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Sunday, April 14, 2024

How a Hashtag Went Viral—and Incited a Military Intervention

This story is adapted from Bring Back Our Girls, by Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw. On Friday, hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria. This excerpt tells the story of a similar incident in 2014. 

Russell Simmons was finishing his morning yoga routine on a yacht floating in the turquoise Caribbean waters off St. Barts, peacefully unaware that he was about to provoke a tidal wave. The man who founded the boom-bap hit machine Def Jam Records in a cramped Manhattan dorm room and made it one of the world’s top record labels, with a roster that included Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, was now an evangelist for what he called “operating from a quiet place,” practicing transcendental meditation or yoga for hours daily. His latest book, Success Through Stillness, published a month earlier in March 2014, advocated silence as the place “from which all creativity springs.” But Simmons’ recent obsession with mindfulness had not stopped him developing an addiction to what had become the most cacophonous corner of the internet.


His @UncleRush Twitter account, combined with the Facebook and Instagram pages it cross-posted onto, had more than 10 million followers, and he updated them constantly from TweetDeck, an application that let him promote his media and fashion brands while scanning four columns of streaming content at once. His posts were retweeted, liked, or shared thousands of times. The mogul, now nearly 60, had become an influencer—a second act that would falter years later after a dozen women accused him of sexual assault.

Simmons’ tweets hardly ever mentioned foreign affairs, usually opting for self-help quotes, vegan recipes, and aphorisms for the aspiring entrepreneur. And the early hours of April 30 were no different, as he sent a flurry of posts on subjects from mindfulness to gun violence and the writings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a white-bearded yoga master who had once been guru to the Beatles.

Shortly after breakfast, Simmons read an article on GlobalGrind, a black entertainment website he owned and often used his social media accounts to promote. It was about a kidnapping and protests in Nigeria. Thousands of miles away, in a remote Nigerian town called Chibok, 276 schoolgirls had been kidnapped from their dormitory the night before their final exams. They were high school seniors, a few hours of test questions away from graduating as some of the only educated young women in an impoverished region where most girls never learned to read.

They’d been dozing on bunk beds, studying notes, or reading the Bible by flashlight when a group of militants barged into the school, bundled them onto trucks, and sped into the forest. The students had become captives of a little-known terrorist group called Boko Haram, which filled its ranks by abducting children. The girls’ parents chased after them on motorbikes and on foot until the trail went cold. The schoolgirls looked set to be forgotten, new entries on a long list of stolen youth.

But a couple of weeks later, a small band of Nigerian activists decided to protest the government’s slow response, marching down a Nigerian highway in the capital, Abuja. They had tagged their tweets with a hashtag first posted on Twitter by a lawyer with less than 100 followers: #BringBackOurGirls.

Good intentions lead to good outcomes, Simmons thought, as @UncleRush popped out an 81-character tweet: “234 Nigerian girls have gone missing and no one is talking about it … Please RT! #BringBackOurGirls.”

The number he cited was inaccurate, but the hashtag was correct. He didn’t know it, but his tweet, sent at 9:11 am East Coast time, 2:11 pm in Nigeria, marked the beginning of a celebrity-driven cycle that would catapult #BringBackOurGirls from a distant campaign about a forgotten war to the very pinnacle of American cultural and political power. Within hours, the hashtag would explode, mushrooming out through social media, captivating millions and ultimately raising intricate questions over why some causes catch fire and others don’t.

Simmons had no idea his tweet held any special significance. A few minutes later, he was tweeting again to plug Mission: G-Rok, his new video game pitting an 11-year-old rapper against an evil boss named Smogorex.

But in the background, the attention economy had begun to react. @UncleRush’s followers included a potent mix of Twitter’s superfamous and almost famous users: talk-show hosts and recording artists, pop-culture critics and activists with a taste for politically conscious rap, social media mavens positioned at the toll gates between news and entertainment. Within minutes of tweeting #BringBackOurGirls, thousands of likes and retweets began cascading into Simmons’ phone. One hour later, the rapper Common, weeks short of signing a record deal with Def Jam, and on his way to a meeting in midtown Manhattan, repeated the hashtag to his own millions of followers. “We must help with this! #BringBackOurGirls.” The post brought tens of thousands more retweets. Minutes later, the Atlanta-born rapper Young Jeezy joined in: “#BringBackOurGirls!”

Under each influencer’s tweet, a crowd of followers began to rally one another, amplifying the hashtag and pivoting their anger onto the news media. This was a moral battle that needed to be joined. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was less than a year old, on a website whose user base was more racially diverse than the US population at large. Some of the same unanswered frustrations seemed to be at play in the case of the kidnapped schoolgirls: “WHY DO WE HAVE TO BEG THE MEDIA TO COVER THE ABDUCTION OF CHILDREN WHO LOOK LIKE US?!?” asked one tweeter with hundreds of shares. With a turn of the lens— “And no one is talking about it”—the obscure Boko Haram conflict suddenly had something to say about America.

Thousands began to ask how US media would react if these girls were white, many tweeting the hashtag #234WhiteGirls. One user tweeted, “There’d already be a Lifetime movie in the works.” #BringBackOurGirls mentions tripled in the hours after @UncleRush weighed in. But the metrics were about to be supercharged by one of the world’s most beloved recording artists. At 1:27 pm, from her estate in Saddle River, New Jersey, the queen of hip-hop soul, Mary J. Blige, addressed her 20 million followers: “It’s been two weeks since the kidnapping of 234 Nigerian girls and they still aren’t home #bringbackourgirls,” she tweeted, adding an evocative black-and-white photo of a young school-age girl wearing a forlorn stare, a tear running down her left cheek. The teenager in the photo was not even from Nigeria, but the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, two thousand miles from Chibok, yet more than 16,000 people shared Mary J’s post, broadcasting it to their own followers with furious narrations appended. “We have to do something!” “WHERE THE HELL IS THE MEDIA!!! WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE!!”

By the time the day closed in New York, 62,000 people had tweeted #BringBackOurGirls—and millions had seen it. Suddenly, the tone of global media coverage began to change. The story, feeding off itself, now had a new protagonist for an online audience: us.

Watching the analytics skyrocket during a dentist appointment in San Francisco, Jack Dorsey was struck by how quickly the hashtag was moving. The founder of Twitter had seen people fire off tweets to coordinate protests in Iran in 2009, and the next year, the website had galvanized crowds of millions to overthrow autocratic regimes during the Arab Spring. Closer to home, he’d watched tweets carry images of antiracism protests in Ferguson, Missouri, a mostly black suburb outside his birthplace of St. Louis. But this, he decided, was different, a story that immediately resonated. It was about a group of innocent girls being snatched from a school. Here was that rare universal issue that transcended the partisan divisions his website was accused of stoking. “Extremely powerful,” he thought. “It touches every single person on the planet.”

It was Twitter’s eighth year, and the website had never entirely settled an argument Jack and his business partner, Evan Williams, had had at length: Was this a website to talk about yourself? Or the news? “If there’s a fire on the corner of the street,” Evan had said, “You’re Twittering, ‘There’s a fire on the corner of Third Street.’” “No. You’re talking about your status,” Jack had replied. “‘I’m watching a fire on the corner of Third Street.’” Instead of resolving their dispute, the men had taken their website live and had let users decide. By 2014, it was transforming into a wildly popular vortex of news, political invective, and chatroom jabber, with an undercurrent of dangerous subcultures, including a new terrorist group recruiting foreigners to fight in Iraq and Syria. All of it powered the rise of a company with a stock market valuation of $25 billion. “It’s as if they drove a clown car into a gold mine and fell in,” Mark Zuckerberg had deadpanned.

Angry condemnations of the media and its collective failure to cover the events users believed important became a potent Twitter refrain: “Why is nobody talking about the fire on Third Street?” A few months before #BringBackOurGirls, Justin Bieber, Oprah Winfrey, and Kim Kardashian had tweeted a YouTube video tagged “Stop Kony,” part of a plan to make Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord, so famous on social media that he would stop kidnapping children. The video, YouTube’s first to top 100 million views, felt like a novel phenomenon.


But if the technology was brand new, the themes were not. Some of the most successful popular culture products ever sold had supplied Western audiences the same emotional release: African children are in need, and a celebrity needs you to help save them. Up to 40 percent of the entire world’s population had watched pop acts from Tina Turner to David Bowie play the 1985 benefit concert Live Aid to feed starving Ethiopian youth. That same year, Michael Jackson wrote “We Are the World (We Are the Children),” a charity release that became the fastest-selling pop single in history. Ironically, this strange collective ritual had been born in 1960s Nigeria, when the country’s southeast declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra.

As the federal government began to starve the region into submission, John Lennon, Joan Baez, and Jimi Hendrix all raised voices and money on behalf of the hunger-stricken Biafran youth. After 2 million deaths, Biafra surrendered in 1970, but the modern aid industry, complete with its uneasy codependency on rock-star activism, was born. Nearly half a century later, the same experiment was being run on a smartphone. 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.

By May 1, websites were cranking out articles about the Chibok kidnapping, but this time through a new lens. Pop culture icons were driving a movement that anyone could join with a click. Singers Chris Brown and Wyclef Jean, alongside actresses Alyssa Milano and Mia Farrow, were among the first celebrities to demand that news organizations “keep this story in the news,” reminding them, “You can save lives here.” Their pleas were activating a feedback loop between pop stars and the news. This was a very different story that was now catching fire, and its focus was no longer the teenage girls taken from a small town in northern Nigeria. It was about the power and promise of the Twitter crowd. America was using the story of the missing students of Chibok Government Secondary School to talk about America.

Twitter was turning its firehose on Nigeria at a terrible moment for the country’s president. Back in Abuja, Goodluck Jonathan’s administration was putting the final touches on a summit that he hoped would redeem the country’s image and potentially bring in billions of dollars’ worth of business. The World Economic Forum was normally held in the Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland, affording captains of industry and heads of state a venue to pontificate on panels about the future of the global economy.

But from May 7, its Africa edition would take place at the Abuja Hilton, the gigantic 667-room modernist hotel complex that was Nigeria’s unofficial seat of money and power. The hotel’s bombproof gates shielded an expanse of palm-lined parking lots where chauffeurs on wooden benches waited for calls to collect their VIPs at the glass doors of the smooth-jazz-soaked lobby. The hotel’s 10th floor, guarded at the elevator and blocked off to ordinary guests, opened into an executive lounge with a panoramic view of the skyline. Inside, government officials, Western oil company executives and the fuel smugglers who stole crude from their pipelines, foreign arms traders, and lobbyists from neighboring African states all hobnobbed at the bar. Jonathan’s office had spent months finalizing a security plan to ensure that the summit was a public relations triumph.


And yet across the street, on a dilapidated highway median that cut in front of the Hilton, another more compelling drama was now unfolding. Oby Ezekwesili, a formidable former education minister, was calling on her 128,000 Twitter followers to join her for a protest next to Abuja’s stained and derelict Unity Fountain. It was built to symbolize Nigerians’ desire to be a nation, but there was no water in the fountain. On the first day, a few dozen protesters marched in matching red through pouring rain.

But by May 7, they had swelled from a tiny band of women wearing red T-shirts and berets to a thousand-strong group of fist-pumping protesters, waving placards with evocative messages: “PLEASE DO SOMETHING!” “THE GIRLS DON’T DESERVE THIS.” Journalists from major networks who had jetted in to cover the World Economic Forum were walking over from the Hilton, recording striking visuals with their camera crews or phones. The coverage was inspiring parallel protests in Nigeria’s largest cities.

“What do we want?” Oby would chant, in a rousing call and response. “Bring back our girls!” would come the answer. “Now and alive!” Shuttling between meetings inside the Hilton, President Jonathan was increasingly convinced that the kidnapping and the online uproar stemmed from a conspiracy of northern politicians looking to unseat him. Security forces began to arrest protesters and later deployed armed police and water cannons onto the median. That scene would only provide more arresting footage to help drive the story further up the Twitter algorithm.

Jonathan’s officials weren’t going to silence Oby easily. Quietly, she was deploying other, less public strategies to outmaneuver them. As the story gained traction in US media, she typed out a series of messages to John Podesta, a colleague she had known from her time working in Washington who was now a senior counselor in the White House: Do you think Hillary Clinton could tweet about this?

Podesta forwarded the request to Cheryl Mills, the former secretary of state’s longtime adviser. At 12:05 pm on May 4, in Chappaqua, New York, @HillaryClinton posted a tweet: “Access to education is a basic right & an unconscionable reason to target innocent girls. We must stand up to terrorism. #BringBackOurGirls.” Twenty-five thousand retweets quickly followed. Jonathan was bringing analog weapons to a digital fight.

After Clinton’s tweet, some of America’s most influential political figures joined the campaign. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a moment of silence on the steps of the Capitol, joined by Republican senator Tim Scott. “What has happened in Nigeria is outside the circle of civilized human behavior,” Pelosi said. Civil rights hero John Lewis added his voice. Inside the chamber, Miami congresswoman Frederica Wilson, famed for her collection of sequined cowboy hats, convinced dozens of members of Congress to dress in red every Wednesday in solidarity until the schoolgirls came home. For President Jonathan, the host of a summit now ruined before it began, the story could not get any bigger or worse. And then, shortly after 1 pm on May 5, a video appeared on YouTube.

“I abducted your girls,” said Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, grinning in combat fatigues, his chin raised triumphantly. Standing in a forest clearing, flanked by six masked gunmen, Africa’s most wanted man had finally captured the world’s attention, and he was elated. The lens zoomed in to show his rifle swinging in front of his bulletproof vest as he chopped his arms in the air. “I will sell them in the market, by Allah! I will marry off a woman at the age of twelve. I will marry off a girl at the age of nine.”

This was petrol for a Twitter fire. The story now had a ticking clock and a clear villain. Within minutes, screenshots and article previews bearing Shekau’s menacing grin were flying across Twitter and it was trending, sparking new convulsions of outrage and millions more endorsements for #BringBackOurGirls. Footage of the warlord played on loop on cable news, a pantomime TV villain that helped highlight a six-year-old insurgency as a contest of good versus almost unfathomable evil. Anchors choked up as they presented packages on the madman who had taken our girls.

In London, hundreds of demonstrators thronged the Nigerian embassy, holding matching “NO CHILD BORN TO BE TAKEN” placards. Another crowd swarmed the United Nations in Manhattan. British parliamentarians wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron to ask what action the UK would take in its former colony. In a letter to the White House, 20 women in the Senate wrote, “The girls were targeted by Boko Haram simply because they wanted to go to school and pursue knowledge. The United States must respond.” None of them seemed aware that the insurgency had been trying to steal a brickmaker.

Condemnations of Boko Haram were morphing into the language of a military intervention. Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh was lambasting the White House for being soft on terrorism, asking, “Is the United States really this powerless? And then if you answer yes, we are really this powerless, then isn’t Obama to blame?” Senator Dianne Feinstein was demanding that US special forces stage a rescue mission, and if the Nigerian government didn’t approve one, then ordinary Nigerians should lift their voices and demand that their leaders open their soil up to American troops. Whatever it took, she said, to locate, capture, and kill the men who’d done this.

In a meeting in the White House’s John F. Kennedy Situation Room, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes had been watching the hashtag’s metrics and asking what precisely the endgame was. “Even if it hits a billion tweets, do we think Boko Haram is going to throw up their hands and say, ‘OK, we let the girls go’?” Within days of landing in America, #BringBackOurGirls had vaulted onto the screens of some of the Obama administration’s most senior figures.

Rhodes and other officials for foreign policy, intelligence, and defense held hourlong Chibok sessions in the underground complex where the president had once live-monitored the killing of Osama bin Laden. Other meetings took place in the nearby gray-paneled Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Diplomats in West Africa tuned in on a video conference line, juggling the time difference.

The question was how the world’s most powerful government planned to help find and free the schoolgirls. With the hashtag migrating from Hollywood to Capitol Hill, it was inevitable that the kidnapping would appear on the president’s morning intelligence summary, compiled at the CIA’s Virginia headquarters. The president would want to know what policy options were available.

Formulating an answer fell to the National Security Council, the academics and intelligence officials who sketch out strategy for the White House. Al Qaeda allies in Africa had become a rising concern for the NSC, just as Twitter had also begun to shape its preoccupations. Two of its staff had recently been appointed the NSC’s inaugural Twitter monitors, tasked with pasting five or six interesting or popular tweets into daily emails to relevant officials. As those monitors watched the analytics on #BringBackOurGirls soar, the NSC staff began summoning top officials at defense, state, and other departments, to discuss the kidnapping. What could America do? Each department needed to reach into its capabilities and present assets it could offer.


The Justice Department could send FBI agents with experience defusing hostage crises. The State Department had medics and psychologists it could fly in from neighboring embassies to treat the girls upon their release. But nobody around the table had anything approaching the resources of the Department of Defense, whose $614 billion discretionary budget for the preceding year was significantly larger than the entire Nigerian economy. Their answer to the problem was drones. The US had satellites and propeller planes that could scan the Sambisa area. But for daylong flights of continuous intelligence gathering, they could use the “workhorse,” an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, gunmetal gray with a bulbous head like a dolphin, which could surveil a South Korea–size acreage daily. A few weeks later, the US might be able to rotate in another drone, named the Predator.

Keeping those machines in the air for extended missions would require deploying troops in the region. All told, the room was debating the deployment of more than a quarter of a billion dollars of sophisticated matériel over some of the world’s poorest farmland, looking for teenagers held by a group that had never attacked the United States, on a mission ordered up by Twitter. “Why are we looking for some schoolgirls as opposed to looking for al Qaeda?” a Defense Department official protested in one meeting. Another asked if the US was going to do this every time a group of girls was kidnapped, and if so, “What’s your threshold? … Is it five? Is it 50?”

But this was a chance to dispatch military power for humanitarian ends. The US would send about 40 personnel to staff a rescue mission from Abuja: intelligence officers, aid workers, and law enforcement. To service drones, it would base some 80 troops, mostly Air Force, in the dictatorship of Chad. Foreign allies would follow America’s lead. The British would send a spy plane, while intelligence officers from France would scour the former French colonies along Nigeria’s borders for leads. China pledged to send satellite coverage. Canada would send special forces, and Israel would offer counterterrorism specialists. John Kerry would sell the plan to Nigeria’s beleaguered president in a 20-minute phone call. On May 6, Goodluck Jonathan agreed.

There was only one other person who needed to sign off. He had two daughters of his own, girls he sorely wished to spend more time with, and he had been following the news from Chibok on an encrypted iPad in the Oval Office.

Arriving at the White House in a black Secret Service SUV, national security adviser Susan Rice brought a stack of reading material to the president outlining the proposed US intervention in Nigeria. On top was a single piece of paper, with two checkboxes: one to approve the mission, a second box if the president had hesitations to clear up. The rest lay out the backstory behind the kidnapping and how America’s deployment to resolve it might proceed, wonky and detailed information the president’s staff expected him to carefully consider until the last letter on the last page.

Barack Obama checked Approve. “Do everything we can,” he said.

Within hours, the first American personnel were on planes to Abuja, with barely time to pack their luggage. It was May 6. Within a week, #BringBackOurGirls had gone from a small, roadside protest in Abuja to an 81-character tweet from Russell Simmons that would help propel a stack of paper onto the president’s desk authorizing US drones over Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest. It was a study in the capricious and unpredictable flow of political power in the 21st century, the moral authority bestowed on celebrities channeled through the firehose of new media and carrying the force of an evocative story that satisfied the West’s faith in its own technology.

“The line that came down from Obama,” said an intelligence official, “was, ‘Do everything you can to get those girls.’” The NSC began scheduling regular video conferences to demand results from their respective agencies. They needed updates to brief the president and his staff. The Senate was also set to hold a hearing: “#BringBackOurGirls: Addressing the Threat of Boko Haram.” White House officials drafted plans to rent the Jim Henson studio in Los Angeles to record a charity single featuring top rap stars. And in case anybody missed how closely this story hit home with the president, another update went out the following morning.

The first lady was about to tweet.

From the book: BRING BACK OUR GIRLS by Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw. Copyright © 2021 by Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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