I wasn’t a fan of #Kony2012.
I thought the filmmakers oversimplified the real story in Uganda, leaving key details on the cutting room floor. They should have considered how their goal of “making Kony famous” would play to a Ugandan audience — the very people they wanted to help.
Most of all, they perpetuated an unfortuante stereotype of Africans as voiceless, hopeless, powerless without us. #Kony2012 did a great deal to help white people feel better about themselves and arguably not enough to elevate the voices of those directly impacted by events in Northern Uganda.
As of this writing, Joseph Kony remains at large, despite the film’s stated goal of having him brought to justice by the end of 2012. The campaign’s most lingering effect seems to be the #Kony2012 graffiti still visible in my neighborhood park.
So I get why the latest example of hashtag activitism, #BringBackOurGirls, has met with skepticism in some corners. There are similarities to #Kony2012. But there are also at least three key differences to consider.
1. #BringBackOurGirls started in Nigeria.
As Megan Gibson wrote for Time, #Kony 2012 was a case of “outsiders looking in.” To its critics, Invisible Children has always struggled with a brand that depicts white people coming to Africa’s rescue. (As have other western NGOs.)
#BringBackOurGirls was, by contrast, a Nigerian response to a Nigerian tragedy. The hashtag started trending in Nigeria in late April — well before it made headlines in the West. Its first known use was in a tweet by Ibrahim M Abdullahi, a Nigerian solicitor. Check out this geotagged map to see how it spread from there.
#BringBackOurGirls reverses the typical direction of global activism. This change is long overdue. No matter how good our intentions, when we come rushing in with our own solutions, we are bound to get it wrong. Good activism is about listening and responding to those we aim to serve. They ought to lead the conversation. They get to say what their future should look like. It’s not our place to decide that for them.
2. #BringBackOurGirls shamed the mainstream media into covering something that matters.
Remember when the missing flight MH370 was the only thing happening in the world according to CNN? Remember when they were treating every far-fetched theory as if it were plausible news and torturing passengers’ families with banal questions like, “How does this make you feel?”
American news outlets largely ignored the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian girls at first. (You can bet they would’ve been more interested had the kidnapping taken place in Europe or America.)
Of course, our favorite media outlets were only giving us what we wanted, chasing after the most sensational and facile stories in order to pander to their core demographic. That’s the problem when you run your newsroom according to a corporate business model.
#BringBackOurGirls shamed the mainstream media and its enablers. (Hint: that would be us.) It put 276 kidnapped girls on the radar by making their story trend on Twitter days before CNN and its competitors could be bothered to look up from their usual tabloid drivel.
3. #BringBackOurGirls forced the Nigerian government to respond.
The Nigerian government was painfully slow to address the kidnapping. There’s even some evidence to suggest they could’ve prevented the tragedy but failed to act. Nigeria’s president, Jonathan Goodluck, took weeks to even comment on the abduction. (Imagine the backlash if President Obama waited so long to address a similar incident here.)
Nigerian voices sounded in protest, caught the world’s attention, and then that of their own government. No, a hashtag will not, in fact, bring back our girls. But those who lump all examples of hashtag activism into the same bag and dismiss them as ineffective miss the point. To goal of #BringBackOurGirls was not to frighten Boko Haram into surrender through a mere Twitter campaign. The goal was to get people’s attention, to force those who CAN act to do so. As Matt Collins wrote for the Guardian:
Selfies and hashtags are unlikely to lead to social change on their own – only real governmental pressure and action can do that. But world governments listen, and act, when enough people speak. Social media is the most shareable, durable and global collection of voices the world has ever seen, one which is increasingly difficult to ignore.
There are valid criticisms to be made. Not everything with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag plastered on it has been helpful. (For example, the BBC using a 14-year-old photo of a girl who isn’t Nigerian to represent the kidnapped school girls.) There are legitimate concerns being voiced in some parts of Africa about what else all the international attention might lead to — in particular, an expanded US military footprint in the region.
And there is a real danger that hashtag activism will, as Caitlin Dewey wrote for the Washington Post, oversimplify and sentimentalize the issues in Nigeria without actually achieving anything.
All these are legitimate concerns well worth taking into account. We are being naïve if we think hashtag activism will solve anything on its own, or if we equate posting socially conscious selfies with actually doing something. But in the case of #BringBackOurGirls, hashtag activism has amplified the voices of those we should’ve been listening to from the start. It forced a conversation. And conversation can be a powerful force for change.