Last night a young girl, kidnapped by Islamic terrorists, escaped after two years, one month, and five days of captivity. She did so without any help from you.
Nigeria is a messy state. It is among the world’s fastest growing markets for private jets, and 100 million live on less than a dollar a day. It sits on some of the richest natural resources in the world, but most international money is too terrified of the corruption to invest. It is among the too few democratic governments of Africa, but it is plagued with fraud and incompetence.
Not surprisingly, this dysfunction contributed to the rise of a militant group called Boko Haram. Inspired by the fundamentalist Wahabbi movement in Saudi Arabia, it wants to impose sharia law and create an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria.
At first they set up Islamic schools, but, perhaps inevitably, they began to fight Nigeria authorities, and this grew into bombing markets and burning villages. For the most part, the West didn’t pay much attention. An especially bad massacre would make the news, but even the existence of a bloody Nigerian civil war was unknown to the overwhelming majority of us.
That changed after Chibok. In April 2014, Boko Haram fighters arrived at the remote village in a convoy of trucks. They walked into the regional school dormitory, took almost 300 girls aged 16 to 18 and drove off into the darkness.
This time, the world noticed. A Nigerian lawyer vented his frustration on Twitter and added the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. This quickly became the rallying cry of millions who tweeted it back and forth to each other, passing the message amongst ourselves in ever increasing tones of indignation and righteousness. Politicians and celebrities posted photos of themselves looking solemn and determined while holding cardboard signs that demanded we (they, someone) bring back the kidnapped girls. It became the largest viral social media campaign in history.
Of course, in the Sahel of northern Nigeria, the leader of Boko Haram didn’t notice, he was not on Facebook. He was in a remote camp, dividing the girls amongst his men. Some were used as cooks, others as sex slaves. Some were married off as child brides; others were used as suicide bombers.
The Nigerian government was embarrassed, of course, and assured everyone they were on the case. But with one of the most incompetent militaries in Africa, all they could do was move some men around and hope everyone would stop paying attention.
And we did. The daily news provides an endless parade of outrages. The police shot an unarmed man. Celebrities committed suicide. Terrorists attacked a magazine. Each of these needed a hashtag and they weren’t going to tweet themselves. The world forgot about the girls of Chibok. There were so many others that needed help.
In truth, we were helping ourselves. When we tweeted #BringBackOurGirls we were “signaling” — letting those around us know that we care about others, we are empathetic, we can be relied upon to help those in needs. In other words, we are useful members of the tribe.
This may be a smartphone world, but we are navigating it with Stone Age brains. We are hardwired to behave in ways that are best suited to surviving life in small nomadic clans. In that context, being seen as useful could mean the hunters give you a piece of their kill, or you get to sleep a little closer to the fire.
So, we put on a yellow wrist band, we pin a badge to our lapel, we pour a bucket of ice over our head, we stop shaving our upper lip, and we tweet our anger about those poor girls. And every time we do it, our brains release endorphins and dopamine as a reward, which make us literally feel good about ourselves.
But, for most of us, that’s were it ends. A study from the University of British Columbia and Florida State found that there was an inverse correlation between how publicly we signal our empathy on social media, and how much we do to actually help. In other words, people who “like” a cause on Facebook are less likely to make a donation. This is because our brains have already rewarded us. We are so proud of ourselves. We did something good. We are good people. We can move on.
If we had paused for a moment and asked ourselves “How is this hashtag going to free those girls?” some of us would mumble something about raising awareness, but most of us wouldn’t have an answer. Sadly we didn’t ask that question, and we almost never do. We need to start.
Social media campaigns do nothing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be useful. You hate cancer? Donate $5. You are worried about climate change? Walk to work. You want the United States to assist Nigeria to bring back those girls? Write your senator. And sure, tweet it all over the place. But don’t pretend it’s helping.
Scott Gilmore is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the founder of the nonprofit Building Market, and a former diplomat.