December 26, 2017 8:49 AM   Subscribe

"The story of the Chibok girls, as it is commonly understood, reflects a landmark moment in world history. A simple hashtag on Twitter spurred seven nations to dispatch billions of dollars in armed forces, drones, satellites and sophisticated surveillance equipment. That combination of digital activism and international cooperation cut through the battle lines of a near decade-long civil war and helped Nigeria bring the girls home. The full story says otherwise."
In interviews, many Nigerians involved in negotiations for the girls, from cabinet ministers to soldiers at the front, expressed bewilderment that a series of tweets could so thoroughly distort the priorities of a conflict that had been grinding to a stalemate. Nigerian officials complained bitterly of social media’s intrusion and the compromises it forced them to consider. Some believed the girls’ fame only prolonged their captivity. Others resented the lack of focus placed on tens of thousands of other children the insurgents had abducted or murdered. Then there is the matter of the ransom, which has never before been disclosed. Nigeria’s government hasn’t publicly detailed what it offered Boko Haram, or where any funds came from. Several senior officials confirmed that the swap included the release of five captured militants and a total of three million euros, delivered in two drop-offs.
posted by ChuraChura (14 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The direct link seems to be paywalled, but you should be able to access it through the author's tweet.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:28 AM on December 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Is it commonly understood in this way?

I'm not asking to be negative about the coverage here - it's because I'm curious. The African French-language media that I learned about the Chibok girls through has been ambivalent; there is a lot of information about problems with the process of rescuing the Chibok girls, including after they were rescued but not freed because they were under suspicion of having developed sympathies for Boko Haram. The same is true of the English-language media I've read, but those were less the headlines and more the "noteworthy" articles, which might be skewed towards negative coverage.

Is there a propaganda or social media angle here?

I can't see if your article says anything about how public perception of the event formed, because I can't access it, unfortunately. (Even Incognito doesn't work, and Google doesn't seem to have a cache...)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:28 AM on December 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Well, I should have waited two more minutes to comment.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:29 AM on December 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

(Yeah, sorry - I originally read it from a twitter link, and didn't even think about paywalls because it just ... worked. *shakes fist at the Wall Street Journal*)
posted by ChuraChura at 9:31 AM on December 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Drew Hinshaw's generally a pretty conscientious reporter when it comes to West African news, so I tend to accept his characterization of the broader reporting around the issue, but I'm honestly not sure how it was portrayed in sort of the general English speaking media. I wasn't in the US when the original kidnapping happened, and I wasn't paying a lot of attention to the news when the Chibok Girls were ransomed. But as far as the utility of hashtags when it comes to African geopolitics, it made me think of the Invisible Children Kony 2012 hashtag - broad adaptation of an easy solution that makes people feel good about their participation, that has much more complex ramifications in reality.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:50 AM on December 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I often use this case in my university classroom module about hashtag activism and representation. I usually position it as opposed to Kony 2012 where the hashtag creators had no authority to advocate for the cause. This certainly adds a new twist. This article might be too in the weeds about Nigerian and global politics for this particular class but I'll certainly add some of this to my lecture.
posted by k8t at 10:16 AM on December 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

So there are still 100 girls or so from this group in captivity? Along with all the other captured children.
posted by emjaybee at 10:38 AM on December 26, 2017

Do they even know it's Christmas?

(Which is to say, vapid calls to action with no conception of the local context has a long history already...)
posted by kaibutsu at 11:03 AM on December 26, 2017

I can't see if your article says anything about how public perception of the event formed, because I can't access it, unfortunately. (Even Incognito doesn't work, and Google doesn't seem to have a cache...)

Try this:

posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:11 AM on December 26, 2017

Is it commonly understood in this way?
I think it might be more accurate to say that in the US, it is not "commonly" understood in any particular way. Coverage of the hashtag was broad, if not deep. Coverage of the release and of the actual process that led to it was neither, up until this article at least.

vapid calls to action with no conception of the local context has a long history already
Fair point, but one that deserves a lot of further dissection (consider that your long-comment warning). I'll take as another example Hands Across America, both because it's a better analogy in a discussion of wide public engagement than the original Band Aid, and because it happened a couple years later so I have a better memory of it. The amount of money and time that went into dispersing that message, to organizing all of those people, was vast. It cost about $15 million, apparently. Which would be over $30 million in 2017 dollars. It raised about twice that. It took a staff of 400 people over nine months to plan. Even places that couldn't participate in the line itself still recognized the event in various ways - at my school for instance, we all joined hands and sang We Are the World along with the radio and presumably with the folks who were in the line.

#bringbackourgirls cost practically nothing, yet saw worldwide engagement in a way that Kenny Rogers and co. could never have dreamed of ... for a given value of "worldwide engagement," at least. I knew about it, you knew about it, most everyone reading this thread knew about it, undoubtedly some of us even tweeted/facebooked/messaged it ourselves. And yet no one had to do any of that organizing. No one had to dump millions of dollars into it. In 1986, to get a million people to talk about something took work. Today it takes a keyboard and pithy phrasing.

I'm not passing value judgment on that exactly. It's just a truth about the world we now live in. What I'm trying, perhaps poorly, to remark on is that we still act like a message with a million voices is a big deal. Because ten, twenty, thirty years ago, they were, they had to be. You couldn't build an information/call-to-action campaign without a lot of money, organizing, WORK. You had to get buy-in. You had to get support. You had to convince a huge number of people that this thing you were talking about was important enough for them to focus on it, at the expense of other things they might focus on in their lives. And thus, you knew if you heard about that sort of thing, all that background work had happened; all those people were bought in; all that support had somehow been got.

None of that is true anymore, but we still seem as a society to think of calls to action that way. Michelle Obama picks up a hashtag, and at some point along the way the general reaction becomes "look, 200k retweets, this is officially A Thing." But the Thing didn't have any of that background work behind it. For all the good work Oby Ezekwesili may have done, she didn't, couldn't build that kind of buy-in. She didn't have that kind of support. She didn't have millions of people focusing on her cause at the expense of other things in their lives, because someone had convinced them it was that important. What she had was millions of people clicking retweet and then largely forgetting about her cause, because it cost them nothing. But the international impact was similar, because while we each individually get that it isn't at all the same thing, as a society we are still grappling with these new technologies; as a society we haven't really figured out how to deal with that difference.

I suppose I've thoroughly given away that I'm currently reading Twitter and Tear Gas.
posted by solotoro at 12:33 PM on December 26, 2017 [9 favorites]

Cheers for the non-paywall links.
posted by Samizdata at 1:04 PM on December 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's interesting isn't it, I think we in the West were attracted to this cause (and others like it) for a few reasons, including but not limited to islamophobia. More broadly, I think when westerners confront the totality of challenges in developing countries, it can overwhelm. The context and history is so complicated, navigating the murky waters of corruption too difficult, the lack of "good" actors, and the underlying theme of our own complicity is by turns distasteful, paralysing, too intense.

And so, when we see a "simple" problem, we can lock onto it with innappropriate zeal. It was easier to ignore the role of the west in Nigeria's current political climate by focusing on Boko Haram. It was easier to ignore thornier questions because of the urgency of an abduction. It is easier to assume a colonialist, paternalistic role and insist something must be done, and if the problem isn't solved, it's just not getting done right etc. It was easier to focus on girls and women as helpless victims to rapacious savages - a narrative the west is sadly comfortable with when it comes to Africa (far more challenging to champion a cause when the victims are morally "impure", eg northern Kenya and Somaliland).

I don't know what the answer is - indeed, I think looking for "an answer" is often part of the problem. Definitely worth reflecting why this particular story struck a chord in a way that the absolute fucking tragedies undergoing in South Sudan or the Congo aren't. Or the ongoing grind of corruption and theft in Angola. Or god helps us the cholera killing thousands that we're supporting in Yemen.

I wish we could do better at listening when it comes to other countries, but the more intense the moral outrage, the more simplistic our language and thinking tends to get around this stuff.
posted by smoke at 7:09 PM on December 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I should add that was a fantastic article, and the photographs were excellent as well.
posted by smoke at 7:38 PM on December 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

The article is really interesting, and it was good to read the details of a situation that I knew only through occasional headlines.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:48 AM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

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