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#BringBackOurGirls: Can a hashtag impact social change?

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A police officer stands guard as people attend a demonstration calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls of the government secondary school in Chibok, in Abuja, Nigeria, Thursday, May 22, 2014. Scores of protesters chanting "Bring Back Our G

A police officer stands guard as people attend a demonstration calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls of the government secondary school in Chibok, in Abuja, Nigeria, Thursday, May 22, 2014. Scores of protesters chanting “Bring Back Our Girls” marched in the Nigerian capital Thursday as many schools across the country closed to protest the abductions of more than 300 schoolgirls by Boko Haram, the government’s failure to rescue them and the killings of scores of teachers by Islamic extremists in recent years.

Sunday Alamba, Associated Press

On an overcast spring day earlier this month, Brittany Plothow met her two nieces at the Utah State Capitol.

Once they got there, the girls — one wore flip flops, the other pink sneakers — helped her carry the handwritten signs Plothow had made to the Capitol steps, where they waited for a small group of protesters to join them.

Their cause?

Today, it’s best known by a hashtag: #bringbackourgirls, a social media movement that’s gone viral and then some. Earlier this week, celebrities like Salma Hayek and Sylvester Stallone carried signs on the red carpet at the Cannes film festival bearing the same hashtag.

The point of the movement is to leverage social media to pressure world governments into rescuing almost 300 schoolgirls abducted by a terrorist group in Nigeria earlier this month — and so far it’s working. The United States has offered 200 troops to the search, as well as hostage negotiators. In Nigeria, a movement that began on Twitter has now morphed to the streets, where hundreds of protesters at the Nigerian Capitol keep a daily vigil chanting the catch phrase.

And that’s why Plothow, 28, organized the rally at the Utah Capitol. Plothow admitted she didn’t know anything about the kidnapped schoolgirls until celebrities started tweeting #bringbackourgirls. The hashtag now has over 4 million tweets.

“Without Twitter, Facebook and Google hangouts, I wouldn’t know what’s going on,” Plothow said. “Maybe we’re not in Africa, but you never know who you’re going to reach with a rally. It may be a politician or a philanthropist or someone who has the resources to do things I can’t do as far as money or power.”

The power of social media to effect change has been widely celebrated, and debated. The organizers of the protests at Tahrir Square in Egypt say the Arab Spring never would have happened if not for sites like Facebook and Twitter, where word spread of the gathering protests.

On the flip side, the Kony 2012 campaign, in which a video designed to increase awareness of a murderous warlord in Africa went viral, was widely panned as a public relations stunt that accomplished next to nothing.

Often referred to as slacktivism, the new surge in social media protests and movements is a relatively new phenomenon with uneven results, and media experts are still trying to figure out if a cause that begins on Twitter can effect real social change or simply make “slacktivists” feel good while accomplishing little of lasting value.

The global village

"The global village," a term coined by communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan in 1964, describes McLuhan’s prediction that technology would effectually shrink the globe someday, allowing people around the world to connect in a meaningful way. And "the global village" doesn't just capture the way people can connect with each other with speed and ease, but can push people to a "heightened sense of awareness of responsibility to an intense degree,” McLuhan wrote in his 1964 book, "Understanding the Media: The Extensions of Man."

Although he didn't live to see the advent of the Internet, McLuhan's prediction was spot on, says David Girling, a U.K.-based researcher who studies the role of social media in international development. The global village, through social media, allows us to empathize with others, Girling says, even if, as in the case with Plothow, they are thousands of miles away in a distant country she’s never visited.

“Social media has allowed us to become that global village. … I follow people across the world and [through social media], I hope people can have more empathy for people across the world," Girling says.

Girling says that’s exactly what happened with the #bringbackourgirls campaign. Abducted on April 14 by the terrorist group Boko Haram, the kidnappings went largely unnoticed by the international community for weeks, until celebrities and politicians like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama started tweeting #bringbackourgirls. Just a week later, it had been tweeted a million times, elevating media attention to the crisis.

The Washington Post reported that U.S. agencies had been in touch with Nigerian officials “from day one” of the kidnappings, according to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, but Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan refused the help.

#Bringbackourgirls was first tweeted by a Nigerian lawyer on April 23, but it didn’t go viral until April 30, when Boko Haram leaders announced they would sell the girls as slaves for $12 each in local markets. On May 1, #bringbackourgirls was tweeted 268,616 times, the largest spike since the hashtag’s birth and celebrities like singer Chris Brown and Hillary Clinton tweeted #bringbackourgirls. While there's no way to know what impact those tweets had, on May 6, Jonathan accepted help from the U.S.

President Obama informed Congress Wednesday that 80 U.S. troops have been deployed to Chad as part of the U.S. efforts to locate the schoolgirls. The troops won’t be involved in direct combat but will support intelligence and surveillance until the kidnapping situation is resolved, the statement said.

“Some people call this ‘slacktivism’ and sure it is,” Girling says. “But if it actually leads to the safe return of the girls, does it really matter that people are tweeting it?"

If the Twitter campaign does result in the rescue of the girls, it wouldn’t be the first time a social movement that began on Twitter or Facebook actually worked. In fact, a campaign that began on the site Avaaz.org, a popular such site in Asia, generated 500,000 signatures to clean up corruption in India in just 36 hours — leading to politicians in the country backing new anti-corruption laws.

Slacktivists are also two times more likely to volunteer, twice as likely to ask for donations and four times as likely to encourage others to sign a petition or contact a politician. And that activism often results in meaningful action — the Red Cross raised $20 million in five days after the Haiti earthquake in 2009 through text message donations alone.

“If some people are arguing that social media has complicated or oversimplified the matter, I don’t think you can blame them,” says Jacob Olupona, a Harvard professor of African studies from Nigeria. “… We want a solution to the problem. I don’t know why people are complaining about social media because they have brought the attention of the (mainstream) media to the crisis. I welcome it … the media should keep (the Nigerian government) honest. Awareness is a pressure point.”

Before #BringBackOurGirls

Of course, not all social media campaigns are created equal. Girling and others argue that the Kony 2012 video, which has been viewed over 99 million times, caused more harm than good because it was misleading, based on misinformation, and Joseph Kony was never found.

Girling says that’s to be expected — that while social media has the power to empower international development, sometimes it flops.

“There are good things and bad things about social media,” he says. “Some things will be picked up and some things won’t. I think that’s just the case of the media and has been for the whole of history. Some things take precedence over others, depending on who hears it.”

But with social media, he says, we are hearing more things from across the world.

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole spoke out against the hashtag activism, criticizing social media for oversimplifying the complexities of Boko Haram and political conflict in Nigeria, a subject he's been writing about for years.

On May 8, Cole tweeted, "Boko Haram killed more human beings yesterday than the total number of girls they kidnapped three weeks ago. Horrifying, and unhashtagable," and "For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing."

As for Plothow, she’s convinced she’s making a difference, whether it’s on Twitter or Facebook or holding a sign in front of the Utah Capitol. A previous generation took to the streets to protest Vietnam or racial segregation, she said. “That’s what we’re doing now,” she says. “We’re just doing it with hashtags.”