TOPICS > Politics > GWEN'S TAKE

Gwen’s Take: The perils of keyboard activism

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  May 9, 2014 at 2:54 PM EST
Protesters calling for the release of a group of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls gather outside Nigeria House in London. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Protesters calling for the release of a group of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls gather outside Nigeria House in London. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Internet makes it so easy. You see a compelling picture, you retweet it, Instagram it, or post it to your Facebook page. Instantly, you have joined a movement and signaled to everyone you know (or kind of know) that this topic is worth paying attention to.

In this manner, Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin became household names. Depressing videos about Joseph Kony and happy ones from Pharrell Williams took off like lightning.

This week, it was all about the Nigerian school girls. Michelle Obama posted this late Wednesday, and had collected more than 45,000 retweets in less than a day. But before she joined the debate, Hollywood celebrities, world leaders, artists and writers had weighed in.

Simply attaching the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag to anything on Twitter guarantees a huge response. In the few minutes it took me to write these four paragraphs, my Twitter feed logged 350 hits. And in public remarks, Hillary Clinton linked the campaign to longstanding efforts to raise the profile of issues like human trafficking and sexual slavery.

And quietly, backlash began to unfold.

“Remember,” writer Teju Cole tweeted, “#bringbackourgirls, a vital moment for Nigerian democracy, is not the same as #bringbackourgirls, a wave of global sentimentality.”

The problem with this story, as is often the case with campaigns that catch fire all of a sudden, is that — as horrible as the abduction is — the underlying issues that led to this moment are complicated.

Some now worry that calls for U.S. intervention will backfire, leading to militaristic overreaction.

Others argue that Western observers are trying so hard to squeeze this issue into their boxes — linking the abduction to feminism, terrorism and access to education — that they overlook its underpinnings.

The story is about all those things. But it is also about the little-understood rise of Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group which attacks not only school girls, but also United Nations facilities, local churches, and representatives of the Nigerian government. The war they wage is less religious than sectarian – Muslims are on both sides of the battle lines. Hostage-taking is common. None of this is easily explained in 140 characters.

But it is hard to resist when emotions are involved. And the sight of mothers crying and blurry images of armed men claiming girls as spoils of war are hard to turn away from. Even the president said the story broke his heart and made him think of his own daughters.

The first U.S. response was to send 10 military advisers. The next wave, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, would total “dozens.” But there are limits to what outsiders can do. The best example can probably be found at Invisible Children, the organization that was created two years ago to flush out warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The goal was to make him famous, shame the international community into action and — ultimately — capture Kony.

Two out of three of those things happened. The results are posted on their website.

The popular hashtag for the capture Kony movement was #Kony2012. It is 2014. Joseph Kony is still at large.