Some Hashtags Are More Equal Than Others: Why Did #JeSuisCharlie Succeed, Whereas #BringBackOurGirls Evidently Failed?
17 January 2015
By Diana Moukalled
Do you remember last year's #BringBackOurGirls solidarity campaign? It was
launched in response to the abduction of around 300 girls from their school
in Nigeria by members of the extremist gang that calls itself Boko Haram.
These girls have not been returned to their families, and Boko Haram
continues to carry out horrific acts of violence and murder in the areas
under its control, with some estimates suggesting the group has killed more
than 2,000 people since the start of 2015.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign attracted support from many notable
personalities and organizations from around the world, and was given ample
attention from the media, but it quickly withered away—and so here we are
today and the girls are still not with their families; they and others
kidnapped by the group are still missing. Not only that, the group has also
effectively co-opted some of those it has captured into becoming walking
human booby traps, forcing them to strap explosives around themselves and
detonate them in public places, killing both themselves and countless others.
This has happened in more than one operation carried out by Boko Haram. The
last and perhaps the most horrific occurred last week when, at the same time
that we were preoccupied with the #JeSuisCharlie campaign condemning violence
and supporting freedom of speech, a 10-year-old Nigerian girl, under pressure
from the extremist group, walked into a crowded market and blew herself up,
killing herself and around 20 other people.
So, why did #JeSuisCharlie succeed in galvanizing widespread support, whereas
#BringBackOurGirls evidently failed to fulfill its purpose? This comparison
can also be expanded to allow us to contrast it with a number of other online
campaigns which attracted media attention, including several others which
were equally weighty—if not more so—but which did not seem to have the same
I don't think it unreasonable when examining the discrepancy between the
success of #JeSuisCharlie and the failure of #BringBackOurGirls to bring
questions of race, color and social class into the equation. However, I think
this would only be part of the answer.
As ''citizens'' of the social media world, we regularly find ourselves having
to react to what we see and hear on it, whether it happens close to us or
somewhere more remote. We feel obliged to express ourselves or react in some
way, for when you are silent in the world of social media, you wither away
and cease to exist. So, here in this world you have no choice but to express
your thoughts, your opinions, or clarify a position when faced with this or
that event. It is a kind of citizenship, whether you look at it through the
usual conception of the word, or the new, much wider one in which we now all
participate, whether we have agreed to or not.
The failure of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign shows us how such reactions to
events that have just occurred, when we are still caught in the heat of
moment, do not in truth help the people affected by those events. The right
response requires persistence and seriousness, as well regional and
international efforts and the proposal of long-term solutions; none of these
seem to have been present in the Nigerian case. So it would have been
impossible for a viral campaign such as this to have any effect on Boko Haram,
which is led by a man whose actions show him to be mentally unstable and
extremely violent. Millions of tweets mean nothing to such a man, who takes
refuge in ungoverned territory in Nigeria, coming out now and again to kill
and abduct as he pleases.
However, such solidarity campaigns, particularly those that receive much
attention on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, are not bad
things in themselves, even if they don't always end up achieving something
tangible on the ground. The difference between #JeSuisCharlie and #BringBackOurGirls
makes this point clear: expressing an opinion, having a reaction, spreading
awareness, or using slogans; all these things are cerebral in nature. Finding
effective solutions to problems and adequately confronting crises would seem
to be beyond some of the organizations seeking to mobilize public opinion and
action via social media. Solutions can only be applied by governments and
decision-makers in different countries.
#JeSuisCharlie was taken up by world leaders, even those who do not
necessarily believe in free speech or who seek to limit it themselves. But
the furor surrounding this slogan was much stronger than any refusal or
reluctance to get behind it. #BringBackOurGirls, on the other hand, was an
unfortunate, ''orphan slogan,'' one, which like the country it relates to,
has no-one to support, help or promote it.
Diana Moukalled is a prominent and well-respected TV journalist in the
Arab world thanks to her phenomenal show Bil Ayn Al-Mojarada (By The Naked
Eye), a series of documentaries on controversial areas and topics which airs
on Lebanon's leading local and satelite channel, Future Television. Diana
also is a veteran war correspondent, having covered both the wars in Iraq and
in Afghanistan, as well as the Isreali "Grapes of Wrath" massacre in southern
Lebanon. Ms. Moukalled has gained world wide recognition and was named one of
the most influential women in a special feature that ran in Time Magazine in