For weeks, the plight of more than 200 Nigerian girls kidnapped and trafficked by Islamist terrorists drew little attention internationally. A Nigerian lawyer's tweet marked the starting point of a now global campaign.
Casual news readers could be excused for assuming it was just last week when the now highly publicized kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian school girls took place. That's when reports of their abduction began leading news coverage, a full three weeks after the crime occurred in the night beginning April 14.
It's thanks in large part to an initially uncoordinated campaign launched by local Nigerian activists that the girls' disappearance didn't continue to fly under the radar at major news providers. The campaign began on April 23 with a single tweet by Nigerian lawyer Ibrahim M. Abdullahi, the first to use the now viral #BringBackOurGirls tag, amid what he calls "complete dissatisfaction" with his government's response to the incident.
As Abdullahi watched a live address on that date by former Nigerian Minister of Education Obiageli Ezekwesili, he tweeted a phrase she used as follows: "Yes #BringBackOurDaughters #BringBackOurGirls declared by @obyezeks and all people at Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014."
The lawyer and activist tells DW it is a "great joy" and "heartwarming to know that [the campaign] has gone so global," as #BringBackOurGirls today nears three million uses on Twitter since April 23. In the Nigerian capital of Abuja, Abdullahi says a group of around 20 campaign volunteers has expanded into more than 100 individuals. They meet daily to monitor progress on finding the girls and follow how the viral campaign is developing.
Breakthrough one week later
The former education minister whom Abdullahi originally quoted was among the first to lend steam to the campaign, retweeting his comment hours later and encouraging her followers to "use the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to keep the momentum UNTIL they are RESCUED."
Their joint appeal on April 23 had an impact. In the following week, Twitter users, primarily in Nigeria, began using the hashtag thousands of times per day to draw attention to the girls' plight.
The first breakthrough in the campaign's popularity came on April 30, when Twitter references to #BringBackOurGirls shot up to well over 100,000 in a single day.
The reporting of new details on the case as well as celebrity support could explain that sudden jump. News reports emerged, citing information from the missing girls' families and local villagers, that at least some of the abducted had been sold off as child brides for sums of around $12. Around the same time, prominent Twitter accounts associated with Pakistani Taliban victim Malala Yousafzai, UNICEF and celebrities such as Mary J. Blige and Chris Brown began tweeting the tag.
By May 7, just after #BringBackOurGirls had been tweeted one million times in total, US First Lady Michelle Obama lent her support to the campaign via Twitter. She took over the president's weekly address on Saturday (10.05.2014) to express being "outraged and heartbroken" at the crime in Nigeria.
One day later, on March 11, British Prime Minister David Cameron similarly offered backing to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, pledging in a television interview that Britain "will do what we can" to recover the abductees.
Meanwhile, familiar criticisms have emerged when it comes to activism on social media. Some have argued the gestures on Twitter and elsewhere are often rooted in vanity. Others have dismissed them as a superficial approach to the complex problems associated with the power of the Boko Haram Islamist group, which has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings in Nigeria.
Sudanese-born writer and journalist Nesrine Malik tweeted last week that Western countries were already turning inward to reflect on what their response to the incident says about themselves, quipping that there are similarities with the five stages of grief.
But Abdullahi, whose tweet marked the beginning of the campaign and who continues to work on its development, says he believes the massive international response on Twitter has had at least limited success in changing the Nigerian government's course.
"Initially, the government didn't even want to talk about it, but now the government has come out now to say that it wants to do something - even though not at the rate or the speed we want it to act," he told DW.
One positive result, he says, is that Nigerian leaders have expressed openness to assistance from other nations in terms of intelligence and technology that might help recover the girls. That doesn't mean Abdullahi is now satisfied with the official response, though. He reports that #BringBackOurGirls volunteers in Abuja faced pressure from the police yesterday during their daily meeting and fears similar reactions going forward.