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Can a hashtag make a difference?

H#ll yes.

More than 2 million people – Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai among them – have tweeted “#BringBackOur Girls” since Boko Haram, a group of Islamist militants, attacked a Nigerian school in Chibok nearly one month ago and kidnapped more than 250 girls.

Critics of hashtag activism claim the social media movement has been a self-serving, feel-good exercise in global sentimentality that oversimplifies Nigeria’s issues and reeks of American arrogance and imperialism. 

Over the weekend, conservative columnist George Will mocked the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, calling it “an exercise in self-esteem” not intended to have any effect on the real world. (Kind of like his move to Fox News.)

Will and other critics complain that the armchair activism is passive and has no impact. 

Passive? You mean like signing petitions, writing letters or casting a vote?

The only thing more passive than a hashtag campaign is shaming people for using one to take a stand. 

Clearly, there’s room for critique. I’m sure some people have hopped on this first-world digital bandwagon without being fully informed, just as some did with #Kony2012. We’re all still learning more about Boko Haram, the perils of American intervention in Africa and the bravery of girls who simply want to get an education. 

But to those who question the power of social networking to influence public opinion and sort right from wrong in this world, I suggest you talk to:

  • Dolphins safety Don Jones, who was publicly suspended and fined over the weekend after tweeting “omg” and “horrible” when he saw newly-drafted, openly gay Michael Sam share a celebratory kiss with his partner on national TV.
  • The Susan G. Komen Foundation, which reversed its 2012 decision to defund Planned Parenthood after 100,000 angry tweets and an avalanche of outrage on Facebook and Tumblr.
  • Juror B37 and literary agent Sharlene Martin, who scrapped their plans last year for a book deal about the George Zimmerman trial after a shocked Twitter campaign was launched following his acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin.

Let's not forget the Arab Spring and the role social media played in providing information to protestors, allowing them to exert increased pressure on their governments.

Nobody expects these girls’ captors to read Twitter and respond to our demands. The true wonder of social media is its ability to drive media coverage and ratchet up public pressure. 

World leaders, including President Barack Obama, every female U.S. senator and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, have now offered assistance or called on the international community to impose further sanctions on Boko Haram. The U.S. military began working with the Nigerian government and flying manned surveillance missions over the country this week as part of the search for the missing girls. 

The efforts – and the hashtag activism – have been applauded by Ibrahim M. Abdullahi, a lawyer in Nigeria who was the first to tweet #BringBackOurGirls on April 23, launching the worldwide hashtag campaign. 

"Initially, the government didn't even want to talk about it, but now the government has come out to say that it wants to do something – even though not at the rate or the speed we want it to act," Abdullahi told the German news agency Deutsche Welle

While you’re passively typing away, here are two other places where you can express your concern: 

  • Sign the Change.org petition expressing solidarity with the kidnapped girls and imploring the world not to forget them at http://chn.ge/1ioL496
  • Donate to the Malala Fund’s fundraising campaign to support Nigerian nonprofits focused on education and advocacy for girls and women at http://bit.ly/1fPYKdO
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