On kidnappings, campaigns and Twitter (and other random thoughts)

The recent kidnapping of over 200 girls in northern Nigeria, and what has followed – i.e. absolutely no one cared and then all of a sudden everyone cared – has made me want to put my thoughts down on paper again. I know this issue is being discussed left, right and center, so I’m not claiming to make any new arguments. To the contrary, I’m more interested in sharing some of what I’ve read on the issue and how I feel about the different arguments being made.

What’s most interesting for me, looking at this case from a broad point of view, is the lessons we can draw from it, when it comes to awareness-raising, advocacy, campaigning. For those of us who work in development, human rights, conflict resolution or related fields, either as advocates, researchers, journalists or even policy-makers, we are always faced with this dilemma: how can we raise-awareness, how can we get an issue on the table, in a way that doesn’t cause more harm than good? And how can we do this in a way that creates long-lasting change, rather a two-week frenzy that will die down as quickly as it took life? I think the case of the Chibok girls highlights these dilemmas.

On Hashtags and Twitter Campaigns

In the interest of full disclosure, #Kony2012 irritates me in a quite spectacular fashion. The simplification of the conflict combined with the glorification of clicktivism rubs me the wrong way, mildly put. So of course, Karen Attiah’s comparison in a post on Africa is a Country caught my eye:

I reiterate, I am glad that the world is finally taking notice of the Chibok girls. On the other hand, I do grow nervous when overly sensationalized coverage of children in African conflicts in the West go the way of #kony2012. While the language we use to talk about these girls must do the utmost the horror of their plight, but that in our eagerness to “say something” we do not marginalize them further.

That being said, they are very different campaigns, and as Faine Greenwood (@faineg) rightly pointed out on Twitter, “What I don’t grok (sic) is people comparing #BringBackOurGirls to #Kony2012. 1 originated with African women, one was a kooky white guy” and “Just because both campaigns involve the vast continent of Africa and Twitter handles does not mean they are TOTALLY THE SAME.” While I completely agree with her,  I do think the comparison is happening in many cases because people are concerned that these sort of campaigns can (and I’m not saying this one will) dumb-down the issue so much that it ends up having counter-productive effects.

There is also a concern as to what these campaigns are actually asking for, when people outside of Nigeria become involved, and whether or not they result in actual positive change, beyond just raising awareness about the issue at home. For instance, the success of #Kony2012 (again, let’s assume we’re measuring success in terms of how much closer we are to getting rid of Kony, rather than in terms of how many people know have heard of him) is something that has been debated time and time again (see, for instance, Polly Curtis in the Guardian, Manuel Barcia in Al-Jazeera, Mark Kersten in Justice in Conflict, the list goes on).

I think it’s important to consider what the goals are behind #BringOurGirlsBack – in other words, what are we asking people (and which people? Do these people differ depending on who is doing the tweeting?) to do? For Nigerians using the hashtag, I think the answers to those questions are straight-forward, and the targets easily identifiable, but for those of us who aren’t Nigerian, these are important questions.

Jumoke Balogun in Compare Afrique raises this issue, arguing that:

Simple question. Are you Nigerian? Do you have constitutional rights accorded to Nigerians to participate in their democratic process? If not, I have news you. You can’t do anything about the girls missing in Nigeria. You can’t. Your insistence on urging American power, specifically American military power, to address this issue will ultimately hurt the people of Nigeria.

It heartens me that you’ve taken up the mantle of spreading “awareness” about the 200+ girls who were abducted from their school in Chibok; it heartens me that you’ve heard the cries of mothers and fathers who go yet another day without their child. It’s nice that you care.

Here’s the thing though, when you pressure Western powers, particularly the American government to get involved in African affairs  and when you champion military intervention, you become part of a much larger problem. You become a complicit participant in a military expansionist agenda on the continent of Africa. This is not good.

You might not know this, but the United States military loves your hashtags because it gives them legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa. AFRICOM (United States Africa Command), the military body that is responsible for overseeing US military operations across Africa, gained much from #KONY2012 and will now gain even more from #BringBackOurGirls.

To be fair, I don’t think I would go quite that far regarding the link between a twitter campaign and US military decisions BUT the US (and other Western countries – I previously wrote about potential French involvement in Nigeria here) do fund a lot of military and security forces specifically for anti-terrorism activities – something that the Nigerian government knows and capitalizes on. Reversely, the presence of terrorism in countries like Nigeria is a great justification for continued military aid to many of these countries, especially those whose militaries’ human rights records make military assistance particularly controversial. Going back to my earlier comment about the asks and the targets of this campaign, if a person tweeting #BringBackOurGirls is American, is that person asking the US government to do something? Maybe the problem lies in the fact that the people (outside of Nigeria) participating in the campaign don’t know themselves.

To be clear, I do think that Twitter and other social media tools can be used (in an ethical way) to bring about positive change on many many issues. We can now share and get information also immediately; we can raise awareness with limited resources on a scale that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago; we can build solidarity movements that bridge borders and even continents. Social media has had an incalculable impact on the ability of organizations around the world to conduct advocacy, awareness-raising and lobbying activities.

A second post on Compare Afrique by Marissa Jackson argues the following:

Rather, the movement to #BringBackOurGirls, which actually originated in Nigeria, has thus far demonstrated the virtues of solidarity and grassroots international cooperation, within and beyond the African diaspora. It has shed much meaningful light on how to make visibility and voice to the invisible and voiceless. It has reminded us all of the value of naming and shaming–naming the girls to remind the world that they, too, are human beings, and shaming terrorists, Nigeria’s incompetent government, and the structural and institutional racism and misogyny that allowed an atrocity of this magnitude to go unnoticed two weeks and unresolved for over three.

But while there is value in these solidarity movements, I think it’s important to remember that awareness-raising and solidarity isn’t always an end-goal. The ultimate goal of #BringBackOurGirls is to bring the girls home, not to make sure everyone knows about them. Moreover, we can’t just rely on these tools, and forget everything else. We can’t forget to do awareness-raising beyond a 140-character message and a hashtag. We can’t forget to nurture activists who will fight for these issues in the years to come. We can’t assume that just because someone re-tweets a hashtag and enters their email in an online petition, they will support the cause 5 days from now. And please, let’s not forget the people who don’t have internet, who don’t know what Twitter is and even less what a hashtag is.

Now of course #BringBackOurGirls is a grassroots and a rather spontaneous phenomenon, rather than a long-term, planned out, advocacy campaign and so some of these points don’t really apply here. But I do think that, at the very least, we, as individuals, would all benefit from taking a step and thinking critically about our own activism and whether or not we are actually having an impact.

On Making Names and Photos Public

Another thing that has caught my attention with regards to this case, has been the debates over the names and photos of the girls who were kidnapped (I will get to why this is relevant in the context of this blog post a little bit later). Apparently, the lack of a public and verified list of the names of the girls is leading to conspiracy theories about this whole thing being a hoax. Let me stop you right there:

“Our fear,” Gusau said in his April 30 statement, is that “to reveal names that would reveal religion and family backgrounds … could at the end, compromise the safety of these girls.” He also pointed out that publicizing the girls’ names could make it easier for Boko Haram to identify their parents and demand ransom, and he feared listing the names could undermine the rescue operation or simply become sensational.

And he was afraid that if any of the named girls managed to escape, or if Nigeria managed to rescue them, a public list would mark them for life.

(From BuzzFeed, which also gives a good run down of the whole situation). In other words, making the list of names public, and even worse their photos, is the worst idea anyone has ever had. In every single country in the world where girls are kidnapped by armed groups (or in this case, terrorist groups), which in most cases involves sexual abuse, the stigma attached to having been a “bush wife” or whatever the term used in a particular country, is so strong that many are unable to lead proper lives after (see for instance, this BBC article about Sierra Leone).

The reason I mention this in the context of this blog post, is because social media also gives an opportunity for people to, on a large-scale, making demands of decision-makers that might not be good ideas. Now I’m not in any way justifying the actions (or lack thereof) of the Nigeria government in this situation so far, but when it comes to dealing with terrorists and kidnappings, I’m not sure average joe on Twitter is equipped to make better decisions. There are tactics and methods for dealing with kidnappings by terrorists (see for instance how some of the kidnappings of journalists in Syria have been handled, such as not even making them public for months while secret negotiations were taking place) and unless you happen to be an expert in the subject matter, maybe it’s better you let others handle it. Again, not saying here that the Nigerian government is doing a great job, but neither do I think that I’m qualified to tell them how to handle the situation. Back to the question of the list of names, it might be a good idea for people step back and at least pause and wonder if there are good reasons why it hasn’t been released.

In the absence of any relevant photos to use, apparently people have taken to using photos that are so irrelevant, it’s shocking. As discussed on the NYT Lens blog, photos taken by photographer Ami Vitale in Guinea-Bissau (read: not even Nigeria) have been used. Now, you may think, “ok well these are powerful and compelling photos … does it matter if it’s not the same girls, as long as it raises awareness?” Actually yes it does:

This is about misrepresentation.

These photos have nothing to do with those girls who were kidnapped. These girls are from Guinea-Bissau, and the story I did was about something completely different. They have nothing to do with the terrible kidnappings. Can you imagine having your daughter’s image spread throughout the world as the face of sexual trafficking? These girls have never been abducted, never been sexually trafficked.

This is misrepresentation.

I know these girls. I know these families, and they would be really upset to see their daughters’ faces spread across the world and made the face of a terrible situation.

Again, the reason I mention this is because social media – with all the good it can do – can also do harm, in this case helping spread on a mass scale images of little girls who never consented to have their images used for this purpose and who certainly haven’t been kidnapped by Boko Haram.

So in conclusion …

At the end of the day, #BringBackOurGirls is an opportunity for us, especially those of us who work in some capacity on advocacy/campaigning, to step back and analyze why it’s been so popular and how we can measure/quantify success in these sorts of events. I hope it’s clear from this blog post that I don’t oppose the #BringBackOurGirls twitter campaign.That being said, what scares is what sometimes seems like an increasing over-reliance on very simple methods of activism. In other words, that we’re moving into a new era where Slacktivism is the order of the day:

The word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed. The acts tend to require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist. The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplementing them, although this assumption has not been borne out by research (from Wikipedia)

With regards to the use of online “actions”, Mica White opines in the Guardian:

Most tragically of all, to inflate participation rates, these organisations increasingly ask less and less of their members. The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.

Again, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is different in that it isn’t organization-led but rather a very grassroots and organic campaign. However, I do think we need to think about the general direction that we’re moving in – one where sending out a 140-character Tweet or clicking “like” on Facebook are now considered “activism.” If those actions were proven to be conducive to social change, I would be all for them; but for the moment, I don’t think we’re ready to abandon traditional activism.

If you need some background:

New York Times, “Waging War in Nigeria, and Seeking New Battlegrounds: Explaining Bokor Haram, Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency”

Adam Nossiter and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Abduction of Girls an Act Not Even Al Qaeda Can Condone” (International New York Times)

Farouk Chothia, “Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?” (BBC)

 Yvonne Ndege and Azad Essa, “The rise of Nigeria’s Boko Haram” (Al Jazeera)

US Department of State, Background Briefing on Designation of Boko Haram and Ansaru as Foreign Terrorists Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorist

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