Does it take a clever hash tag to make things #interesting enough to care about?

In-depth news article written for Reporting for the Public Good.

by Kristen Case | 5/12/14

In the world of social media, it often takes something drastic to draw attention to an important issue. Fear is motivator and it is often the most attention-grabbing and fear-inspiring headlines that direct readers to a story, regardless of the focus of the story.

Sometimes, however, all it takes is a clever hash tag.

After a group of Nigerian girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, a campaign started on social media, using the hash tag #BringBackOurGirls.

But after the wide-spread attention that the #Kony2012 hash tag received, which rapidly petered out, it seems that a clever hash tag isn’t enough to keep the attention of today’s society.

The capture of the Nigerian girls, and the other actions by Boko Haram, is an issue that demands attention. Currently, thanks to #BringBackOurGirls, the world’s attention is focused on these girls and the efforts needed to save them. Nigeria is currently getting the help it needs from outside sources to bring as many girls back as safely as they can.

But as proved by the failure of the #Kony2012 campaign, it is going to take more than a catchy hash tag to keep the world’s attention where it is needed.



Sometime during the night of April 14, the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, kidnapped more than 200 girls from a school in northern Nigeria.

Nine days, one search mission by the parents of the missing girls and a lot of fumbling lack of action from the Nigerian government, and the Nigerian community took to social media to express their outrage.

A lawyer in Abuja, Ibrahim M. Abdullahi, was the first to use the hash tag #BringBackOurGirls, on April 23, but it would take several more days before the Western world would really pay attention.

It wasn’t until May 4 that President Goodluck Jonathan made his first public comments since the abductions. He informed the Nigerian public that the government was seeking assistance from the U.S. and other world powers to tackle Nigeria's "security challenge".

Two days later, on May 6, President Barack Obama called the abduction “heartbreaking” but that it could be the catalyst that mobilizes the international community to finally act against Boko Haram.

On May 7, #BringBackOurGirls reaches one million tweets.

That same day, First Lady Michelle Obama posts a picture of herself holding a piece of paper that simply reads “#BringBackOurGirls.” The next day, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai does the same.

By May 10, the government of Nigeria had assigned two army divisions to find the girls. According to a spokesperson for the Nigerian military, the soldiers will be based near Chad, Cameroon and Niger and will work with other security agencies to rescue the kidnapped girls.

But just like Kony and the LRA, Boko Haram was a problem long before social media ever took up the cause.


Condemned by even al-Qaeda

Boko Haram is a Nigerian militant group that was formed in 2002, in the poorest part of Nigeria. The country’s northern half is mostly Muslim and many felt under-represented in the general population of Nigeria. Boko Haram was formed as an expression of that, by a cleric named Mohammed Yusuf, but he founded it as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.”

He established a mosque and school that were presented as an alternative to the government schools that he regarded as alien to Muslims. It was this disdain for the government schools that gave way to the nickname Boko Haram, because it translates as “Western education is a sin.”

The group advocated making Nigeria into an Islamic state lead by a supreme religious and political leader and descendant of Muhammad and imposing Sharia law. Gradually, they grew more militant, attacking their local critics, which included Christians, government representatives and the police.

In the early stages, even as Boko Haram turned to violent opposition, they avoided civilian casualties, which was how the generated a lot of their support.

That changed seven years after the group had begun, in July 2009 when Boko Haram fighters armed with guns and hand grenades attacked a mosque and police station in Bauchi. About 55 people were killed in the battle.

The next day, Nigerian security forces retaliated with a brutal crackdown that killed more than 700 people, including many innocent bystanders.

Security officers captured Yusuf, paraded him before television cameras and several camera phones, interrogated and then executed him in front of a crowd outside a police station without trial.

The group, now led by Yusuf’s former deputy Abubakar Sheku, briefly went underground, but came back more fierce and cruel than they had left.

Five years later, the group has killed more than 1,500 people in attacks that have grown more and more deadly. In 2012 alone, they killed 815 people, which was more than the previous two years combined.

Despite the increasing body count that the group had racked up, it wasn’t until 2013 that the U.S. listed Boko Haram, reportedly linked to al-Qaeda, as a terrorist organization.

Despite the reported link to al-Qaeda, Boko Haram has more in common with a savage cult that terrorized northern Uganda for 25 years, the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Both Boko Haram and the LRA kidnap girls en masse and are led by a warlord to claims to talk with each group’s respective God. And while LRA founder and social media sensation Joseph Kony claims to be Christian, the faith is no more recognizable to believers than Boko Haram’s brand of Islam, which alarms even the most extreme of Muslims.

“The violence most of the African rebel groups practice makes al-Qaeda look like a bunch of schoolgirls,” said Bronwyn Bruton, an Africa scholar at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “And al-Qaeda at this point is a brand — and pretty much only a brand — so you have to ask yourself how they are going to deal with the people who are doing things so hideous even the leaders of al-Qaeda are unwilling to condone them.”

“Their brutality is kind of a combination of African rebel groups and al-Qaeda in its original incarnation,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch,who previously worked for the Senate subcommittee on Africa. “Al-Qaeda now realizes you have to engage in populations, you can’t just slaughter them.”

It is safe to say that something is terribly wrong when a terrorist organization is condemned by the same group that coordinated the 2011 attacks against the U.S. and is compared to the LRA. But Boko Haram has more in common with the LRA than their brutality and ‘religious enthusiasm.’


LRA and #Kony2012

The LRA, led by Joseph Kony — self-proclaimed spokesman of God and spirit medium — claims to be establishing a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments, Chrisitan fundamentalism and African mysticism.

It is a militant movement that started in northern Uganda and terrorized the region for over 25 years. The LRA has been accused of widespread human rights violation, including murder, abduction, mutilation, child-sex slavery and forcing children to participate in hostilities.

The group was originally formed to resist the National Resistance Army before it took control of the country, which has also recruited over 5,000 children.

No one in the Western world really took notice until the #Kony2012 movement began.

On March 5, 2012, a group called Invisible Children released a short film titled “Kony 2012.” The purpose of the film was to raise awareness about Kony and the LRA in order to have him arrested by the end of 2012, when the campaign expired.

The film quickly exploded all over social media. A poll suggested that more than half of young adult Americans had heard about the video in mere days after the video’s release.

As of March of this year, the film has over 99 million views on YouTube and over 21,900 likes on Vimeo, as well as views on the central “Kony 2012” website operated by Invisible Children.

But nothing really changed.

The film exploded all over social media, and crashed the site operated by Invisible Children, but many denounced the video, claiming that Kony and the LRA hadn’t even been in Uganda since 2006 and that all the attempts to stop Kony over the years had only resulted in failure and retaliation from the group.

They also denounced Invisible Children, pointing out that the group only has two out of a possible four stars on Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity evaluator.

Foreign Affairs claimed that Invisible Children “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.”

Invisible Children supports direct military intervention and the Ugandan army, which was receiving funds from the campaign, also uses child soldiers. But only 32 percent of the money raised by Invisible Children went to those direct services.