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Trending: The Social Activism and Celebrity Sidetracking of #BringBackOurGirls

Ann Coulter is the face of the #BringBackOurGirls movement… at least she is today. 

What does well-known conservative news hijacker Ann Coulter have to do with the over 250 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria?

Absolutely nothing.

This story is like many others in recent memory – a political or social issue arises somewhere in the world going widely ignored by the general public, then gets an infusion of mass media hysteria and a plethora of social media discussion because of one, two or three key Tweets.

This Tweet interestingly, and seemingly accurately, sums up the progression of an international news event or crisis:


As quickly as it started gaining momentum, one or more well-meaning celebrities use a certain hashtag or @mention within the same conversation and all of a sudden – BAM! The story on #BringBackOurGirls and kidnapped children becomes a dissection of Michelle Obama and Emma Watson’s Twitter photos supporting the cause. And not the cause itself.

How did this happen? We can see from Brandwatch data how a few critical moments propelled this story into the public mainstream over the past few weeks.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Lighting the fire

At a UNESCO event on April 23 Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, the vice president of the World Bank for Africa, gave a speech for the opening ceremony honoring the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt as the 2014 World Book Capital City. In her speech she mentioned the recent kidnapping of over 200 school-age girls, issuing the call to “bring back our daughters.” A Nigerian lawyer named Ibrahim M Abdullahi was watching the streamed speech in Abuja (the nation’s capital), and phrased Dr. Ezekwesili’s emotive words on Twitter using the hashtags #BringBackOurDaughters and #BringBackOurGirls. He unknowingly sparked an online social activism campaign that has been the top news story across the world. 

social activism on Twitter

Dr. Ezekwesili used @Abu_Aaid’s emotion-stirring hashtag on Twitter the same day, the first major spark in encouraging the hashtag use and spreading awareness of the kidnapping via social.  

twitter activism

Picking up global steam

It’s no surprise that this important story has captured so many headlines, but what’s interesting from looking at our social analytics is that it took over two weeks for the conversation to reach over 50,000 mentions (using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls). Momentum has built and the geography of the conversation has pinged from country to country. Here are just a few of the key Twitter authors that were instrumental in spreading the news online and across international borders:

  • April 25

       @SarahBrownUK – writer and wife of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

  • April 27:


  • May 5:





  • May 7:


  • May 8:


When we first started tracking the use of the hashtag in our Brandwatch social analytics and listening platform, we were interested in seeing which topics were most closely associated with the use of #BringBackOurGirls. We looked for topics that were mentioned the most by volume in the same posts with the hashtag. Social activist Malala Yousafzai was the leading author in the online conversation between April 29 and May 12 with 26,832 mentions (almost entirely retweets). However, mentions of US First Lady Michelle Obama had overtaken the conversation about the kidnapped girls. When looking at the volume of mentions in conjunction with the hashtag there were over 47,104 mentions of “Michelle Obama” and over 89,941 mentions of “FLOTUS” from April 29-May 12, a whopping 137,045 mentions total (or something like 5% of the total conversation!).

Doesn’t this tell us something interesting about the way that celebrity power informs the evolution of news?

And what about the words “Nigeria” or “kidnapping” or “rescue”? You would think they would be the top trending topics mentioned alongside the hashtag, but in actuality their impressions paled in comparison to mentions of celebrities, politicians and high-profile Twitter users that were encouraging RTs which draws attention away from the issue and increases the volume of mentions of their own persona. 

Millions of mentions later

Since April 23, about three weeks which is rather slow-moving in the larger context of the Twittersphere, the hashtag has been used over two million times and has garnered well over 84 billion impressions. While the momentum was slow at the get-go, the #BringBackOurGirls movement is now recognized as one of the biggest worldwide trending social activism campaigns, and has gotten the attention of politicians and celebrities around the globe.  

hashtags for social activism 

Commandeering the conversation

Most recently Ann Coulter, that same opportunistic conservative that hijacks news stories for her own political agenda that we mentioned earlier, has inserted herself into the conversation, when she posted a picture of herself holding up a sign that reads “#BringBackOurCountry.” The satirical image that mocked the hashtag and with it the social activism behind it, led Twitter users to submit a slew of their own photoshopped versions of Ann’s photo with hashtags such as: “#BringBackMyIntegrity” and “Please Pay Attention To Me.”  

Ann Coulter

The point of the hashtag has become muddied in the online power struggle as celebrities and others either purposefully or accidentally take over the conversation by lending their support (or mimicry). The goal of using the hashtag is to gain a huge amount of public awareness that would hopefully spur political action to rescue the children. Along the way, this underlying purpose got sidestepped as the conversation shifted several times, when Michelle Obama discussed it during the “Mother’s Day” speech this past weekend.

While the First Lady and Malala Yousafzai are seen to be relevant to the conversation, given one is a social activist herself and the other married to the “leader of the free world,” celebrities including Emma Watson, Chris Brown and Ellen Degeneres are lending their opinions and star power to the conversation – potentially at a huge detriment to the actual cause – instigating political action to rescue the kidnapped children.

Chris Brown tweeted a photo of an allegedly Nigerian victim of the kidnappings, which sent the image virally skyrocketing across the interwebs. The girl was actually from Guinea-Bissau and has nothing to do with the kidnapped Nigerian girls. According to Mashable, the girl in the photo waits for her teacher to arrive at school in the village of Dembel Jumpora in Guinea-Bissau in May 2011. This is just another example of an individual, unrelated to the issue, trying to increase attention and awareness and activate their own social media audience but by doing so, have either distorted the message or amplified incorrect information that would’ve otherwise not been shared on a massive scale if it were posted by a lesser-known person. Slacktivism at celebrity scale! 

To tweet or not to tweet

Since the dawn of the social media age, humans have been trying to find new ways to use the technology available to bring forth change, share information in real-time, and possibly gain some new followers along the way. While the purpose behind using a hashtag like #BringBackOurGirls may be altruistic, once it’s posted on a personal page it automatically becomes a symbol of what that person may or may not stand for, and that can easily cloud the message.

It’s only by really synthesizing and analyzing the conversations that we start to understand what propelled the conversation and what distorted it.

What really matters here is the fate of the humans involved in this real-life issue. But as a modern vignette and a study in social data, this offers intriguing insights. Insights for both organizations concerned with the cause and with helping their own messages to spread, and for individuals who care about causes. #BringBackOurGirls. 



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