Parents of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls are hoping for a miracle. So far, all they have is a hashtag. More than three weeks after Islamic extremists abducted the girls, world outrage is galvanizing Twitter and other social-media networks. But observers question whether the burst of online interest will last and whether it can ever elevate the case from a trending topic to a mandate for action.
"People are finally taking it seriously," said Fayokemi Ogunmola a Nigerian-born sophomore at the University of Rochester who leads her campus Pan-African Students Association. Ongumola had followed the story since it broke April 15 but only recently saw more interest among classmates using the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag and wearing head wraps or the green and white of the Nigerian flag.
"It's a nice thing to use social media to get it out. This is a step in the right direction," Ogunmola said. "But the point is to actually find the girls."
All told, police say, more than 300 girls were abducted from their secondary school in the country's remote northeast, and 276 remain in captivity. Though details of the abductions have been public since they were carried out, the case was not widely followed until #BringBackOurGirls and other hashtags attracted a torrent of attention.
More than 2.1 million tweets using #BringBackOurGirls have been posted, according to Topsy, a site that offers Twitter analytics. Interest was relatively low until last week, when celebrities including singer Chris Brown sent messages that were widely circulated.
More than 380,000 tweets carried the hashtag Wednesday, including one from Michelle Obama, who has been retweeted more than 53,000 times. Use continued to grow Thursday and Friday.
"We have discovered the power of the hashtag," said Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo, writing in The Guardian.
The flurry of attention on Nigeria brings to mind a similar campaign two years ago that introduced many people to Joseph Kony, a guerrilla leader whose group has abducted many Ugandan children who then became sex slaves or fighters. A video about Kony went viral in 2012, but public attention waned, and the warlord remains at large.
G. Nelson Bass III, a professor who teaches politics and international relations at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said the #BringBackOurGirls campaign appears far closer to the Kony campaign than to the kind of social media activity that organized much of the Arab Spring movement.
In the former case, public awareness widened but never resulted in any particular action, unlike in the Middle East, where social media were used to coordinate protests. (continued...)
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