The Western Twitterer’s Burden

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Sigh. Here we go again. The eyes of the world turn to something awful happening in a remote corner of Africa, and what feels like half of the Western population immediately rushes to proudly embarrass itself on social media everywhere. On the Internet, at least, #BringBackOurGirls is little more than #Kony2012 reloaded. It’s condescending, it’s patronizing, it’s infantilizing, and it’s dumb.

As my friend Gavin Chait puts it, in this excellent post:

I’m trying to imagine under what circumstances it would be acceptable for Samantha Cameron, the wife of British Prime Minister David Cameron, to appear on the front page of every major news service holding a cardboard sign saying #PrayforSandyHook … Yet, somehow, it’s noble when Michelle Obama holds up a sign saying #BringBackOurGirls? … When Kim Kardashian takes up your cause, you know you’ve hit rock bottom.

He quotes Jumoke Balogun in The Guardian:

Simple question. Are you Nigerian? Do you have constitutional rights accorded to Nigerians to participate in their democratic process? If not, I have news for you. You can’t do anything about the girls missing in Nigeria. You can’t. Your insistence on urging American power, specifically American military power, to address this issue will ultimately hurt the people of Nigeria.

Facebook and Twitter are outraged: a berserk group of Islamic madmen named Boko Haram, which means “Western Education Is A Sin,” kidnapped more than 200 girls from a school, and now must be hunted down by military forces, preferably of the American or British variety!

Except. Um. “Boko Haram” is not actually the group’s official name, nor does it exactly mean that. They have significant political connections in Nigeria, and it seems quite likely that this standoff will ultimately end in a negotiated deal/ransom, rather than some kind of dramatic military raid.

What’s more, Nigerian security forces have a long history of oppressing the region in which they operate, including, apparently, conducting their own massacres. As a Nigerian governor said last year: “When you burn down shops and massacre civilians, you are pushing them to join the camp of Boko Haram”. Or as the Defense Department’s principal director for African affairs put it:

Finding [Nigerian military] units that have not been involved in gross violations of human rights has been a “persistent and very troubling limitation”

See also this darkly hilarious cartoon from Foreign Policy:

In what kind of hopeless basket case of a nation could this be happening? So glad you asked. Did you know that Nigeria’s economy has been growing at a remarkable 7% per year for the past decade, and was recently declared Africa’s largest? And did you know that Nigeria’s population is significantly larger than Russia’s, and that nearly one in five Nigerians has a smartphone?

I realize that the Internet is where nuance goes to die, but come on, people, can you at least begin to consider the possibility that the situation is a whole lot more complex than your social media streams made it sound?

(Meanwhile, of course, the American press are mostly desperately trying to spin this as an American left vs. American right issue, as that’s the only prism through which they know how to look at the world. This is even stupider than #BringBackOurGirls is in the first place. Sigh squared.)

Social media should help to open minds, but all too often instead it closes them. Westerners are presented with a cartoonish black-and-white version story like this, which jibes nicely with their preexisting belief that all of Africa is a cauldron of disaster, blood and bullets; then they share it, to help reinforce that mindset among their friends and family … and the vicious spiral of ignorance continues, while all along the real story is so much more complex and nuanced (and, in the case of Africa as a whole, interesting and optimistic) than hashtag activism can possibly admit.

Two years ago, outraged by Kony 2012, I wrote a piece here entitled “Save Helpless Faraway Africans From The Comfort Of Your Armchair!” The sad thing is that I could have repurposed that piece almost paragraph-by-paragraph here. So I’ll end by quoting myself at some length, while marveling at how little has changed. I should probably just keep it cued up for the next time this happens:

Raise your hands: who here seriously thinks the Special Forces will be any more effective because Taylor Swift, Diddy, Rihanna, and Zooey Deschanel are tweeting their moral support? Exactly how deluded do you have to be to think that “public awareness” will solve a grim and deadly military problem? Remember a few years ago when the Twittersphere got all irate about Iran’s disputed election, and everyone set their location to Tehran to “help the resistance,” as if a posse of faraway microbloggers might help take down a totalitarian government? Have we learned nothing?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve said time and time again that technology, especially social media, can overthrow governments and change the world in fundamental ways. But only if it’s synchronized with actual on-the-ground action. What good is “public awareness” going to do to hunt down a gang of crazed psychopaths wandering around one of the last effectively lawless regions in the world?

And that’s without even beginning to consider the whole insulting, paternalistic “Africans are helpless and doomed, as ever! Only we rich Americans and Europeans can save them!” subtext. (Meanwhile, in the real world, over the last decade, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa.)

But if all this still somehow strikes a colonial chord in your heart, and you feel like you need to do something — do me a favor? Give to Doctors Without Borders, who go to the toughest, grimmest places in the world, where they do astonishing, lifesaving disaster-relief work, with their eyes wide open to the limitations and compromises of their context. And please don’t pretend that “raising public awareness” has anything to do with actual solutions.