The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag movement, which is intended to pressure the Nigerian government to accelerate efforts to rescue more than 250 girls captured by Boko Haram, has somehow resurfaced a three-year-old hashtag and dragged a group of unwitting celebrities into a cause they knew nothing about.
One of the strategies of the those trying to promote #BringBackOurGirls message has been to have people, particularly celebrities and politicians, to take a photo of themselves holding a sign that bears the hashtag, as First Lady Michelle Obama did here:
In addition, people have begun spreading images of celebrities holding another hashtag sign, #RealMenDontBuyGirls, presumably in response to Boko Haram's threat to sell the kidnapped girls in to slavery. Unfortunately, that hashtag — which the BBC reports has been tweeted thousands of times in last couple days — actually has nothing to do with the Nigerian kidnapping. It was conceived three years ago, as part of an anti-human trafficking campaign, launched by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.
At the time, a number of somber-faced celebrities appeared in photos and videos holding a sign showing the hashtag. Now, those celebrities — specifically Sean Penn, Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher and Bradley Cooper — are getting credit for raising awareness for Nigeria, even though the photographs date back to 2011.
And to bring the protest full circle, those men are now being criticized for not doing enough to help a cause they were not actually taking part in:
Others are taking issue with the sexist undertones of the phrase, just as some did with the original campaign back in 2011.
Paradox of the #RealMenDontBuyGirls tweets: belittling the masculinity of violent, patriarchal fanatics is somehow a good idea.— Adam Elkus (@Aelkus) May 8, 2014
The BBC reports that the old hashtag was first used in connection with the stolen girls on May 2, about two weeks after the kidnapping took place. It's not clear whether it was an intentional conflation of the Nigerian case with the larger fight against human trafficking, or an honest mistake. Regardless, the hashtag seemed to have regained steam from there.
And the confusion continued. Even the Guardian referred to #RealMeDontBuyGirls as a "parallel hashtag."
For what it's worth, #BringBackOurGirls has a number of its own celebrity endorsers:
Many are rightly questioning the efficacy of any web-based effort to save the missing girls. Global leaders have offered Nigeria help in the search, but as the Christian Science Monitor reports, its unclear how much they will be able to do without putting boots on the ground to actually join the hunt. And, in the wake of a Boko Haram attack that killed more than 300 people just this week, hopes are low that the government can cope with the threat posed by the militant group.
Still, the hashtag has succeeded in raising some awareness of the incident and Boko Haram more generally. Even if it was the wrong hashtag.