Will #BringBackOurGirls bring them back?
Hashtag campaigns -- tweeting or posting a photo of a catchy slogan with a "#" in front of it -- have become a way to focus attention on a cause or issue that would otherwise probably be overlooked. It is the digital equivalent of slapping a bumper sticker on a car, except a hashtag campaign can spread to millions in days -- and disappear just as quickly.
The latest example is the effort to raise awareness about the more than 200 girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria in April. The effort has attracted global and high-level attention; First Lady Michelle Obama posted a photo of herself holding a sign reading "#BringBackOurGirls." So have other world leaders and prominent figures in entertainment and sports, including Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, former Stanford basketball stars of Nigerian descent.
But the risk of a campaign like this is that it allows the tweeting masses to feel good -- #JustDoSomething -- without solving the problem or forcing them to gain a fuller understanding of the situation. And it may make the situation worse. (More on that later).
"Attention can work in a lot of different ways," said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
With every major hashtag campaign, there is rigorous debate about the campaign's merits, aims and effectiveness. #Kony2012, which brought attention to a Ugandan despot, was criticized for being the product of an American interested in self-promotion -- and the despot is still on the loose.
Tweeting #BringBackOurGirls has brought an avalanche of global media coverage of Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group that captured the girls and has caused havoc for Nigerians for years.
And the campaign can declare success to some extent. After the hashtag took off, the United States and other countries promised to help Nigeria.
"It was a story that wasn't getting a lot of press," said Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The hashtag campaign is evidence that "people tweeting can get the media to talk about an issue. That's the democratization of the media."
That's true, but is it enough? Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host, has a good point when he says it's not.
"If the objective is to get the girls back, getting behind a hashtag campaign on Twitter isn't gonna do it," Limbaugh said on his radio program.
Securing the safe return of the girls involves looking for them in an unstable part of the world and negotiating with Boko Haram, which has killed thousands and not shown its victims mercy, as far as I can tell. The girls have been missing for more than a month, which isn't good.
And the situation becomes complex the more you learn. The Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, has been criticized for his weak response to the group over the years.
In fact, the hashtag campaign originated in Nigeria and is aimed more at a Nigerian audience than a global one. #BringBackOurGirls is a challenge to the government to do more to make people safe at a critical moment when Nigeria is trying to rebrand itself as an emerging economic powerhouse, according to Nigerian writers.
"This is a crisis that Nigerians will have to deal with by themselves, and not leave to outsiders," Tolu Ogunles, a Nigerian writer, wrote this week.
And there is the question about the possible negative effects of #BringBackOurGirls, which has been tweeted 3.7 million times since April 23, according to Crimson Hexagon, a social media analytics firm. Boko Haram could turn the worldwide publicity into leverage, making it harder for negotiators to win the girls' release, some have suggested.
And if the pressure of the campaign leads to increased U.S. involvement? That's tricky. American drones and unmanned aircraft are searching the area where the girls are believed to be. Sending in U.S. troops, which Nigerians might not welcome, could entice Boko Haram and other jihadist groups to take on a bigger target.
"You probably don't want U.S. military intervention," said Zuckerman. "There's a danger this grows bigger and you lose the nuances."
Do most people in the U.S. who retweet #BringBackOurGirls and who want results understand Nigeria's internal struggles and the difficulty involved in finding and rescuing the girls?
Probably not. That's not a criticism. Their impulse in joining the campaign is a human response to the wrenching story of girls seeking an education being kidnapped.
That's the limit of hashtag activism. It can only keep a spotlight on an issue, even if it makes us feel like we are doing something more.
Hashtag activism -- putting a # symbol in front of a slogan and using it on social media to highlight a cause -- has taken off with mixed success. Here are a few of the most notable campaigns in recent years:
#standwithPP -- The Susan G. Komen Foundation, after ending funding to Planned Parenthood over its abortion policies, restored it after this hashtag campaign.
#KONY2012 -- This hashtag campaign brought awareness of child soldiers in Uganda and spurred the U.S. to send in military advisers to hunt for the despot Joseph Kony. He is still at large. The campaign dissolved after scrutiny of the American nonprofit behind the effort.
#JusticeforTrayvon -- Local authorities reopened the investigation into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, by a neighborhood watch volunteer after this hashtag campaign.
#CancelColbert -- In March, a tweet from the Colbert Report that some deemed racist led to a hashtag campaign. The tweet was deleted.