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Opinion: Some hashtags are more equal than others | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Protestors hold signs during a demonstration on May 6, 2014 outside the Nigerian embassy in Washington, DC, demanding robust action to rescue more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in the West African country. (AFP Photo/Robert MacPherson)

Do you remember last year’s #BringBackOurGirls solidarity campaign? It was launched in response to the abduction of around 300 girls from their school in Nigeria by members of the extremist gang that calls itself Boko Haram. These girls have not been returned to their families, and Boko Haram continues to carry out horrific acts of violence and murder in the areas under its control, with some estimates suggesting the group has killed more than 2,000 people since the start of 2015.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign attracted support from many notable personalities and organizations from around the world, and was given ample attention from the media, but it quickly withered away—and so here we are today and the girls are still not with their families; they and others kidnapped by the group are still missing. Not only that, the group has also effectively co-opted some of those it has captured into becoming walking human booby traps, forcing them to strap explosives around themselves and detonate them in public places, killing both themselves and countless others. This has happened in more than one operation carried out by Boko Haram. The last and perhaps the most horrific occurred last week when, at the same time that we were preoccupied with the #JeSuisCharlie campaign condemning violence and supporting freedom of speech, a 10-year-old Nigerian girl, under pressure from the extremist group, walked into a crowded market and blew herself up, killing herself and around 20 other people.

So, why did #JeSuisCharlie succeed in galvanizing widespread support, whereas #BringBackOurGirls evidently failed to fulfill its purpose? This comparison can also be expanded to allow us to contrast it with a number of other online campaigns which attracted media attention, including several others which were equally weighty—if not more so—but which did not seem to have the same widespread appeal.

I don’t think it unreasonable when examining the discrepancy between the success of #JeSuisCharlie and the failure of #BringBackOurGirls to bring questions of race, color and social class into the equation. However, I think this would only be part of the answer.

As “citizens” of the social media world, we regularly find ourselves having to react to what we see and hear on it, whether it happens close to us or somewhere more remote. We feel obliged to express ourselves or react in some way, for when you are silent in the world of social media, you wither away and cease to exist. So, here in this world you have no choice but to express your thoughts, your opinions, or clarify a position when faced with this or that event. It is a kind of citizenship, whether you look at it through the usual conception of the word, or the new, much wider one in which we now all participate, whether we have agreed to or not.

The failure of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign shows us how such reactions to events that have just occurred, when we are still caught in the heat of moment, do not in truth help the people affected by those events. The right response requires persistence and seriousness, as well regional and international efforts and the proposal of long-term solutions; none of these seem to have been present in the Nigerian case. So it would have been impossible for a viral campaign such as this to have any effect on Boko Haram, which is led by a man whose actions show him to be mentally unstable and extremely violent. Millions of tweets mean nothing to such a man, who takes refuge in ungoverned territory in Nigeria, coming out now and again to kill and abduct as he pleases.

However, such solidarity campaigns, particularly those that receive much attention on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, are not bad things in themselves, even if they don’t always end up achieving something tangible on the ground. The difference between #JeSuisCharlie and #BringBackOurGirls makes this point clear: expressing an opinion, having a reaction, spreading awareness, or using slogans; all these things are cerebral in nature. Finding effective solutions to problems and adequately confronting crises would seem to be beyond some of the organizations seeking to mobilize public opinion and action via social media. Solutions can only be applied by governments and decision-makers in different countries.

#JeSuisCharlie was taken up by world leaders, even those who do not necessarily believe in free speech or who seek to limit it themselves. But the furor surrounding this slogan was much stronger than any refusal or reluctance to get behind it. #BringBackOurGirls, on the other hand, was an unfortunate, “orphan slogan,” one, which like the country it relates to, has no-one to support, help or promote it.