rights?
Celebrities also aid in publicizing the issue, which in some cases can be beneficial, but in others can be harmful. For example, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Irina Shayk recently posted a photo of herself wearing nearly nothing but a piece of computer paper with the trending hashtag. Sexualizing the already well-known campaign in order to draw media attention is not only counter-intuitive, but proof of the existing lack of understanding for the context of the movement, which amongst other things deals with sexual trafficking.
Another problematic aspect of the issue is the ways in which publicized movements can help legitimize increased military intervention. One Nigerian-American journalist explains that the organization AFRICOM exists to “advance U.S. national security interests”. Through an increase in America’s sphere of military influence in Africa numerous atrocities have occurred. US mentored military battalions in many African countries have committed various acts of violence, including a mass rape in the DRC that has been investigated by the United Nations. Another example of problematic US military intervention is the #KONY2012 movement that like #bringbackourgirls was birthed on Twitter feeds. President Obama sent military forces to capture Joseph Kony (the Lord’s Resistance Army leader) and even though the search was unsuccessful and was momentarily paused, President Obama sent additional troops in March 2014 to infiltrate even more African countries. Although the US military does have technology and means of helping during this time of crisis, it is important to recognise that asking for help from the global hegemon will most likely come at a price.
Activism vs. Slactivism
The instantaneous proliferation of information over the internet is an amazing tool that modern activists now have at their fingertips. We are able to see, watch, read, and research nearly any issue locally or globally—making it all the more important to consume information critically.
The #bringbackourgirls campaign has used social media to draw international attention to a devastating process of violence, causing global powers to unshield their blind eyes. Social media is powerful because in the hands of the right people, it can create effective grassroots movements that place pressure on governments. The internet provides podiums for us to announce our beliefs, hold leaders accountable, and be activists.
However, in the #bringbackourgirls campaign it is apparent that #slactivists who do not consider the wider context of the issue have the same power to perpetuate instances of misrepresentation, simplification, and misunderstanding that water down the true essence of a movement like #bringbackourgirls.