Feckless Or Empowering? Hashtag Diplomacy Can Work.

There is a peculiar debate going on in the media about the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag response to Boko Haram’s kidnapping and forced conversion of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. The rancor reflects both sides’ failure to reasonably consider the merits of the opposing point of view. There is nothing inherently wrong with publicizing a hashtag to raise awareness of this obscure group’s heinous attack. However, Boko Haram is an aggressive, violent organization that has been terrorizing Nigeria for a decade, and it is a mistake to give even the impression that a hashtag is a substantive part of U.S. policy.

Boko Haram seeks to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. “Boko Haram” means, approximately, “non-Islamic teaching is forbidden.” Contrary to Dean Obeidallah’s outburst, Boko Haram is an Islamist terrorist organization. For more background on Boko Haram, read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s May 8 Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal.

After a decade of terrorizing Nigeria in obscurity, on April 15, armed members of Boko Haram kidnapped between two and three-hundred school girls in Northeast Nigeria. Although the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag was first used on April 23, it did not create an immediate stir. But by May 4, former Secretary of State tweeted:

Then on May 6, Agence France Presse publicized a video of Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, saying “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah.” CNN picked up the Agence France Presse video and story, and the horror of Boko Haram’s attack became general knowledge. The video’s blunt brutality made world news.

On May 7, First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted a picture of herself holding a #BringBackOurGirls placard:

On May 12, the Senate’s female members joined to tweet a picture with the hashtag:

In the space of a month, Boko Haram went from a niche topic for foreign policy wonks to public notoriety.

Reaction to political figures’ participation in the hashtag campaign has been mixed and vitriolic. Critics say that relying on social media reflects a severe lack of seriousness. Boko Haram is, after all, a murderous, oppressive Islamist organization waging a religious war to overthrow a relatively Western-oriented government in an unstable region. These are not issue to be taken lightly or given short shrift.

Supporters note that Mrs. Obama’s tweet has been retweeted more than 57,000 times and Mrs. Clinton’s more than 13,000. As of May 14, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is tweeted dozens of times per minute. In this way, the hashtag and these two prominent, female figures have succeeded at raising awareness of the kidnapping.

Both of these positions are correct and misguided in turns. Critics are right that the hashtag campaign gives a pitiful impression, and publicity is not necessarily a good thing. As William Kristol wrote:

Let us pause to note the near-perfection of the “Bring Back Our Girls” hashtag. “Our Girls” nicely captures modern liberalism’s cloying faux-universalism. “Bring Back” epitomizes the pseudo-tough use of the imperative voice—but with no assumption of responsibility for action by the speaker.

Mrs. Clinton tweeted that “[w]e must stand up to terror,” but as Secretary of State opposed formally designating Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization under U.S. law. In her tweeted picture, Mrs. Obama looks defeated, pleading and desperate. Together, these leave the sorry impression that possibly the two most influential women in America today are sad but helpless about this sorry thing happening in Nigeria.

Further, it’s not clear what influence Clinton and Obama had in the first instance. The hashtag was multiplying rapidly by the time of Mrs. Clinton’s tweet, and was very much in the public eye by the time of Mrs. Obama’s. In addition, the Agence France Presse report that made global headlines came before Mrs. Obama’s tweet, meaning that “awareness” was already quite high.

Finally, it is not clear that the publicity wrought from the hashtag campaign is having a positive influence. At last report, Nigeria was considering releasing Boko Haram prisoners in exchange for the kidnapping victims’ release. This is balm for the victims and their families, but creates terrible incentives for future Boko Haram attacks. And say Boko Haram does release the girls, then what? Will the hashtag campaigners declare victory and forget that Boko Haram has been murdering, raping and pillaging for a decade? Will tweeting sate keyboard activists’ sense of obligation? Will this social-media campaign go the way of Iran’s “twitter revolution” and whither from lack of concrete action? The twitter “campaign” may give participants a false sense of accomplishment without having actually done anything.

These objections aside, though, and as noted by Laura Olin in Time, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has brought sustained, wide-spread attention to Boko Haram for the first time. And #BringBackOurGirls was started by Nigerian activists specifically to stir awareness of the kidnap victims’ plight, so in this they were successful. Even if somewhat belated, Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Clinton multiplied the publicity by lending their own personal celebrity. Raised awareness of the Boko Haram kidnappings, stirring public awareness of Boko Haram, and instigating governmental responses are good things.

Also, the mass publicity pushed Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to accept foreign participation in combating Boko Haram after years of ham-handed, abusive and often counterproductive efforts. As noted by the Washington Post’s editors, paramilitary teams from the U.S., Britain and Israel are deploying to Nigeria. A targeted, disciplined counter-insurgency strategy is probably the only means of defeating Boko Haram in the long term, and getting experienced, knowledgeable people into Nigeria to set up and assist that effort is a major victory. Critics are wrong to demean the hashtag campaign as pointless.

So how do we reconcile these opposed and seemingly mutual exclusive views? Is this hashtag diplomacy stupid and silly, or empowering and motivating?

Yes, the hashtag raises public awareness and attendant public pressure to force change, but since when do U.S. public figures resort to hashtags to effect change, and at the end of the day it’s going to be men with guns who stop Boko Haram, isn’t it? Yes, the hashtag thing is a little weak and feckless, but millions of people saw it and responded, and for the first time Nigeria is actually changing its approach to Boko Haram in a positive way, right?

Ultimately, President Obama’s foreign policy team will have to decide how to capitalize on this newfound awareness of and attention to Boko Haram’s reign of terror. Since the #BringBackOurGirls campaign now has quasi-official U.S. government imprimatur, it is essential that the U.S. government now see it through and do something to put an end to Boko Haram’s immediate and long-term threats. Otherwise #BringBackOurGirls is just so much digital commiserating.

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