#Bringbackourgirls and the complexities of attention

Navigating the power of attention when it is part of what the cruel seek

Zeynep Tufekci
The Message


By now, the story is familiar. Activists start a hashtag campaign to bring attention to an important issue that is ignored by mainstream press. The hashtag first circulates among the more interested parties. It simmers, gains strength, picks up more attention and more steam. Until finally it bursts into the larger world of Twitter, and then outside of it, with a sudden, explosive power. Finally, mainstream press writes up story after story, though too often, too much of it is about the hashtag campaign than the cause itself, and finally, the urge to “do something” percolates upwards … and Secretary of State tweets with the hashtag and promises “to do something”—the rallying cry I saw from so many.


This time, it was the hundreds of girls in Nigeria kidnapped by the “Boko Haram” militants—simply because they were attending school. Now, there is global attention on the cause, thanks to a hashtag campaign: #bringbackourgirls.

Victory? Rather, this is but one step in a story that started long before the hashtag, and will not end when the global attention ends.

And the power of attention, even when wielded with the best of intentions, is never that simple: often because “we” are not the “we” that “we” imagine ourselves to be.

Though it can’t be compared to being kidnapped at gunpoint, my grandmother, back when she was a girl in conservative Turkey, wounded and emerging from World War I, was held back from school, just around the same age as the girls in Nigeria, because, well, girls should not go to school because it was“haram”—meaning profane, or forbidden by Islam, the same word Boko Haram has appropriated in their name. Her luck—actually my luck—was that the secular Republic of Turkey was being established at the time, and it was pressuring families to allow their girls go to school. Thus, a miracle: a teacher intervened, a scholarship appeared, a family in turmoil after losing a father relented, and she was put on a train to Istanbul, to the best girls’ boarding school in the country. Her life was saved, she has often told me, as she prayed over the soul of the teacher who intervened, as she does almost everyday, and she, in turn, saved mine as she stepped up as family matriarch as my own nuclear family disintegrated in turmoil.

In a world where girls don’t go to school, what are girls?

The alternate version of my grandmother’s reality, and thus mine, always shadowed our discussions of the miracle that saved her. That’s why she always teared up when telling the story, not at the relief of having been rescued, but at the horror of the alternative that whisked past her by so closely that she still feels its ghastly wind in her face.

And since my grandmother faced but a small, tiny fraction of what these poor girls face at the hands of ruthless torturers and killers, how can we not want to “do something”?

Of course we do.

Yet, why am I wary of the urge to “do something” about Boko Haram’s kidnapping of these girls? Do they not deserve my grandmother’s small miracle?

They do, a hundred thousand times over.

But I am wary because attention, as the Turkish saying goes about alcohol, does not sit still once outside the bottle the way it looks while still in the bottle: so quiet, so serene. Once unleashed, attention has its own destructive, powerful wings and breath of fire over which those who unleash it often have little control. Because attention scares me, especially when wielded by the powerless, who need attention more than anyone else, because it escapes their hands so quickly.

Because attention, like every other thing in the world, does not live in a context outside of power.

Attention can bring the wrong person to be identified as the bomber in Boston—putting his life in danger; attention thankfully did not lead to a massive external intervention in Uganda (but I wonder how much harder it made it for the country to repair its wounds as only it could?) but it could have; attention even brought on one of the worst mass killings in Iraq—the outrage over the brutal murder of a Yazidi girl was turned by militants into a killing campaign. It’s increasingly clear that (posthumous) attention is what, at least partially, motivates the troubled young men who rampage and kill students in the United States.

I know I’ll likely be misunderstood but let me clarify: pointing out that attention has complex, sometimes destructive consequences is neither blaming the victims, nor blaming those who seek to bring attention to a horrible, awful problem.

Some people have worried that hashtags are powerless, but that has never been my question. In the current configuration, under the right circumstances, hashtags can and do generate attention, and attention has never been powerless.

My questions is more this: What happens when attention brings soldiers from far-away lands?

What happens when attention itself is part of the reward structure for the cruel?

This is twisted but true: attention itself can be the reward Boko Haram seeks, as it too often the case with groups like that which terrorize their own region. Rewarding their thirst for attention can lead them to repeat the same act that worked so well before. Kidnap girls, which perhaps unexpectedly generates global outrage this time, but now the Great Satan is involved: rinse, repeat.

Attention, to a terrorist group, is often what the well-meaning, outraged response is to your two-bit internet troll: it is the food that feeds them. But despair and throwing up one’s hands in disgust is also the luxury of the unafflicted. So just saying what I said so far is not enough because the analogy with internet trolls break right here since this “troll” holds captive hundreds of girls, kidnapped at gunpoint. But the truth remains: the attention can help fuel the next round.

But this is also true: under the right conditions, attention can smother the next round.

Attention is powerful and can dampen violence even in seemingly worst conditions. Condemnation campaigns can and do work, even in conditions where one thinks there are no morals left. Surprising as it may seem, norms matter, even in the hell that is war. And it’s likely that this attention, the widespread condemnation, can help weaken Boko Haram—provided that we don’t “do something” that allows them an easy recasting of the struggle to what it is not: a struggle against foreign powers.

Attention in shame and disgust, by the actors that matter, can undermine groups that thrive on terrorizing the powerless: in Egypt, the disgust with the “Luxor Massacre” during which Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyyaslaughtered 62 tourists did more harm to their cause than any amount of repression might have. In Turkey, outrage over the murder of sixty people, dozens of them in a synagogue during worship, did more harm to Al-Qaeda’s ability to gain any sympathy in Turkey than a million years of propaganda by the United States might have done.

Back to Boko Haram and why I watch warily as social media is filled with well-meaning, activists who wondered why we weren’t “doing something” about Boko Haram’s kidnapping of these girls.

It always amazes me how in America, we live in a state of permanent amnesia; we act like the Iraq war didn’t happen, we act like Afghanistan isn’t happening; that there are no drones incessantly circling Northwest Pakistan; and we are only kind strangers doing good all over a world full of those awaiting our rescue. How the US lives above a cloud and is always absolved from whatever it did yesterday—well, it was a previous administration, and there were some misunderstandings, you see, and the intelligence was thwarted by this cabal but hey, look, we disbarred one of them. He cannot practice law anymore.

I watch warily because America “doing something” in a highly visible manner would likely be the worst possible response, and would walk straight into Boko Haram’s next recruiting campaign, which has now been severely damaged by the reaction inside Nigeria, as well as by the international condemnation.

Because, militant armed groups who are not just irrational, insane actors that live in a vacuum, committed simply and only to choose the most evil path possible. I know that it sometimes looks that way to us—we who live in air-conditioned houses and drive to work, sip our coffee, on roads where lanes separate well-behaving cars and people signal while changing lanes and stop at traffic lights. A bunch of men taking up arms and kidnapping girls must seem like just utter, irrational violence of subhuman creatures.

Ah, if only it were that simple.

Of course Boko Haram is evil. Does it even need saying? If only acts such as theirs were merely the results of pure evil coming to life.

The problem is that this evil, like all collective evil, has a politics, and its politics has a context. If only evil were just pure evil, to be combated by superman, or a squad of robocops or mere force.

If only. . .

Militant groups must, above all, recruit, and they do this through a combination of coercion, of course, but also—and above all— a sense of violent legitimacy, a shared sense of explosive grievance, and a sense of victimization, however contrived it may seem to an outsider.

There is always a politics.

I’m not writing in frustration with a hashtag; not at all, but rather the shape of a world in which “we” have no easy levers to #bringbackourgirls without wading into minefields, safely from afar, the mines to be cleared by more children who will be kidnapped, more women who will be raped, more young boys who will be “recruited” into cycles of violence.

We want to do something: but “we” need to ask who gets to define who “we” are.

And this is where I have one answer, even though I have no answers: The “we” has to be people in Nigeria. Nigerians have the power to undermine that sense of traumatized violent legitimacy in their righteousness, wrapped up in violence that Boko Haram—and its next incarnation— needs more than guns, bullets or food. Those best placed to stop Boko Haram, and its next reincarnation, are so obviously and clearly are the people in the country.

I don’t imply that Boko Haram is legitimate within Nigeria; what I imply is that a small, militant, armed group can only be shriveled into as little a force as possible when the people who matter to them—almost all of whom are in Nigeria, especially in Northeast Nigeria—lead the effort to “do something”; a something that is neither easy, nor quick, nor simple.

I know I am trying to ruin any satisfaction people may have had when they heard that the United States was going to “do something” and send “military, intelligence and law enforcement advisors” to help Nigeria search for the girls. In fact, Nigeria’s president, faced with loud internal criticism, asked for the help.

But think this through for a minute: hundreds of unarmed young women are held by ruthless, armed militants, who have now attracted the attention of the biggest, most important enemy they can imagine, and one, unlike in our imagination, that does not appear from a timeless vacuum one day to extend its helping hand; rather, one that has a deep history of involvement in the region. A region that has been marred by the brutal involvement of giant western corporations dedicated to feeding our insatiable demand for fossil fuels, a political structure that has left a country rich in oil full of children who blow up into fiery balls as they try to pilfer of a few drops of the precious liquid that is meant for our air-conditioned cars as we drive to work, our coffee in cup-holders.

Rescuing these young women, alive, can only happen if there is an incentive for the ruthless, militant, cruel, war-damaged, evil, traumatized, gun-toting men to allow them to live—and also not to simply kidnap the next group as fodder for more attention by the biggest enemy they can imagine.

How do we save our girls?

And just to make the context clear: what Boko Haram has done is as deeply unpopular as it ever will be in the Muslim world. Even Bin Laden reportedly “recoiled” from similar attempts in the nineties by Algeria’s brutal “GIA”, which declared women and children in “enemy” villages to be “unbelievers” with whom one could do as one pleases—the same line that Boko Haram has taken. The point is not that Bin Laden was sincere (who cares?) but that even as ruthless a murderer as him recognized that these tactics were going to result in nothing but the group being isolated and beaten, not by external forces, but by the internal revulsion—as it eventually was in Algeria.

I’m not against interventions because of some respect for national borders, especially when crimes against humanity are involved. If and when and how the international community can intervene, to save, to protect, to stop murders, to stop genocides, I always wish it would. There are cases where intervention is appropriate, and there are cases in which external actors can best help by not doing any visible acts of help. But in many cases, the foreign intervention is exactly what allows these groups to recast themselves as defenders against external aggression.

The real problem is not the desire to intervene but that we have no reasonable levers of intervention: no neutral, well-equipped peacekeepers, no functioning international system dedicated to human rights and welfare rather than big power games and jostling for resources; not even an international justice system that actually works to also indict the powerful rather than just the losers and two-bit African warlords.

And in this case, I don’t discount the possibility the US could do some real good—provided that it was done as quietly as possible so that the key actor who can actually address this, Nigeria itself, is empowered, and Boko Haram is denied its symbolic enemy from which it can draw fuel. A highly visible response—a tweet, a picture, a phone call that is publicized—promising fairly little (advisors) is perhaps the worst combination. How can this not feel like it’s more about the need to respond to the campaign, than to the problem itself, the problem that Nigeria must and only can address?

The hashtag has helped bring attention and international condemnation to a despicable act. That certainly feels like a small, small victory but it gets so complex quickly after that. And it’s true, we must #bringourgirlshome. I have no answers but I know this: people in Nigeria who hold this group in contempt and shame; people in Nigeria who understand the politics in their own country; people in Nigeria who are living among the minefields we do not walk in, are the only ones who can “do something” without setting off more mines to be cleared with the bodies of more women and children who may not get their own hashtag.



Zeynep Tufekci
The Message

Thinking about our tools, ourselves. Assistant prof at UNC iSchool. Princeton CITP fellow, Harvard Berkman faculty associate, Sociology.