On April 14, 2014, shockwaves were sent throughout the world with news that Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the Chibok village of Nigeria. Support for the recovery of the girls inspired the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which took social media by storm for months. But even with the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama backing the movement, an estimated 219 girls still remain missing one year later, begging the question viral Twitter outbreaks continues to raise: Is hashtag activism actually effective?
“As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them: to do so would be to offer unfounded hope,” said Nigerian president-elect Muhammadu Buhari in an Op-Ed for The New York Times. His lack of optimism, while depressing, is pretty realistic: For years, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been out of control, bombing schools and killing innocent citizens in its war against “Western education” in Nigeria. Despite the history of dangerous militant groups in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has proven to be the most dangerous of them all; in 2013, the U.S. government designated it as a terrorist organization, fearing it would link with al-Qaeda to establish a global reach. While Buhari seems more sympathetic than his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan (who was notoriously mute about militant attacks in his country), he’s right in saying that recovering all of the girls isn’t guaranteed, given the threat posed by Boko Haram.
Even still, Buhari shouldn’t accept defeat, and continued support of #BringBackOurGirls is one way of ensuring that he won’t. Don’t get me wrong; tweeting a hashtag isn’t as effective as, say, a search team with heavy artillery, or a fundamental change in Nigerian politics. But we can’t completely discount the power of the awareness that social media spreads. Take #Ferguson, which started in response to the August 2014 murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Without the #Ferguson tweets, which often reported live from protests demanding justice for Brown, those of us outside the Ferguson city limits wouldn’t have known about peaceful protesters getting tear-gassed by cops, proving true corruption in the Ferguson Police Department. Since then, the Department of Justice has investigated the city’s police, revealing routine violations of the Fourth Amendment, and President Obama has requested funding for police body cameras and created a task force to build trust between communities and law enforcement—all unlikely to have happened without social media.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign may not have achieved its goal, but it by no means indicates that hashtag activism or the awareness it brings is irrelevant. It’s a way to call out wrongdoers and seek justice, and—especially when coupled with action and specified demands—can actually incite change, proving that our voices do matter.