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.


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.


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.


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.
  • David Pollard

    Even the part of the crisis where there has been action “African leaders agreed to declare war on Boko Haram” doesn’t exactly sound like the safe return of the girls is a priority.

  • Diotima Mantineia

    Excellent, thoughtful article on the topic, Heather. Thank you. Hashtag activism is the magic of Mercury — both the god and the planet. It is powerful in its breadth, but not always deep. Mercury is strong in its own sign of Gemini right now, working to spread information and ideas — but it’s up to each individual to act on the info and ideas. For those of us who practice magick, there *is* something we can do besides retweet — and many of us are doing it. Some people may choose to stay in the shallow water, but I agree that raising awareness of the girls’ plight is important and helpful.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I have no doubt the hashtaggers helped accelerate the intergovernmental action against Boko Haram.I recall the early days of broadcast television. Over my lifetime I’ve seen the steady increase, propelled by technology, of public awareness of events — especially distressing events — in far-away places. Telecasting events in the American South that would otherwise not have been noticed, helped propel the Civil Rights Movement, to take just one example.Now we have technology that lets individuals respond directly and en masse to distressing far-away events. And it evokes real results This is cause for celebration, not dismissal.

  • Lupa

    I get irritated with people who sneer down their noses at “slacktivism”. Sure, typing a hashtag or forwarding an image on Facebook isn’t the same as donating money or volunteering time. But it does raise awareness of things people might not otherwise have known about, and in some cases it does get people to act. These may not be big actions, but they may represent bigger internal shifts regarding both that awareness and choices made with that awareness.

    We’re limited in what we can do, for example, to help these girls get back home. At most we can yell at our elected officials and other better-positioned folks to do something about it, dammit. But if you shift the hashtag activism closer to home–let’s say the preservation of bees and other pollinators–just being aware that the pollinators are dying from neonicotinoids and a lack of habitat/food can start other things. A person can then choose to not spray their yard or garden, and to plant pollinator-friendly plants, and so forth.

    And like Diotima mentioned, we can’t force people to go deeper in their activism, and I don’t think shaming them by calling them slacktivists is the answer. If anything, encouraging people for what they do and inviting them to try other things seems more constructive. Sticking with the pollinator theme, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation doesn’t only invite those on their mailing list to contact elected officials, hardware/garden stores and others about pesticides and pollinators; they also do a wide-reaching educational campaign about backyard habitats and personal choices that can make a difference, and they get results.

    • Roi de Guerre

      I completely agree. Hash tag activism provides a means for people to unequivocally express their support for a cause or a change.
      Not everyone is in a position to take direct action to resolve a problem, yet some folks inevitably are. Showing support is like adding weight to a wedge, increasing the force on the sharp end.

      As magick workers we can see hash tag activism as the equivalent of gathering and focusing energy from a circle of participants, each giving what they are able.

      Your example with the bees is another excellent scenario. In that case there are many individuals with the ability to take direct action (many wedges, many points) by becoming beekeepers, using sustainable insect management practices, or simply by putting a flower seed in a pot to attract and feed the bees.

      Frequency of repition counts for a lot. So let’s not be satisfied with just one tweet. Let’s remember to show our support daily until everyone one of those children are returned safely to their homes.

    • Franklin_Evans

      I have a similar irritation, with some sympathy for the source of yours, but it starts with frustration with my local siblings-in-faith: they are very good readers, and terrible doers. They don’t deserve the epithet “slackivist” because they have no impact on an “ivism” I’ve tried to motivate them towards.

      Online connections are better than nothing. In my experience — again, strictly locally (southeast PA region) — it may as well be nothing. 🙁

      I truly want to see a discussion, in depth and detail, of the online connection phenomenon. Is there perceptible effects from long-distance, online rituals and readings? I’m very skeptical of both. I’m unable to imagine ritual and readings without physical presence.

    • Bianca Bradley

      See, I would disagree with you. When doing activism via the internet, it helps to know who your ultimate audience is. Ok so Nigeria, who is already over burdened with military issues is now going to go half heartedly against Boku Haran, most of which are in the neighboring country. That isn’t going to be effective. They’ll do this for as long as it takes to get the 1st world attn back on something else and then ignore everything.

      You want to help here. Encourage the govt to let the families hire mercs and get an online campaign to fund them. I have to agree with this army ranger.

      Different countries have different cultural values.

      Activism here via the internet has a bit more of an impact, because we can send stuff to our senators. You can use the numbers to scare them. But other countries, meh not so much.

      There has been talk from many sides in regards to this. I can’t remember off hand but someone else went off that hash tag activism isn’t what will bring these girls back. It wasn’t a rant, but it did bring up some very valid points. Though at the moment, my brain is brain farting on who did it.

  • Mustangofold

    Spreading the word about a cause that you have looked into and understand slightly, is an informed decision to spread knowledge and awareness. That is not slacktivism, that is the extent of your ability/capability/commitment to help.
    Doing it without a cursory understanding of the problem, or because it is a viral or trending topic, is slacktivism.
    It should be no surprise that the energy and intent you invest in your actions has an effect, even if that effect is that do to the lack of energy and intent you earn a derogatory title as a group.

  • Lhinelle


    across oceans, there is only so much we can do. however, when the government (who can legally own arms) fails to protect its citizens and the citizens choose to respond by bearing arms and driving off the terrorists themselves–this speaks volumes. What’s an effective way to combat terrorism on the local level? Arm the local populace. Citizens really can’t legally bear arms there, but it’s the only effective way to stand up to armed terrorists.
    Spreading awareness can do some good–the Nigerian government deserved to be shamed internationally for its failure. But when the government fails, citizens and communities can step up and defend themselves. This is a powerful message we should not ignore. (Libertarian hard polytheist here.)

    I’m glad some of them escaped right away and I really hope the rest can get home safely. Anyone who thinks human beings are property are scum in my humble estimation and need to be resisted fiercely.

    • Roi de Guerre

      An interesting perspective Lhinelle. I don’t necessarily disagree; having served in the military I can see your point.

      Terrorism (and really, i mean fundamentalism) reminds me of the mint growing in my garden. Pruning the shoots does nothing to really contain its spread. One must dig out the roots in order to prevent it from taking over.

      It’s well established that educating girls, eliminating corruption, and so forth strikes at the root of fundamentalism.

      I’d like to solicit your opinion (truly, not trolling here, your post interested me.)

      If it were your decision to make, how would you apply your resources between pruning ( arming the populace, military intervention) and digging up the roots (education, accountability, etc.)?

      • kenofken

        Defeating terrorism by force of arms in lieu of fixing root causes is a delusion. Terrorism doesn’t take root in countries and societies for lack of personal armament.

        All of the hotbeds of terror activity – tribal Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, much of Africa, are absolutely awash in personal weapons. Africa is the cheapest, and probably one of the easiest places in the world, to acquire an AK-47. Guys who don’t have shoes or an electric light to their name have Kalashnikovs, and that’s on the small end of what’s freely available in most of these areas.

        Terrorism flourishes in these places because they are corrupt, broken political systems and economies that don’t work for 99% of the population leaving millions of young men nothing to live for, but maybe, with the right rhetoric, something worth dying for.

        Most of these terror movements got their start with a vision of themselves as the local white hat citizen militia defending folks from the real terrorists of their time – government death squads, colonial occupiers, what have you. Boko Haram got its start not simply with Islamism but with some real grievances against an insanely corrupt regime which basically steals all of the country’s oil wealth and doles it out along tribal and personal connections and leaves everyone else to rot.

        Like all vigilante/”freedom fighter” movements, Boko Haram abused the power it had over ordinary people, and the government killed off whatever semi-moderate leadership had kept things in check, and opened the top jobs for the real pyschos. There has been a case or two recently where local villagers ambushed a company of Boko Haram fighters, and I don’t feel a bit sorry for them.

        On the other hand, I also know that if some armed citizens group takes shape and grows strong enough to fight Boko, you can bet your last dollar that in 10 or 15 years, we’ll be reading about them kidnapping and raping and cutting off people’s hands and employing child soldiers and all the rest. The cycle will begin anew. Guns are absolutely no substitute for a functioning civic infrastructure and reasonably fair and competent government. In the absence of these things, they are more of an enabler of terrorism than liberty.

        • Charles Cosimano

          Yep, all those Swiss terrorists…

          • kenofken

            Do you really think Switzerland’s quality of life happens primarily, or even tangentially, because its government is afraid of its citizen’s small arms?

            Switzerland certainly has higher gun ownership than most Western countries, but the percentage of home ownership still lags behind the U.S., we absolutely dwarf them in terms of guns per citizen, and the Swiss have considerable restrictions on gun ownership, trade and carrying.

            On the basis of gun ownership and overall freedom to own and use guns, we should the freest and most functional nation on Earth. Yet our incarceration rate is nearly a decimal place higher than Switzerland. We lock up more people than any nation in the history of humanity and have a prison infrastructure and industry which outstrips even the most ambitious totalitarian regimes.

            We live in a surveillance state which aims to record every single communication of every citizen throughout their entire lives and is well on the way to realizing that ambition. Compared to the Swiss and most of the industrialized world, our earnings and quality of life are pathetic.

            I’m all for the Second Amendment and all that, but I reject the idea that personal firearms are the ultimate or even proximate source of freedom and prosperity. In societies that have the real elements to work, gun ownership is more of a symptom of freedom than a guarantor of it. In the absence of those things (rule of law, transparency, an educated population) etc., guns do less than nothing to fix tyranny.

            There’s a strain of Libertarian thought which posits that real freedom comes from everyone being their own gunman and answering to no one else. I’ll buy that when I see more (or any) American Libertarians pulling up stakes to live in someplace like Somalia or Waziristan.

          • Franklin_Evans

            I can assert from personal acquaintance that Uncle Chuckie is not a troll — indeed, he is a fellow curmudgeon, and it’s likely that he’s here because I linked to TWH in another blog — and while I find your response to his quip excellent reading, I thought I should mention that he usually isn’t looking for it and often doesn’t care that it happens.

          • kenofken

            I don’t think he’s a troll. I’ve seen him on here for years and probably agree with him much of the time. I don’t know that I even have a fundamental disagreement with him here. It’s just that in this country, we tend to have a binary view about guns which says they’re either the ultimate source of evil or the one true wellspring of human freedom and the plug-and-play fix for tyranny of any kind. It’s not a personal thing, I just reject both of those paradigms for the reasons I outlined.

          • Lhinelle

            By the way, everyone, thank you for the civil discussion! I really appreciate the calm exchange of ideas rather than some of the rabid fear-mongering, slander, and other trollish behaviors I’ve seen elsewhere when the topic of guns comes up. Thanks again! 🙂

          • Bianca Bradley

            Our incarceration is due to the war on drugs and not due to the high number of firearms we own.

          • Deborah Bender

            Historically, the increases in the proportion of the population locked up in America correlates to two things; stiffer sentencing laws that were a logical response to an increase in the violent crime rate in the 1980s, and (as you say) the war on drugs. Attempts by whites to find other legal ways to control blacks after the passage of civil rights laws might also have something to do with it.

            Beyond that, I think the US locks up so many people because we can. It’s a form of government spending that conservatives support, those tax dollars create jobs in the prison-industrial complex, whereas totalitarian and semi-totalitarian states like apartheid era South Africa rely more on death squads and other extralegal violence to keep people in line.

          • kenofken

            This is true, but then how did we become a police and prison state if private guns are what keeps free people free?

            Based on our armament, America should look a whole lot more like Switzerland. We should be able to “out-Switzerland” the Swiss on any of the benchmarks of freedom and functionality.

            As it stands, we look a whole lot more like China in many regards. We don’t just simply lock up a lot of people. We have a massive prison industrial complex which dictates public policy with the explicit goal of incarcerating as many Americans as possible, for as long as possible on as little pretext as possible, for profit.

            We have a domestic surveillance system which the old Soviets would have given their right you know what to possess. We have a government which asserts the right to kill anyone, including its own citizens, anywhere and for any reason if it feels necessary. We have a culture of police brutality in many cities which regularly results in unarmed citizens being beaten, pepper sprayed, tased and shot dead for the slightest infraction, or even sport. Most often the abusers face zero consequences. Then there’s the separate problem that our murder rate looks a lot more like Nigeria than Switzerland.

            Guns don’t cause all problems, but they clearly don’t solve that many either. The Swiss and the well armed Nordic countries have something else besides guns going on that makes them decent and free places to live.

          • Bianca Bradley

            We got that way because of the gasp and cries of think of the children. We got that way because we allowed ourselves to be polarized after Clinton. We as citizens failed to do our due diligence and are still failing.

            Ky, one of the highest incarceration states is redoing their stuff. Saw that on Nova the other day. People are realizing this is bs, so there is hope. The pendulum will swing.

            As for surveillance. We are starting to wake up. I don’t think they can keep this up indefinitely. Mad people will do stuff.

            But the why comes back to us, all of us. IT’s all of our fault. Christian, Pagan, Atheist, Lefty, Righty, moderate. It’s all of our fault.

          • Bianca Bradley

            Lets not forget all those southern and norther hunter terrorists as well.

      • Franklin_Evans

        Thank you for your service, Roi.

        We have a possible illustration where force of arms might have gone a long way towards lessening our risk for terrorist attacks. I refer to the sequence of events from the invasion of Afghanistan to the diverting of resources from that theater to conduct the invasion of Iraq. I am, of course, offering an informed citizen’s opinion only; I have no military training.

        There are never any guarantees. I believe that if the resources (added later as well) to find and destroy the entire Al Qaida organization in Afghanistan were committed, and the mission carried to its definitive conclusion, the message to sovereign nations would have been very clear: aid and/or abet terrorist organizations on your soil, and be included as an enemy target should they commit an act of war.

        The US doesn’t need to “police” the world if the world is strongly motivated to “police” itself.

        I’d be grateful for your perspective on that.

        • Roi de Guerre

          There are a few things that I should share that might help you to place my response into context.
          * I largely agree with you.
          * I am a strong advocate for the creation of a department of peace.
          * I believe that we should have no economic trade with any nation that does not fully implement the United Nations Charter of Human Rights.
          * I support non-human rights and believe that certain rights are inalienable to all life forms.

          Militarily the strategy in Afghanistan and later Iraq was initially built on hubris and group think. As a favorite Admiral once explained to me ” in war amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics”. Even late into the war our troops on Afghanistan had to cease fighting every two weeks or so in order to escort supply convoys. During those pauses alQueda forces would retake to areas just fought over.

          I agree that a more focused mission would have been more effective and would have likely produced much better results.

          Will the world police itself? Maybe, and a little more likey everyday. We are in the middle of a massive economic reordering. Jeffrey Sacks book “The End Of Poverty” is a great read.

          I’ve traveled around the world both during service and in business. The constants that I have found are:
          * people are people everywhere you go. We share far more hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows than not.
          * Giving respect is the fastest way to get respect.
          * fundamentalism and legalism are mostly for show. But pointing out someone’s hypocrisy is the fastest way to make an enemy.
          * injustice exists everywhere. Fight against it every day and in every way.

          I don’t think that we can or should attempt to scare others into policing themselves. I think that we can more effectively love them into doing so.

          So I agree that we should have stayed on mission, and the results would have been better. But if it were up to me I’d have tried a different tack.

          • Franklin_Evans

            Thank you. I believe citizens need to hear voices such as yours, as often as possible.

      • Lhinelle

        Well, as I see it, these girls choosing to get an education is “digging up the roots” as you put it, and they did have a little bit of protection in that there were a few armed men at the school. They were overwhelmed, the kidnappings and forced marriages proceeded, and now the communities are fighting back.

        While I would love for the focus to stay on education and societal change, sometimes that’s not likely or possible without making sure the populace is able to defend themselves. Different countries have different situations; what is appropriate for one place may simply not work in another. I see arming the populace as a critical first step when it comes to defending individual liberty, whether the oppressor is a terrorist group or a state overstepping its bounds. Any student of history can see that disarming the populace frequently leads to state-led atrocities (Stalin, Third Reich Germany, Argentina, etc). This is why I personally support civilian armament hand-in-hand with education–what good is being armed if you don’t know what you’re fighting to protect?

  • For those of you who tweet, what are some common Pagan hashtags on Twitter?