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Sat Apr 17, 2021, 11:26 PM

How Twitter activism turned the fight against Boko Haram upside down

Source: Washington Post

How Twitter activism turned the fight against Boko Haram upside down

The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls had a profound effect. Just not the intended one.

By Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw
April 16, 2021 at 10:06 a.m. EDT

Seven years ago, the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 teenage girls from Chibok, Nigeria, on the eve of their graduating exams. They were, within weeks, an international cause celebre, with millions (including Ellen DeGeneres, the Rock, the pope and Michelle Obama) tweeting calls for their freedom with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The inevitable backlash held that tweets are a lazy and ineffective way to seek social change. This was not activism, critics said, but "slacktivism," and it would make no difference in the offline universe. Ann Coulter mocked the hashtag as trivial posturing. "This is not intended to have any effect on the real world," George Will told a Fox News panel. "Terrorists don't read Twitter," Sean Hannity assured Fox News viewers. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, discussing the metrics during a meeting in the White House Situation Room, expressed bewilderment over what impact the hashtag could have: "Even if it hits a billion tweets, do we think Boko Haram is going to throw up their hands and say, 'Okay, we let the girls go'?"

Just as the cynics predicted, the crowd soon moved on. The next viral cause, the Ice Bucket Challenge, quickly replaced #BringBackOurGirls.

Yet the critics were wrong in saying that a worldwide hashtag campaign would have no impact. For the past seven years, we've reported out a book project, "Bring Back Our Girls," disentangling the ways that a few days' worth of tweets managed to transform a war that continues to rage in Africa's most populous nation. Before the hashtag, the main effort to free the Chibok girls consisted of a few dozen dads revving motorbikes down a lonesome dirt road, carrying a handful of crumpled bank notes to buy the freedom of daughters they ultimately failed to locate. Nigeria, fighting a years-long war with Boko Haram, was on its own. After the hashtag, seven foreign nations poured billions of dollars in drones, intelligence officers, satellite coverage, special forces, FBI agents, CIA officers and eventually foreign mercenaries into a four-country search zone to free a group of ordinary teenagers transformed by social media into a central prize in America's global war on terror. Boko Haram became an internationally known entity and soon forged an alliance with the Islamic State. An economy of ransoming schoolchildren emerged, and Nigeria has seen five mass abductions totaling almost 1,000 students in the past year.

It turns out that hashtag activism "slacktivism," if you prefer is effective. Just not always in the ways that people who practice it intend.

Other hashtags derided as slacktivism have had similarly lasting impact. A week-long viral campaign in 2012, #StopKony, pushed Washington to reinvigorate a barely known military hunt for Uganda's Joseph Kony, a warlord whose Lord's Resistance Army forcibly recruited children as fighters. During Arab Spring uprisings, hashtags like #Egypt, #Libya and #GeziPark, in Turkey, became rallying points for protesters on the streets but also shifted Western policy toward longtime counterterrorism allies in Cairo and Ankara. NATO war planners later admitted that they used tweets to pinpoint airstrikes against Moammar Gaddafi's forces.

In the White House in April 2014, quickly thumbed-out tweets tagged #BringBackOurGirls were compiled by the National Security Council into emails sent to top Obama administration officials, who then plotted a military intervention in the same Situation Room complex where they had watched the assassination of Osama bin Laden. ...

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Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/slacktivism-chibok-twitter-our-girls/2021/04/16/0e3b9fee-9e1f-11eb-8005-bffc3a39f6d3_story.html

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