With the help of a hashtag that went viral this past week, the international community is responding to a call to action to find the hundreds of missing girls abducted by the militant group Boko Haram in April.
US government officials stressed that this would not be a military rescue mission, but rather personnel who will “provide military, law enforcement and information-sharing assistance in support of Nigeria's efforts to find and free the girls.”
This announcement to send a small number of US troops to a war-torn African nation to hunt down an extremist militant group comes as a star-studded Twitter campaign raised awareness.
It actually might sound familiar to anyone who had access to the internet two years ago.
Two years ago, the US sent a small number of troops to Uganda prompted largely by the #Kony2012 viral video and ensuing social media campaign.
The purpose of the US mission in Uganda was firmly non-combative and instead aimed to provide an “advise and assist role” to African troops in their efforts for finding Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
This is nearly identical to what is currently unfolding in Nigeria — both in military strategy and the widespread involvement of social media to “raise awareness.”
On April 23, Nigerian activists started the #BringBackOurGirls campaign as a way to call attention to the kidnapping and sale of more than 300 girls by Boko Haram.
For reasons not immediately clear, the hashtag quickly caught on in the US In the past two weeks, more than one million people have tweeted the hashtag, including everyone from Michelle Obama to Kim Kardashian. On Friday, it was the second highest trending hashtag on Twitter.
Although it may have prompted the White House to deploy specially trained troops to Nigeria, it is unlikely that a hashtag will quell an Islamist insurgency.
“Social media is not going to rescue those girls,” Dan O’Shea, a counter-insurgency expert and former Navy SEAL, told VICE News. “In reality this is mostly a symbolic gesture and hashtag diplomacy is not going to solve these sorts of crisis.”
“On the one hand, it brings attention to the crisis but that doesn't necessary translate into meaningful action. Too much media attention is never advantageous for those trying to rescue hostages," said O’Shea.
Boko Haram has been an issue long before the news cycle started paying attention to it last week.
Turning it into a social media campaign deeply misunderstands and oversimplifies what Boko Haram is — including the name.
Boko Haram is often translated as “western education is forbidden” and while it does mean this in the Hausa language that’s not actually what most members of the group call it.
“Boko Haram” it is a name that locals and media created, explains Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs at the think tank, The Jamestown Foundation. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has always rejected the name.
The true name for Boko Haram is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad which means “people committed to the propagation of the prophet's teachings and jihad” in Borno.
This mistranslation, along with most western media coverage, characterizes Boko Haram as a cohesive group with a clear central mission to impose an Islamic state in northern Nigeria and driven solely by fundamentalist Islam. While some of this is true, in reality Boko Haram is a component of a four-year long insurgency that has stemmed from longstanding socio-political and economic issues within Nigeria.
These issues, in turn, are further compounded by decades of ethnic tensions, dysfunction and lack of government control, much of which stems from Nigeria’s post-colonial legacy from under the British.
The portrayal of Boko Haram as cohesive group makes it seem as though military intervention is the best option to combat it, when in reality the issue and therefore the solution is not as easily defined. U.S. military intervention will not only not be able to address this, but is likely to actively make the situation worse.
As Nigerian journalist Jumoke Balogun explained in the Huffington Post, “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.”
But of course, this sentiment is harder to get across when you only have 140 characters.
The Salafist-Jihadi group was founded in 2002 in northern Nigeria but has since splinted into various factions that lack a clear central leader or much control.
Much of the violence that has been attributed to Boko Haram in recent months comes from various loosely affiliated groups that have been carrying out a brutally violent uprising in northern Nigeria.
This insurgency led Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan to declare a national state of emergency in May of last year. But since then, militants have carried out mass killings, kidnappings and bombings in northern Nigeria with an unrelenting frequency. Nearly 300,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.
For example, in February, Boko Haram slaughtered nearly 60 sleeping students in a boarding school in Nigeria’s Yobe state. In the same week, militants killed another 60 in the town of Bama. These sorts of attacks happen on a nearly weekly basis and have since become almost routine.
“The biggest reason we have Boko Haram is because of politics, not religion,” Olukayode Thomas, a journalist for the Nigerian paper City Voice in Lagos, told VICE News in March. “In the last few months, it has been Muslim killing Muslim and innocent kids.”
Not only will a social media campaign not do much to help issues such as Boko Haram, it might actually work in the interest of Boko Haram to spread their message.
Like many other militant organizations, Boko Haram operates on disseminating fear through publicity. And a trending hashtag on Twitter is a pretty successful way to get publicity.
“Terrorists groups like Boko Haram and Al Qaeda are fueled by media exposure,” said O’Shea. “Media exposure is what allows them to raise their profile, recruit adherents to their cause and announces their agenda to the world. That is why they kidnapped 300 girls and not 10 — no one would care about 10.”
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928