Since early May, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has permeated the highest ranks of government and sparked a resurgence of global hashtag activism that rivals the KONY 2012 debacle. By the first week of May, what started out as an uncoordinated expression of Nigerian frustration had garnered over two million tweets and included support from Michelle Obama, David Cameron, and various unsavory celebrity figures like Chris Brown and model Irina Shayk, who decided that it was a fitting opportunity to post a topless selfie in solidarity. Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole cautioned, "Remember: #bringbackourgirls, a vital moment for Nigerian democracy, is not the same as #bringbackourgirls, a wave of global sentimentality."
Like the KONY film and the social media firestorm that followed, #BringBackOurGirls makes the flawed assumption that mere awareness of an issue is laudable and constitutes a form of action. The movement, if it can be called that, spiraling from happenstance outrage into full-blown social media spectacle in the West gives credence to the idea that something gains importance if we—the plugged-in, privileged masses in the self-obsessed West—are aware of it and sufficiently outraged to act with our laptops. The story of the kidnapping was all-encompassing. It became a story about us just as much as the victims. One striking reminder of the general cluelessness that followed was the widespread retweeting of pictures of girls who had nothing to do with the kidnapping. These misrepresented girls were from Guinea-Bissau, not Nigeria, but their faces emblazoned with a hashtag fit the West's racialized aesthetic of what a Boko Haram kidnapping victim might look like.
There's an unsettling current of self-aggrandizement when people are posting pictures of themselves holding hastily written placards and making sad faces in an attempt to raise awareness about a complex issue that can't be explained in 140 characters. It's a paternalistic way to gain social capital with titillating images and stories of violence from a far off place, another dose of the white savior complex that insists we are the powerful with solutions, while the Nigerians are by default at a lack and need help, as if a solution is just a click away. The kidnapping story is textbook for Western media: helpless African girls attending a school against the wishes of a radical Islamic group, who are then taken captive by said group and threatened with slavery, followed by a co-opted media spectacle aimed at...what exactly? Boko Haram has been terrorizing the northeast of the country for years and has murdered hundreds. But most of the coverage has tried to segment the issue into narrow buzz categories. Is it one of feminism? Modernity? Freedom of education? US national security? (This cynical meme has been making the rounds on various sites.) There has been an abundance of Western talking heads who have inserted themselves as arbiters of truth and purveyors of agendas that largely drown out the voices and desires of the families of those affected by the kidnapping on the front lines.
US drones are now flying intelligence-gathering missions over Nigeria, although, strangely, none of the information they've gathered that might be of aid has been relayed to the Nigerian government yet, due to the absence of an information sharing agreement. The drone flights come on the heels of the arrival of General David Rodriguez, head of the US Africa Command, which is currently operating in 28 African countries, and rumors that Canadian troops will take part in the search for the missing girls. Concurrently, the #BringBackYourDrones hashtag gained popularity after Michelle Obama's picture went viral, causing a wave of photoshopped responses criticizing the civilian deaths caused by US drone strikes in other parts of the world, but this spinoff campaign looks more like a misguided hijacking of a horrible event than an actual critique of imperialism and US military policy. This too is a kind of a self-aggrandizement, one that is endemic to a certain segment of the US left whose prime concern is wracking up brownie points on social media platforms that, in this case, are made at the expense of black bodies. It's not an intersectional moment and its only success has been to distract people from the issue. Critiques shouldn't be derailments.
Hillary Clinton asserted that the Nigerian government was avoiding "hard decisions" and admonished their failure to mount a successful rescue effort. Recent boastful communiques from Shekau have spoken of Boko Haram's growing power and willingness to target the US, garnering the attention of sabre-rattling Americans like Senator John McCain, who claimed that anything short of US military intervention would be an "abrogation of our responsibilities." "Our" responsibility in the wake of a horrific abduction of "our" girls, retweeted by millions in the West, quickly turns into a pretext for military adventurism. McCain also made quite an illogical comparison when he claimed that "it's interesting to me that when a ship is hijacked and taken into custody by these pirates, we have...no reservations about going in and trying to take that ship back," choosing to see an entire country and the myriad of underlying factors that contribute to the rise of something like Boko Haram as no more complex than a hijacked ship. There has been little mention, for example, that prior to the kidnapping in Chibok, the Nigerian government engaged in tactics similar to Boko Haram, taking custody of militants' family members as retribution for attacks. Or the complicating matter of a recent mutiny by disillusioned and under-equipped Nigerian military personnel in the northeast after a raid by Boko Haram militants.
The oppression of the kidnapped girls is doubled when the ensuing story becomes a platform for people to inscribe dehumanizing narratives of the "responsibilities" of feminism, or military intervention, or to plug a film project. The "clicktivist" component of this campaign and others like it undermine very real and very serious problems. We shouldn't ignore the human dimensions of this tragedy and turn it into a rhetorical device.
Jason Huettner is a freelance writer in New York. He received his B.A. from Hunter College in 2010 in English Language, Literature, and Criticism. His areas of interest include military science, postcoloniality, and gender studies.
Image via Twitter.