Are more eyes better? How social media can worsen foreign crises.

“Bring Back Our Girls” examines the unintended consequences of Western attention and highlights efforts to rescue schoolgirls taken by Boko Haram. 

HarperCollins Publishers
"Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls" by Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, Harper, 409 pp.

The 2014 kidnapping of 276 high school students in northeast Nigeria by the Boko Haram extremist group triggered a burst of worldwide mass outrage channeled onto Twitter. Everyone from singer Mary J. Blige to former first lady Michelle Obama to Pope Francis tweeted in support of the children, using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

The massive foreign intervention that followed eventually included South African mercenaries and drones from the same elite U.S. military aerial unit deployed to kill Osama bin Laden.

All this celebrity-fueled attention may have only prolonged the girls’ captivity, Wall Street Journal foreign correspondents Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw argue convincingly in their engrossing new book. “Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls” is a riveting account of the girls’ ordeal and efforts to free them as well as a cautionary tale about the limits of social media advocacy.

By May 2014, the terrorist group named Boko (which means “western education”) Haram (“was forbidden”) had already torched dozens of schools, murdered teachers, and car bombed churches during a five-year-long insurgency.

Its militiamen planned on looting supplies and a brickmaking machine when they stormed a pink-tin roofed boarding school with no electricity on the outskirts of Chibok, an isolated, largely Christian town in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria. They took the girls hostage, too, when the night’s haul proved disappointing.

The authors, who rely on their own deep reporting and the captives’ diaries, recount in vivid detail the girls’ “inconceivable courage” as they eventually endured forced marriages and religious conversions, as well as beatings and malnourishment. Some of the young women rebelled by covertly penning diaries filled with biblical verses and love letters to boys or quietly singing hymns. A few grew openly defiant.

Spirited from one hiding spot to the next – starting under a giant tamarind tree – they could hear the planes and drones sent to find them. Yet they were completely unaware of the international attention they’d attracted.

Boko Haram’s decade-long war has displaced 2.5 million people and left 37,500 dead, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Yet it was this kidnapping that attracted most of the attention, in part, the authors suggest, because everyone can sympathize with schoolgirls seized in their dorms the night before final exams – or with their anguished parents.

The authors trace how this viral hashtag ricocheted around the world in a campaign “that tested the power of social media to reshape events thousands of miles away.”

“If regular people, tapping Retweet from their privileged homes in America, could elevate an African injustice onto the global news agenda, maybe they could summon the collective energy required to resolve it,” the authors write in capturing that hopeful moment.

Things didn’t turn out that way.

The vast U.S. global surveillance network “proved unable to track a group of high schoolers hidden under trees” and withheld intelligence from Nigerian officials they mistrusted. Nigerian military intelligence operatives feuded with one another and political aides resented the cause célèbre as an intrusion on their sovereignty. At least 10 of the girls were killed inadvertently in a Nigerian air assault on a Boko Haram hideout.

For Boko Haram, those millions of tweets had elevated the girls into an “invaluable bartering chip” and the group’s “most jealously guarded asset.” 

When the first group of 21 girls was released – nearly two and a half years into their captivity – in exchange for Boko Haram prisoners, neither military might nor social media posts made the deal possible, according to the authors. Rather, credit goes largely to a Swiss-led team of negotiators, who had quietly worked in the shadows to build trust on both sides. The authors

suggest the negotiators helped grease the wheels for a subsequent larger exchange with a multimillion-euro ransom, which may have only fueled further violence.

In all, 164 of the girls were either freed or escaped, while 112 remain missing, of whom 40 are presumed dead. The survivors struggled to adapt to their newfound freedom. Their celebrity afforded them special treatment, including full scholarships at a prestigious university’s new program designed to help them reintegrate.

Those scholarships are one way in which the Twitter campaign profoundly impacted the girls’ lives, for better and worse.

And there is no doubt that #BringBackOurGirls altered the course of the campaign against Boko Haram. Eight years later, hundreds of U.S. troops remained deployed in four Western African countries in what began as a rescue mission and has morphed into another front in the permanent war on terror. 

Seth Stern is an editor at Bloomberg Industry Group.

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