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One Year Later, #BringBackOurGirls Shows the Limits of Clicktivism

04/17/2015 12:51 EDT | Updated 06/17/2015 05:59 EDT
ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this photo taken Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015. Dorcas Aiden, 20 years old , speaks to a journalist in Yola, Nigeria. Dorcas Aiden was another of the girls caught in Boko Haram’s siege. She had finished high school and was living at home when the war came to her village. Fighters took her to a house in the town of Gulak and held her captive for two weeks last September. The more than 50 teenage girls crammed into the house were beaten if they refused to study Quranic verses or conduct daily Muslim prayers, she says. When the fighters got angry, they shot their guns in the air. Aiden finally gave in and denied her Christian faith to become Muslim, at least in name, she says. (AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi)

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

One year ago the world stood with a small Nigerian community to demand "bring back our girls." Today, there may be no one to bring back.

Most Canadians had never heard of Boko Haram -- a Nigerian radical Islamic militia violently opposed to western education and culture. But in a matter of days they became a household name after abducting 270 school girls in the town of Chibok. Outraged Nigerians took to social media with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which swept around the world with more than three million retweets. Even Michelle Obama, America's First Lady, posed holding a placard emblazed with the hashtag.

But one year later, what has #BringBackOurGirls accomplished? It didn't bring the girls home. Second hand reports suggest that 57 of the girls escaped their captors, but the rest are still out there, likely sold off as child brides (or sex slaves). Recently, a UN official said there's evidence they may be dead.

It's a sad illustration of the limitations of "clicktivism" -- the use of online media to advance causes.

Social media has become a powerful, if not essential, tool for connecting causes with those who might support them. But organizations and activists must learn that it's not enough to simply launch a hashtag or video meme and hope it goes viral. There must be a plan to engage supporters once they've clicked, and keep them engaged, even after the hashtag stops trending.

Some have suggested that #BringBackOurGirls was instrumental in generating international pressure on the Nigerian government which, until the viral campaign, seemed willing to ignore the crisis. Nigeria's President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, also promised to rescue the girls during his campaign. This illustrates the greatest strength of social media activism -- raising international awareness for causes on an unprecedented scale. If the Boko Haram kidnapping had happened 20 years ago, how many signatures would have been inked on a Bring Back Our Girls paper petition? Probably not three million.

Having achieved that widespread awareness, what next? A while back, we spoke with representatives of petition websites Avaaz and Change.org. They both told us the same thing: to be effective, online activism must be backed with real world activism -- letters to government officials, advocacy meetings, public demonstrations. But how often does clicktivism translate to real activism?

Last year U.S. public relations firm Cone Communications surveyed 1,200 Americans for its 2014 Digital Activism Study. At first blush, the results are encouraging. Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed said once they'd "liked" or followed an organization or cause on social media, they would be more inclined to show support in other ways like volunteering or donating.

However, the survey goes on to show very few actually put their money where their mouth is. Of 70 per cent who said they used digital media to learn about changes they can make in their lives to create positive social or environmental change, only 25 per cent actually made changes.

And of course, social media by nature has the attention span of a goldfish. #BringBackOurGirls dominated the spring and was gone by summer, replaced by new viral causes. Last October, activists in Nigeria tried to stage a worldwide week of action for the still-missing girls. There was almost no pickup in international news outlets, and no viral surge on social media.

On April 14, volunteers around the world are organizing a Global School Girl March, trying again to ensure these girls are not forgotten. You can find the March on Facebook. If there isn't one in your area, why not organize one? If you can't march, donate to an organization like the Malala Fund to support girls' education. Send a message by making your donation in the name of one of the missing girls.

Social media gives us a power unmatched in history to bring important causes to the attention of millions. As we mark this one-year anniversary of the Nigerian kidnappings, the girls of Chibok are at risk of becoming victims of slacktivism as much as radicalism. If you want to have an impact, a click is not enough.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

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