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#BringBackOurGirls: How a Hashtag Took Hold

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, May 7 2014

Comparison of #bringbackourgirls, #chibokgirls and #bringbackourdaughters hashtags (Topsy/Screengrab)

When it comes to online activist movements, such as the now infamous KONY 2012 effort, the question under discussion often ends up being to what degree online action can motivate offline action. But a close look at a new online call that has taken hold over the past weeks, #BringBackOurGirls, shows that the power of a hashtag can be in the much more complex interplay between online and offline actions that reinforce and intensify each other.

The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is an online culmination of the response to the news reports of an April 14 abduction of more than 200 Nigerian school girls by the terrorist organization Boko Haram, which has led to demands for more exhaustive Nigerian government action and international assistance. At Tuesday's White House press briefing Press Secretary Jay Carney said that Secretary of State John Kerry had phoned Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan urging him to accept American assistance, which later news reports indicated he had accepted, while there was also increased pressure from the twenty female U.S. Senators along with John McCain and others.

The initial stirrings of the movement began at the grassroots level in Nigeria. Within days of the girls' abduction, activists in Nigeria had begun using Twitter to try to pressure the Nigerian government to do more. On April 22, Punch Nigeria reported that #Whereareour85daughters had been trending in Nigeria, referring to initial false government reports that only 85 girls were still missing and that others had escaped or been rescued. The first person to promote that hashtag was Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former Nigerian Minister of Education, a former vice president of the World Bank for the Africa region and a senior advisor on Africa Economic Development Policy for the Open Society Foundations.

Since then that particular hashtag has seen 2,400 tweets, according to Topsy. There were other hashtags as well including #AbductedBornoGirls, #BornoGirls, #ChibokGirls, and #WhereAreOurGirls. But the ones with real staying power did not emerge until April 23.

On that day, Ezekwesili spoke at an event in honor of Unesco's selection of the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt as World Book Capital. In her remarks, Ezekswesili urged the members of the audience to rise "and make a collective demand for our daughters to be released for our daughters to be rescued. Join us in declaring that Port Harcourt as the book capital of the world makes a collective demand for the rescue of our school girls ... So today, we call together, bring back all our daughters." As she concluded her remarks, an event organizer echoed, "We take it home, bring back our daughters."

One of the people watching the event on TV was Ibrahim Abdullahi, a corporate lawyer in Abuja, Nigeria. He had already been posting about the abduction and retweeting Ezekwesili's earlier tweets.

As the book event unfolded, he tweeted:

Later, she herself retweeted his post, and followed it up with her own:

In an e-mail to techPresident, Abdullahi wrote that he did not know Ezekwesili personally. He said he was a Muslim from Northern Nigeria where the attack occurred.

"I love girls because I am surrounded from childhood with girls, my elder sister and my younger sister who I love so much. And now my wife and my mum. I have a son and I have always wanted a girl child because I think girls do not have the same opportunity with boys in my environment as such I always try to argue or show that girls are same in intellectual ability and other rights with boys," he wrote.

"[When she] asked the participants to stand up and demand that Nigerian government rescue and bring back the abducted girls. It then downed [sic] on me that we should all demand that the Nigerian government bring back the Chibok girls who are our sisters and daughters ... I immediately tweeted that tweet which was said to be the first to define the free abducted girls campaign. I will not say that was deliberate, rather coming [up] with the hashtag was not my own creation but an inspiration from discussions with friends, #obyzeks call and its simplicity yet full of meaning and easier appeal than other hashtags. And I think that's what makes the hashtag popular-simplicity yet self explanatory, fast appeal and easy to connect with all and sundry as almost all of us have girls in our lives."

From this point forward the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, and secondarily #BringOurGirlsBack and, took over .Overall on April 23, there were close to 8,000 tweets per day using it, and over 14,700 on April 24, with Topsy identifying as one of the top tweets a post from Egyptian writer and social media powerhouse Mona Eltahawy on the morning of April 25.

Also on April 24, some Nigerian youths raised the issue of the abducted girls in a Twitter chat with White House Senior Director for African Affairs, Grant Harris, Nigeria News reported.

On April 25, somebody called M.K. in Chicago created a We the People petition asking the international community to help with the search for the girls, a petition that as of May 6 has over 17,400 signatures.

That same week, Ramaa Mosley, an American filmmaker in California, first heard the story about the kidnapping on NPR and was so upset that she seriously considered going to Nigeria herself, though her young daughter and a Nigeria advocacy group she reached out to strongly discouraged her. Among her previous projects, she directed an Afghanistan segment for the Girl Rising film, part of a girls' education campaign. As she searched for more information, she told techPresident in an interview and an e-mail, she initially mostly found foreign news sources and little American news coverage or social media action. She said she began posting the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on April 25 after seeing the phrase attributed to Nigerian mothers in a news story, and was not aware at first that it was already a hashtag on Twitter, especially among Nigerians. The Nigerian Tribune was one of the earlier stories that week that covered the desperation of the parents.

"I'm not a social media guru," Mosley said. "Up until a few months ago I didn't even know what a hashtag was...I'd like to give credit to the Nigerian people because if they hadn't been yelling, none of us would have begun trying to echo out the story to a larger audience."

When she first started posting, she said she got responses such as "Who are our girls and why we would we want them back? Is it a girl band?" She also promoted the White House petition, and on April 26 created and shared with her friends a Bring Back Our Girls Facebook page, which as of May 6 had over 46,500 likes, and a dedicated Twitter account. "One group called ENDS (Every Nigerian Do Something) was very effectively telling the story but people weren't sharing it in the US," she noted.

Meanwhile, back in Nigeria, protests were continuing to grow, and these started to reverberate across the world more strongly thanks to the efforts of people like Mosley. On April, 30 Ezekswili was one of the organizers of a march in Abuja in support of the girls, which she promoted with the hashtag.

Mosley had also begun hearing from some other activists on the ground in Nigeria and learned about the plans to march. She called for an online march in support, encouraging the Facebook followers to change their profile pictures. "I worked with colleagues to create an image that people could use as their profile pic," she wrote in an e-mail to techPresident. "A simple red graphic was created by Girl Rising. In solidarity with the mothers who were marching in Nigeria wearing red," she wrote. "When my friends didn't immediately change their profile pictures, I called them, I emailed them, I badgered them."

She said she realized it was important to make sure she offered her followers image assets that they could share, and to combine that with action items. "It's not enough to tweet, it's not going to bring back our girls, but it's important to call and write the governments [and] share with friends."

The Twitter campaign reached its first peak on April 30, the same day as the march in Nigeria, according to Topsy, which identified over 26,000 tweets per day on April 30, and cited top tweets from celebrities like Chris Brown and Piers Morgan.

"There must be concerted efforts to bring back our girls," Ezekswesili said at the protest in Nigeria, where the message was also written on some signs.

Also starting April 29, the Twitter account for the fund representing Malala Yousafzai, the girl attacked by the Taliban, began sharing photos and news stories about her support for the girls, and Unicef Education adopted the hashtag.

On May 2nd and May 3rd, Mosley's Facebook page shared news about protests in New York City, Philadelphia and Toronto.

The hashtag activism by Nigerians and Mosley also caught the attention of CNN, which had already been reporting on the story, especially on CNN International. CNN's Jim Clancy spoke with Mosley on May 2nd, and ended up having to correct himself when he seemed to be attributing the hashtag to her and received pushback on Twitter.

In Nigeria, Abdullahi said he was aware of Mosley's efforts, had been in touch with her and appreciated her efforts. " I think she has made the #hashtag popular at the US and created much awareness there. I am glad and impressed with her work," he wrote. "It's heartwarming that... celebrities world wide identify with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign."

Nigeria-based CNN reporter Vladimir Duthiers talked with Brian Stelter from CNN's Reliable Sources on Sunday about how the social media effort has influenced coverage. "This has happened in a part of the country that is very remote. ...We, as journalists, cannot go to this area...So we can't bring images of the parents talking about their daughters. We can't bring images even of the young girls that have gone missing, because the government has been very, very... close-guarded when it comes to releasing the names or images of these young girls," he said.

"So there's nothing for people to grasp onto. And print reporters have been doing this story, The New York Times, the U.K. Guardian, but, still, when you are not able to talk to those people, when you don't have those voices, we don't have those images, it's just hard for people to relate. I think now, as the social media campaign has begun, the story really is simple. You don't really need all those images. You just have to imagine you are a parent. You send your kid to school....Any mother, any parent, anybody with a heart listening to that story will now start to understand what it is that these people are going through."

On May 4, Hillary Clinton tweeted using the hashtag, the same day The New York Times published a column by Nicholas Kristof with the headline "Bring Back Our Girls," in which he noted the social media efforts and spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry. That article currently has more than 99,000 Facebook likes or shares and 7,000 tweets.

When the Christian Association of Nigeria released the names of the missing Christian and Muslim girls this past Sunday, tech innovator Shaun King, who lives in South Africa, tweeted their names individually, an effort he repeated Monday and Tuesday. The names were also published Tuesday on the website Feministing.

On Tuesday, joining earlier petitions, including one started by a user in Germany that has reached 355,000 signatures, Amnesty International encouraged its list to contact the Nigerian government.

Girl Rising, which also encouraged its supporters to change their profile picture using the image initiated by Mosley, had organized a Google Hangout call to action Tuesday, while the news about assistance to Nigeria unfolded, prompting tweets by John Kerry and the State Department.

Already there has been criticism that the American nightly news did not mention the missing girls until May 1. In the Washington Post, Adam Taylor explored if the hashtag is helping, and contrasted it to KONY 2012.

"While Invisible Children was based in California, the Nigerian effort grew organically from within the country. And while Kony 2012 had one specific aim, the way that #BringBackOurGirls has progressed means that its aims remain organic, and fluid," he noted. He added that the movement is not aimed at the Boko Haram, but the government of Nigeria because its response to the crisis was deemed ineffective.

"Nigerians have long known that their country has problems due to corruption and incompetence among governing leaders, but most people just go about their day-to-day lives without having the sense that they can do much to stop it," Laura Seay, a Colby College professor, told Taylor. "The Chibok girls' crisis — combined with the attacks on Abuja in recent weeks — seems to have touched a nerve and catalyzed protest in a way I haven't seen before."

With 1.2 million tweets in the past 30 days, 9,000 within just one hour on Tuesday alone and visible U.S. government pressure, the hashtag with its international history has achieved the goal of at least temporarily capturing American and global public attention.

Mosley said she had been upset that while there had been many reports about other countries helping out to find the missing Malaysian plane, there had been none about helping to find the girls. "Outraged I started to shout on social media ... This is my first experience with actually putting out a call [on social media] and seeing people pick it up."

But the ultimate goal may still be very far away. "I want to see the hashtag #OurGirlsAreHome -- this is productive in getting the word out, but to do the action that it will take our governments need to get involved," she said.