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#BringBackOurGirls: An exercise in soft power or futility?

Michelle Obama holds up a sign contributing to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
Michelle Obama holds up a sign contributing to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

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The kidnapping of some 300 school girls in Nigeria by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has outraged the world. An international rescue effort with the U.S., U.K., France, Israel and Canada has been under way. This week, the Nigerian government has shown willingness to negotiate with the militant group for the release of the girls.

A grassroot effort using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to bring international attention to the kidnappings has spread from Nigeria to the rest of the world. The hashtag has been used over a million times on social media. Even high-powered politicians have joined the hashtag activism campaign. Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama shared her photo holding a #BringBackOurGirls sign, sparking an immediate conservative backlash. Yesterday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors joined the campaign, posing for a photo holding signs emblazoned with the hashtag.

While it’s not new for regular citizens to undertake social-media campaigns, it is new for so many politicians to do so. Who is the audience? Is social media activism effective? Could it be categorized as soft diplomacy?


Nicco Mele, Lecturer in Public Policy, Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government