Do Hashtags Like #Bringbackourgirls Make a Difference?

I have been walking around wondering if the hashtag #Bringbackourgirls campaign makes a difference. Is it helpful or is it hindering or is it pointless?

The ultimate desired outcome is for these girls to be rescued unharmed and for the evil-doers to be brought to justice. I don’t say this to sound trite but this really is the plot to the movie Taken with Liam Neeson – even better if it could all be done without violence. If this does not happen, it’s obviously tragedy as the most desired outcome is unrealized and things like hashtags feel pointless.

Or are they?

As soon as we saw Michelle Obama holding up the #Bringbackourgirls sign, we probably all  knew this would bring criticism and then it would be a matter of time before the eventual guilting of everyone else who shared it. Easy prediction, I know – it really is a simple observation of human behavior and social media. So here we are continuing to get updates on the missing Nigerian school girls and at the same time, there are those criticizing its use. Should you use it or not use it?

I’ve read post after post criticizing this hashtag campaign and mentioning things like documentaries (Kony2012), t-shirts, and various other advocacy efforts. They have the high ground and again, it’s assumed that all success is measured by whatever the issue is – in this case, whether or not all these girls come home unharmed.

Thus after reading each intelligently written essay that only offers a rebuke in what we should not do or suggests a solution that only a handful of people on the planet might consider, I find myself thinking, “They are really telling me to stop caring.”

But I do care.

So it’s been said: No one is advocating for slacktivism. This fun word is often defined by the critic and is easy to throw around – some times legitimately, some times not so much. Believe me, no one wants a superficial conscious-freeing usage of anything. Further, I do not know anyone who thinks by using the hashtag that a situation will magically change. We use things like hashtags and share information for other reasons which I’ll get to in a moment.

As one who wants to see all forms of advocacy, relief, and mission work get better, I have been weary of the criticism that is so easily and quickly flung out there. It’s the same thing every time mired in sarcasm and condescension:
“Send out a tweet and buy into the naive notion that you’re doing something.”
“Buy a $25 t-shirt and change the world!”
“Updating your Facebook status only appeases your conscience, it doesn’t actually bring the girls back.”

I saw a picture of a guy holding up a piece of paper saying something like, “The terrorists are not reading Twitter.” Couldn’t find it again to link to it but, Sean Hannity said the same thing. So if you were going for that – mission accomplished.

So yeah I get it, I’m sarcastic too. I get it, regrettably I can be condescending as well. The ironic thing is one population will resent you for not ever caring and another population will criticize you for sharing your cares. More importantly, if you look the other way on everything, you likely grow in your cynicism and eventually, sink deeper in your despair.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for critique – I’m critiquing the critiquers right? We all know that it never feels enough and that even desired outcomes are not perfect in a fallen world but critique without a positive alternative never really helps anyone. You have to give people more than just “Hey that hashtag doesn’t do anything! Now Shut-up!” Rather, the best critiques are the ones that move us deeper to something we can actually do and it be worthwhile. I hope I am doing that on some level now.

We find ourselves back to the lingering question: Does using a hashtag or giving money or supporting a cause do anything worthwhile? Well every situation is different but so far this hashtag campaign as contributed to the following things:

1. It has allowed us to mourn with the families who have lost their daughters. I may not mourn the same as a Nicaraguan mother, but my heart and countless others are as broken as they can be.
2. It has created conversation and awareness for the similar tragedies of abduction and trafficking throughout the world. Please don’t miss this.
3. It has helped us to identify evil that may have once been hidden to us.
4. Which has allowed us to engage in efforts confronting evil.
5. Countless of people have been praying for these girls and the many like them near and far, the families this affects and we pray that God would change wicked hearts.
6. There are envoys of trained men and women looking for these girls.
7. There are spy planes looking for these girls.
8. At the very least, it says “people care.”

IF any of these girls or others in different contexts are found – and a hashtag was part of the solution, I’d consider that to be a valuable ingredient.

Does this make me completely comfortable that governments respond to social media? I’m not the greatest pragmatist in the world so I have to admit, it does make me a bit uncomfortable. But today, if there are resources that can be allocated to finding these girls, how does it help to not use them?

Still, when people share links, use hashtags, circulate petitions, give money, share stories and various other practices, they are hoping that the situation can be helped through a series of many events. Then there’s the goodness found by simply creating awareness and saying “This is awful! We care!” This is better than turning the other way.

Similarly, giving $25 towards the effort is better than spending that money on yourself. Wearing a t-shirt for the cause that may generate conversation with someone who has no idea of the crisis could be better than wearing another gray shirt and talking about the weather.

So here’s where I’m landing:
Promote the causes, concerns and issues you are passionate about.
Support them in the ways you can.
Be willing to sacrifice your time, energy, resources, maybe even a bit of your dignity for them.
But don’t censor yourself because some sarcastic person has guilted you. If a particular story has captured your attention and heart, share it, pray for it, support it in the ways you can.

By this point, you might wonder how many times I’ve used the hashtag that I feel compelled to defend its use. The truth is, I haven’t yet. Aside from a Christianity Today post I shared, I have only been reading, praying and following the story. This post is not self-defense, it’s about encouraging you to express yourself and the issues you are concerned with freely without being bullied by the critics of social media. Still, I pray for these young women and the many like them and if sharing anything will help bring them back, sign me up.

Your thoughts, even your critiques are always welcomed.


  1. Thanks for prompting the conversation around this, Tim. as a marketing guy, I’m all about awareness, especially when it’s awareness about something of significance as this terrible act. The reality is, plenty of people wouldn’t have known about these girls being abducted, unless they’d been exposed to the news on social media. Rock on, world, and call out these evil people for their act.

    I think the backlash is around a couple of things: I’ve seen commentary from Nigerian activists that has pointed out that the publicity around this act of terrorism is actually empowering the abductors, by giving them leverage and increased negotiating power. Their assets are now more valuable than ever, and the pressure to make a deal is greater. They are pointing out that in the grand scheme of things, unless some major military hammer is brought down swiftly on these terrorist kidnappers, other bad guys will most likely be empowered to perform similar crimes.

    The second source of backlash is probably around the idea that 99.9% of the people who use the hashtag aren’t actually doing anything to help get these girls home. There’s the hope that somehow a massive social media response will prompt those in power to put this at the top of their priority list. But the reality is that there are atrocities worse than this happening all the time, and our government is factoring so many things in its decision to intervene, that a social media response is probably not a factor. And if it is, the #bringbackourballs hashtag is probably a pretty big factor, too.

    So we’re left with two sides: the hashtaggers, and the haters. And, as in most cases, neither extreme has it totally right. My prayers are with the girls, and with the decision makers figuring out how we get them back. If the future, I will vote for decision makers who are pro-military, that share the vision of the US as police state, and are willing to extend our forces for the greater, global good.

  2. Yes, I too think there is some warranted critique.
    And I’ve come across the argument from your second paragraph. This is of course is the purpose/power of terrorism. I read something similar to how these campaigns empower terrorists. It also seems that the more powerful they become, the more attention/resources/time are allocated to counter. It would also be interesting to read if any long-term data is available on something like this. Let me know if you ever come across something like that.

    To the second point, the other reality is 99.9% of the population cannot do anything even if they wanted to. But for me, it’s hard to dismiss the campaign as doing nothing when Nigerian and international special forces and drones have been deployed (which of course brings up the military intervention issues).

    Agree that neither extreme is desirable. Thanks for reading Jared.

  3. Great question!These days, I’m drawn to non-standard ways of tiinkhng. If someone talks about anything to do with Quantum Mechanics, or how the universe is doling things out to them, I’m interested in reading more of their thoughts.Or, in a Social Media context, if they acknowledge that a lot of the social dynamics that drive the success of the sites and services and techniques are thousands of years old instead of somehow being brand new . I feel like we’re in the Wild West in many ways online, where our technological advances have brought us to this edge of nowhereland in terms of what reality looks like . JillJill Lampi TheWebGrrl recently published this rocking post..

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