Two years after the #Kony2012 hashtag went viral and its originators got to triumphantly “ignore the fact that Joseph Kony was already pushed out of Uganda long before [their] film was made, for using funds largely for themselves, and for hypocrisy by ignoring human rights abuses by the Ugandan military,” the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls from the Government Secondary School by Boko Haram, an Islamic Jihadist and terrorist organization, lit Twitter on fire with one phrase:
More than two million users retweeted the hashtag (thanks in part to our own First Lady Michelle Obama), and it became THE main news topic for a good two weeks (which is like two months in dog news cycles). But unfortunately, a disheartening story by Charlotte Alfred for The World Post brings us an update that won’t be favorited by any of those two million users.
Not one student has been rescued.
In the first days after the abduction, 57 of the girls managed to escape from their captors. But not one has escaped or been rescued since then. Even though they were reportedly located months ago. In May, a Nigerian military official claimed he knew where the girls were being held. A month later, U.S. surveillance planes also spotted a group that officials believed to be the girls.
Stephen Davis, an Australian cleric and mediator, said in June that a deal to free the girls had fallen apart three different times in one month. He says that powerful people with “vested interests” are working to sabotage a deal, and he has accused Nigerian politicians of funding Boko Haram. Nigeria’s government has defended its approach to the crisis and warned that a rescue effort might risk the girls’ lives.
She goes on to add:
When other countries did start to help, they didn’t get very far. The U.S. sent 80 troops in late May to coordinate an aerial search from neighboring Chad. Canada, France, Israel and the U.K. also sent special forces to Nigeria. But six weeks later, the Pentagon press secretary announced that the U.S. mission would be scaled back, saying: ‘We don’t have any better idea today than we did before about where these girls are.’
Not only that, since April, Boko Haram has “claimed to have taken over at least five towns in northeastern Nigeria, and the militant group has also kidnapped at least three more smaller groups of girls as well as dozens of boys and young men.”
If this seems hard to believe, take a second and think about The Amazing Spider-Man 2, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, and Tiger Woods sitting out the 2014 Masters. These were some of the other biggest ‘news’ stories and topics of conversation during that same time period, yet for being less than six months old, they all feel ungraspably ancient.
While hashtag activism may work for things like charity donations and media narratives, the truth is that foreign policy is burdened by massive amounts of logistical red tape, diplomatic eggshell-walking, and tedious political procedure. By the time any real change can be made, the 24-hour news cycle has churned forward.
That’s not to say, however, that all hashtag activism is worthless.
Despite an entire nation’s inability to follow directions, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raised so much money that the biggest concern is what to spend it all on. The #WhyIStayed/#WhyILeft and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown were great examples of using social media to expose ignorant and biased narratives in the media.
Those campaigns understood the obvious power of social media, but also its less obvious limitations; it can educate and it can give a voice to the voiceless, but asking it to force swift action in matters that are more complex than any extended tweet can convey is a self-assuaging moot gesture.
I hate to write this, but back in May when #BringBackOurGirls was the global digital rallying cry, conservative journalist George Will hit the nail on the head:
Power is the ability to achieve intended effects. And this is not intended to have any effect on the real world. It’s a little bit like environmentalism has become. But the incandescent light bulb becomes the enemy. It has no effect whatever on the planet, but it makes people feel good about themselves.
We can help cure diseases one bucket of clean, valuable water at a time, but the un-Likable reality is that global leaders are the ones that truly help address global issues like this one and global leaders are only interested in two things:
Favorites and Retweets Votes and Money.
In a related story, according to a contract document signed June 13, the Nigerian government hired Levick, a prominent PR and lobbying firm in Washington, “to engage in an effort to change the ‘the international and local media narrative surrounding Nigeria’s efforts to find and safely return the girls abducted by the terrorist organization Boko Haram.”
An earlier version of this article was originally posted on The Daily Banter on October 2, 2014