Editorial: #BringBackOurGirls and the power of hashtag activism

Heather Greene —  May 19, 2014 — 26 Comments

On April 14 more than 260 girls were violently abducted from their secondary school in the Chibok region of Borno State, Nigeria by Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group. Local soldiers valiantly attempted to defend the school but were grossly outmatched in both numbers and weaponry. Now more than one month has passed since the abduction and the girls are still missing.

But that’s no longer breaking news.

#BringBackOurGirls

When the children were first abducted, very little attention was paid to the crisis. The Nigerian government seemed unwillingly to respond and the Media remained mostly silent. Outraged Nigerians began to protest this perceived apathy. Joining them was former Minister of Education Obiageli Ezekwesili who called for the government to “Bring back our girls.”

Nigerian lawyer Ibrahim M. Abdullahi was inspired by Ezekwesili’s televised speech. The very next day he repeated her words in the now famous tweet “heard around the world.”  He said:

Hashtag Activism

Since Abdullahi’s famous tweet, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has been repeated on Twitter nearly 3.5 million times The phrase has evolved from a Nigerian-based protest statement to a rallying point for an international cause. Media strategist Vivia Armstrong told NBC’s TheGrio: “I haven’t seen anything like this on a worldwide scale aside from the Middle East uprisings.”  #BringBackOurGirls has created the single largest display of what’s now called ‘hashtag activism.’

The hashtag concept itself is an integral part of the basic Twitter application. It serves as a DIY keyword creator that can turn any phrase into a searchable subject. ‘Hashtag Activism’ is triggered when a socially-charged hashtag (i.e., #BringBackOurGirls, #StandwithPP) goes viral in an effort to raise awareness for a specific cause. It is a decentralized, uncontrollable, grass-roots style-activism who’s only propelling force is its own momentum.

In that way the hashtag phase can become an effective weapon for social or political justice. It feeds on itself and can even transcend its Twitter roots to become a call-to-arms, a convergent point for like-minds and badge of belief. It operates like a digital bumper sticker, a modern-day political mailer or a sound bite slogan. As such the hashtag becomes a wholly-independent symbolic entity that encapsulates a sentiment fueling and inspiring an unknowable number of people.

By Michelle Obama, Office of the First Lady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Michelle Obama, Office of the First Lady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Pagans Respond

That is just what happened with #BringBackOurGirls. Hashtag activism successfully brought the Nigerian crisis to the world. As word spread communities around the globe began holding rallies, vigils, marches and similar events in order to raise awareness, pray for the victims and push for international intervention. Pagans were not absent from these efforts.

On May 13 the California-based Nerdy Witches Study Group hosted a “web working” in order to raise energy for the victims. Group founder Slate Miradora said:

During my morning sitting I [sent] blessings to those affected and one morning it occurred to me that others might like to join in. I also thought it would be a great way to raise awareness of the ongoing situation with Boko Haram and start a discussion about how our community interfaces with the larger world.

Together with High Priestess Ivy Artemisia of the Twilight Tradition of Wicca, Slate Miradora crafted and hosted the webworking which attracted more than 100 participants. The women used the recognizable hashtag slogan #BringBackOurGirls to advertise their intentions on Facebook. In retrospect Slate Miradora said, “The working went very well … I was surprised to feel the insistent tug of our energy web.”

Altar Used During #BringBackOurGirls Webworking [Photo Credit: Ivy Artemisia]

Altar Used During #BringBackOurGirls Webworking [Photo Credit: Ivy Artemisia]

On May 11 The Great Lakes Witches Council sponsored a “Lights for Life” public vigil at Steinhauser Park in Michigan. Founder and Organizer Mistress Belladonna says:

As Witches, Magickians, Root Workers, etc. we have it in our power to influence this situation and help be part of the solution. As a small body of leadership here in SE Michigan, we also have the onus of gathering together the tribes, so to speak, in order to make the community not just aware, but to provide the framework to do this work. For some folks, this was simply not on their radar … We could not let this moment be a silent working, but a public one that grasped those outstretched hands across the field in the joint effort to accomplish the spiritual charge needed.

Mistress Belladonna during May 11 Lights for Life event [Photo Credit: Lyon]

Mistress Belladonna at May 11 event [Photo Credit: Lyon]


As with the Nerdy Witch webworking, Mistress Belladonna used the famous hashtag to advertise her event on Facebook. When Sunday arrived she was joined by fellow council member Lyon as well as representatives from Pagan Pathways Temple, Pagan Pride Detroit, Trillium Reclaiming Tradition, Black Moon Tradition and Oak Moon Coven. Several organizations participated from a distance such as the Michigan Council of Circles and Solitaries. Mistress Belladonna says:

The people who came forward all felt that this helped with the Crisis on many levels. The most obvious being that magick was done, prayer was done, and a change was made in the ethers. Secondly, it allowed a joint tip of the spear if you will, a moment of focus beyond theory, and the very real boots on the ground style work regarding a real life issue involving the Lord and Lady’s children … We have chosen Sade’s “I’ll be there” as the official song of this working, and ask that every time it is played, that energy is sent to the crisis’ resolution. In this way, the work can continually be charged and awareness spread.

The Global Response

As demonstrated by these two Pagan events, hashtag activism does have the power to inspire action. The viral potency inherent in digital media allows for infectious levels of duplication that are otherwise unknown. This unique quality can birth not only local events but has also translated into decisive political action.

After the terrorists released a video of the abducted girls, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan flew to Paris for a summit meeting to discuss the crisis. He was joined by French President Francois Hollande and dignitaries from Chad, Camaroon, Niger, Benin, the U.S., the U.K and IsraeI. During Saturday’s meeting, the African leaders agreed to declare war on Boko Haram who the French President called “a major threat to West and Central Africa.” In addition the U.S., Israel and the U.K. have pledged or already provided military assistance and intelligence. Nigerian writer Chibundo Onuzo said:

It’s amazing what a little international scrutiny will do. We have discovered the power of the hashtag over the last week.

“Unhashtaggable”

Despite the apparent positive momentum generated by #BringBackOurGirls, critics still question the efficacy of what they term ‘slacktivism.’ How often does retweeting #BringBackOurGirls actually result in any real positive action, local or otherwise? Do people retweet and then forget the meaning behind the message? Does hashtag activism transform complicated socio-political realities into sensationalized, superficial trendy media products – the “cause du jour?” In a string of angry tweets Nigerian-American author Teju Cole touched on this issue saying:

Cole thanked the world for its “new interest” in struggles that have plagued the Nigerian people for years. In his May 7 string of tweets, he questioned whether trendy hashtag activism diminishes the profound nature of a crisis. The world stylishly clings to the hashtag without ever understanding the complexity and depth of the reality.

#BringBackTheirGirls

Unfortunately that reality is often absent from media articles and online discussions. That reality rests with the 270 plus frightened children who have become unwitting pawns in a political and ideological battle. Their trauma has been reduced to a slogan, a cause and hashtag. They are trending but not in a way that any teenage girl would ever want to trend.

The other reality rests with the Chibok families who have little connection or knowledge of the outpouring of international support. According to Nigerian writer Chika Ouda, these people have no Internet access; they don’t tweet, post or hashtag. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has yet to visit the region due to “security concerns.” As noted by Oduah, the families feel abandoned.

Chibok Kidnapping Destruction. [Photo Credit: Yaroh Dauda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Chibok Kidnapping Destruction. [Photo Credit: Yaroh Dauda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

For these people the crisis is very personal. It is a simple tragic reality in which parents have lost children; a teacher has lost students, siblings have lost sisters. The abducted children aren’t “our girls.” They are their girls and they are gone.

Hashtags alone won’t provide any comfort to the people of Chibok as they face another day without their children. However if it wasn’t for the hashtags, the world might not know of the atrocities that they face. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has undoubtedly shifted the international agenda and turned the world’s focus on a tragedy that was largely being ignored.

Does it matter whether hashtag activism inspires genuine compassionate action or simply provides a trendy “to do” while sipping craft beer? Not at all. The act of retweeting the hashtag alone grows awareness despite personal motivation. Through that growing awareness, a global bond of belief is created that can expand indefinitely and nurture hope which, unlike a hashtag, can comfort the victims through another day.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.