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140 Characters and a Dream

Parents of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls pray for their safe return. Four years after their kidnapping, the girls still remain missing. PHOTO/ Wikimedia Creative Commons
Parents of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls pray for their safe return. Four years after their kidnapping, the girls still remain missing. PHOTO/ Wikimedia Creative Commons

By Oluranti Olaose

Published: April 18th, 2018 

On April 14, 2014, 276 girls were reported kidnapped in Chibok, a rural area of Borno State in Nigeria. They were taken from their school, where they were slated to be writing their final exams. Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram later claimed responsibility for their abduction, with their leader promising to sell the girls into marriage in a disturbing video. The story first registered like just another entry in the catalogue of horrors that occur frequently in northern Nigeria, a region where genocide and kidnappings had become as commonplace as weddings and funerals. I remember the first few tweets about the incident, like the first few drops of rain that herald a coming thunderstorm. They expressed outrage about the kidnappings and decried the silence of the Nigerian government, which was notorious for being as active as a cripple in a coma. The sentiment began to spread as Nigerian Twitter took a break from mocking celebrities and extolling the virtues of marriage and turned its collective attention to the kidnappings. In the days following the incident, petitions were signed and profile pictures changed. Pictures of wailing women who may or may not have been the girls’ mothers were shared along with requests to retweet to show support for them, although exactly how retweeting a picture lent any support to these women remained a mystery to me. On April 23rd, a hashtag was born, one which spread with the alacrity of wildfire.

#BringBackOurGirls engulfed the timeline, and hardly a tweet scrolled by without the hashtag included. In spite of all this activity, very few protests were organized. The largest protest in the nation’s capital only drew hundreds of people, a number that paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of people tweeting their ire online. Meanwhile the Nigerian government remained mute until it finally acknowledged the issue on May 4th, at which point the hashtag had gained international attention. This international attention brought with it the bleeding heart activists who also changed profile pictures and wrote strongly worded articles about why the international community was ignoring the event, irony be damned. Meanwhile the Nigerian populace went about their business as usual. In fact, anyone who visited the country would not have realized that there was unrest within, as work and school and church continued without a hitch. Yet on Twitter Nigerians and foreigners alike condemned the Nigerian government for inactivity and Boko Haram for its inhumanity, all while heralding the ‘power of social media’ for bringing it to the attention of the world and the US government especially , which was expected to swoop in any second and airlift the girls like a hawk would its prey. Months would pass before any decisive action was taken by the Nigerian government.

One might wonder as to why there were not many protests despite the unified dissatisfaction with the Nigerian government. I know from my experience growing up there that Nigerians are a very circumspect people. Although it is nominally a democracy the government runs almost autonomously, and the people share their grievances amongst themselves and pray for divine intervention whenever the government oversteps its bounds. The citizens value their lives dearly and protesting is considered by most to be brave to the point of foolish. On the occasions where they do gather in protest, they flee at the first sign of danger. As such, it’s easy to see why they were duly excited by this ‘power’ of social media, they could voice their anger and frustrations from the safety of home and still get their message as far as it could go. But how effective is this form of activism?

Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell approaches this subject head-on in his essay ‘Why The Revolution Will Not Be Retweeted’, which drew criticism from the enthusiasts of social media activism. In this essay he details the concept of ‘strong ties’ or close and personal connections that fuel successful revolutions such as the Civil Rights Movement, and the ‘weak ties’ that social networks are built on. He writes, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties… but weak ties seldom lead to high risk activism”, a claim refuted by Leo Mirani who published a response in the same magazine days later. Mirani points out Gladwell’s dismissal of social media’s value, saying ‘’…Gladwell ignores the true significance of social media, which lies in their ability to rapidly spread information about alternative points of view that might otherwise never reach a large audience”. Gladwell posted a two paragraph piece in response, in which he asserted that the mode of communication in a revolution is the least interesting fact about it. Senior Researcher at Harvard David Weinberger’s response was a highly reasoned and meticulous piece which posed some very interesting questions and suggestions to Gladwell. One of those suggestions was that Gladwell’s initial hypothesis was based on historical examples and that new examples (of revolutions fuelled by social media) should be examined to see if they support it.  This is what I intend to do to examine the role of social media in the grand scheme of a revolution, and whether it is truly reinventing activism.

On one hand, we have the famed ‘Twitter Revolution’, a collective used to refer to the various protests and demonstrations that took place in the Middle East and North Africa, so named for the medium in which protests were supposedly organized and information disseminated. For the case of this cross-examination, I shall single out Egypt and Tunisia’s uprisings as case studies.  On the other we have #BringBackOurGirls, which was also spearheaded using Twitter. Despite the use of the same platforms, both panned out very differently. In both cases however, there is a common interest, one which drove the protesters to the web to share their message. According to a friend of Mirani based in Iran, the protests were coordinated in English on Twitter because they “needed to be seen and heard by the world… If the governments of the West refused to accept the new government, it was going to be meaningful somehow”. The Nigerian protesters on Twitter echoed a similar objective, calling on friends and supporters “who could not attend the protests to show support by tweeting the hashtag to draw the attention of the Western governments”. One could say that both groups were successful in that objective.

But for all the attention they received, how were the events influenced by this attention? In the case of the Nigerian demonstrations, western media only served to sensationalize the story, forgoing facts for rhetoric and emotional value as they are wont to. The sentimental left wing swooped down on the story, and spun it to seem as though the girls were kidnapped for wanting an education although female education is quite common even in Northern Nigeria. There was no direct involvement from the US in Egypt or Tunisia. An even more important question would be, why did they so require this western attention? A revolution can only be carried out by the inhabitants of a country from within. And we know from historical examples that Western help seldom comes without a payoff, or the implementation of its own agenda. Social media may be effective at garnering attention, and in this age of the Kardashians and people who buy followers on Instagram, attention is quite the hot commodity. But fishing for Western attention only serves to enforce the status quo, the inactive Nigerian government for example. Gladwell underscores this in his essay when he states that “the instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.” 

However, this attention is not as valueless as Gladwell would make it seem. Mirani highlights that the “true significance of social media lie in their ability to rapidly spread information about alternative points of view that might otherwise never reach a large audience”. By using social media, protesters are able to provide an unfiltered version of events as they unfold, and alert the global community to its issues. However, 140 characters and a dream do not a revolution make. When considering the effectiveness of social media as an activist tool, we must draw a connection from online activity to offline activity. We must ask ourselves of any online campaign, how does it actively affect the issues the country is facing and advance a cause? Many of the tactics used by the Nigerian populace, such as this petition which was signed by over a million people, were effectively impractical. For example, here is an excerpt from the above petition. “By signing this petition we express our solidarity with the kidnapped girls and call upon the world not to forget them, support all efforts to ensure their safe return, and ask all international agencies, organizations and groups to support efforts in Nigeria aimed at rescuing them.” I would describe this petition as the online equivalent of signing a condolence register. What good does signing a petition such as this enforce, apart from a quick conscience boost? This kind of effortless feel-good activism is popularly referred to as slacktivism. In a 2009 NPR piece, Evgeny Morozov, a writer and researcher who studies the political and social implications of technology raises an important question: “are the publicity gains gained through this greater reliance on new media worth the organizational losses that traditional activists entities are likely to suffer, as ordinary people would begin to turn away from conventional (and proven) forms of activism (demonstrations, sit-ins, confrontation with police, strategic litigation, etc) and embrace more “slacktivist” forms, which may be more secure but whose effectiveness is still largely unproven?” The scenario he describes is already happening as witnessed in the Nigerian ‘demonstrations’ and will probably continue to flourish if the armchair activists continue to hail the power of social media.

The crucial distinction of ‘slacktivism’ from traditional activism is pretty apparent. As a matter of fact, this distinction is drawn clearly in the Bible in James 2:14-26 which culminates in the verse “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Similarly, attention or passion without action is dead. The Egyptian and Tunisian protests were both hailed as the Twitter revolution for the means by which they were organized, but it is important to note that the turnout of those protests were large. The protesters contended with violence and high risk to make their voices heard, as opposed to changing profile pictures and waiting on the West to solve their problems for them and in both cases, the primary objective of ousting their respective presidents was accomplished. One could argue that both those regions also continued to undergo political unrest and tension long after, but no one said the road to democracy was easy.

Overall, we need to remember that at their core, social media are just that – media to get a message out in the open. They may be more convenient, and have further reach than traditional modes of communication such as a poster on the subway, but that does not make them the streets we converge in to make our voices heard. We need to recall the unity and passion that made other movements such as the Civil Rights Struggle so successful, and not lose sight of the basic function of activism by exalting a useful new tool in its execution to the be-all, end-all of activism. Venting on social media is the new age equivalent of sending a strongly worded letter to the opposition and expecting it to oblige – and a strongly worded letter at least affords you more than 140 characters. As a matter of fact, the newfound promotion of slacktivism without action can be said to be causing more harm than good, because after signing the petitions and patting themselves on the shoulder, people lose sight of the main goal and carry on with their lives, rendering the movement useless in the first place. Just ask the 112 girls from Chibok who are still missing four years after their kidnapping.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful commentary.

    Personally, I am less certain than ever about the effect of social media on social change. (I’m one of the people you cite.) In the United States one can find evidence for just about any point of view, since we have a president who “governs” via Twitter, high school students who are using social media to inspire and organize traditional forms of political protest, and online “echo chambers” that are destroying civil discourse (as some, but not I, would maintain). This leads me to think that while social media are proving not to be the means for direct political change that early enthusiasts hoped for, the actual effects of social media are so complex and so far reaching that we cannot yet know how our culture, politics, and governance will re-align themselves.

    In short, the failure of social media to bring about the sort of change many of us hoped for may not indicate social media’s failure or impotence. It may indicate that the changes social media will bring are far more complex and deep than we have imagined.

    Or perhaps not 🙂

    (By the way, Zeynep Tufekci’s new book, “Twitter and Tear Gas”, is well worth reading by anyone interested in this topic.)

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