Opinion: The Role of ‘Clicktivism’ in the Dwindling #BringBackOurGirls Campaign

10 September 2015

24-hour news services, along with Facebook and Twitter, mean people can instantly know about international disasters, political unrest or massacres. But this stream of violent images and statistics has often led people to become desensitised to the devastating situations occurring across the world. The new role of social media in campaigning often does not help in humanising these stories. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign began on the 14th of April 2014 when 276 school girls were abducted from their school hostels in Chibok, Nigeria by members of Boko Haram. This campaign spread across social media, with celebrities Tweeting the hashtag and many calling for something to be done. 27th August 2015 marked 500 days since the abduction, but the girls still need to be found, and public interest in this social media campaign has dwindled.

This lack of sustained interest seems best explained by ‘clicktivism’. This is when there is original attraction in supporting a campaign that seems ‘on trend’, but this support soon gets lost in whirlwind social media that is focused on trends and slogans. As digital campaigning has increased in recent years, adjusting to our media-driven culture, the sense of membership of and involvement in an organisation or campaign is lost. Though social media is important in spreading awareness of issues, by feeling part of a campaign simply from a ‘like’ or a ‘share’, long term interest and commitment to a campaign is often difficult to create. This effect of ‘clicktivism’ is found in similar campaigns; in April this year, UNICEF announced a new campaign using the piggyback hashtag #BringBackOurChildhood, which aimed  to generate public awareness of the 800,000 children who have been displaced due to violence in northeast Nigeria. The hashtag campaign was similarly unable to maintain significant public interest.

John Onaiyekan, the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Abuja, recently stated his hope that the 500 days would be ‘a symbolic catalyst to move the Nigerian community into recognising we have a serious problem’ with many of the students still needing to be found. Despite the correct sentiment, the fact that it was 500 days since the abduction is simply another number in the numerous statistics dominating this campaign; it seems unlikely that one more statistic will suddenly lead to a surge of support. Joseph Stalin is believed to have said “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic”- a statement that seems harrowingly true of the situation in Nigeria. Deborah Small and Paul Slovic call this the ‘collapse of compassion’, which means that as numbers increase, the level of sympathy goes down, as does people’s willingness to volunteer or donate money. Researchers, Keith Payne and Daryl Cameron, suggest that this is because the idea of multiple victims leads people to turn down their emotions as they do not wish to be overwhelmed. This indicates that statistics are a way of disconnecting the public from the situation in Nigeria, and in order to reconnect, it is the individual stories that must be focused on. A mother will likely recognise the tragedy another parent goes through as shared emotion enables increased empathy. It is not about exploiting stories but about sharing and understanding the situation in Nigeria through hearing these experiences by giving individuals a platform to tell their own stories in order to ensure they are not misrepresented. It enables us to recognise our shared humanity, which is best done when hearing about individuals and seeing ourselves, our families, our friends within them.

Organisation such as the Human Rights Watch and the BBC, who have run interviews show an understanding this. Cosmopolitan magazine has raised further support for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign through publishing interviews with some of the girls who had escaped or been freed. The emotion was not lost in numbers or hashtags, but found in reading about their experiences. The value of our shared humanity should never be forgotten when trying to raise support for these tragedies that occur worldwide.

The Boko Haram insurgency has also increased poverty in Nigeria, which is another issue that is difficult to engage the public in. Yet campaigns that give a small insight into this poverty help to provide a connection between a news item and public support. The ‘Live Below the Line’ campaign is about living on £1 a day to help people understand the realities of life below the poverty line. This action forms a connection to the issue that helps lead to sustained support, with the number of participants involved in the campaign, as well as the money raised, swiftly increasing each year as the campaign spread across countries. In 2010, just over 2000 people participated but just a few years later in 2013, this was 20,000. This highlights the sustained support found in a campaign that uses active involvement, whereas the immediate impact of the #BringBackOurGirlsCampaign led to global pressure that made the Nigerian government feel accountable, yet when they didn’t deliver on their promises, there was no consequence as the global pressure had eased off.

In order to bring back the solidarity regarding this campaign, it is the individuals rather than the numbers that must be focused on. An endless list of statistics, shown both on the news and spread through social media, soon becomes hard to visualise. These shocking numbers simply seem to be the norm, with this desensitisation of the public preventing the individual from engaging with these issues. Therefore, it is important to re-engage people by focussing on individual experiences. Whether this is hearing individual stories, being part of campaigns that provide insight into what had happened, or encouraging people to volunteer, and thus gain a greater understanding of the situation, there must be a change in the way public support is gathered in order for us to stand as one force. As a movement we can hold the Nigerian government accountable, and demand for changes from our own government. In Malala Yousafzai’s offering of ‘solidarity, hope and love’ to the kidnapped Nigerian girls, it is solidarity that is the most important, especially when maintained over time. Though statistics may not have a positive effect on rousing public action, it is vast campaigns with high numbers of members and volunteers that pressurise governments and lead to action. Tackling the Boko Haram will therefore be done through finding our solidarity through our shared humanity.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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