By Jonathon Morgan
The First Lady took a calculated risk when she joined the #BringBackOurGirls campaign on Twitter. Our analysis suggests that, in doing so, Mrs. Obama may have changed the national dialogue about military intervention in Nigeria, and perhaps inspired a nation to see themselves in a group of schoolgirls halfway around the world.
When a group of heavily-armed terrorists broke into a boarding school in the middle of the night and abducted nearly 300 girls, the world barely noticed. It was merely the latest attack in a steady stream of incidents from a turbulent part of a country known for its instability. Even the now widely-reported #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign wallowed for weeks in relative obscurity, until finally a small group of celebrities and high-ranking politicians joined the conversation, and the hashtag went viral.
By the time the First Lady tweeted a photo of herself with the now widely used hashtag, many on the right were poised and ready to accuse her of political opportunism. Others, particularly activists, used the tweet as an excuse to criticize her husband's controversial use of military drones. The real impact of Twitter campaigns in political activism or "hashtag diplomacy" is indeed debatable, but the tweet itself is only half the story.
Analysis of 13,000 mainstream media articles about Boko Haram since the kidnapping in mid-April shows that, before Mrs. Obama joined the conversation, the media tended to frame the narrative largely through a political lens -- i.e. focusing primarily on place names and body counts when reporting about terrorist attacks -- and rarely mentioned the First Lady, even during discussion of potential US involvement in the ongoing crisis. After Mrs. Obama's tweet was published on May 7th, as would be expected, the number of articles about the Boko Haram that also mention "Michelle Obama" grew substantially. In addition to raising her own profile, it seems Mrs. Obama also changed the nature of the conversation. Articles containing keywords associated with the emotional impact of terrorism, like "tears" or "sobbing" for example, where nine times as likely during the days she took center stage.
"Their tear-stained faces show the toll of not knowing the fate of their daughters." Chicago Tribune
When compared with the overall coverage of Boko Haram and the schoolgirl kidnapping, which has remained constant even when interest in Mrs. Obama’s involvement waned, this analysis shows a brief but significant shift in media narrative.
By the time Mrs. Obama sat in for her husband during the White House's weekly video address, the conversation had moved to social media, as moms blogged about the experience through their eyes and Facebook pages publicized rallies packed with people expressing their solidarity with the mothers of kidnap victims. A Rasmussen poll shortly thereafter showed that 40% of Americans not only agreed with the proposed US military assistance to Nigeria, but felt the country should be doing more to help find the kidnapped schoolgirls.
Contrast this wave of support with a similar situation less than one year ago, when, in the wake of ongoing violence and humanitarian atrocities, the US was considering military intervention in Syria. A gallup poll taken at the time showed that only 19% of Americans supported military action, even after reports of widespread chemical attacks on civilians by the Syrian government.
The overarching media narrative has since returned to a focus on facts and figures, and in spite of continued reporting, public interest in Boko Haram and the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls seems to have been short-lived. However, even though her window of opportunity was small, Mrs. Obama focused the discussion on the suffering of the victims and their families, humanized the gruesome statistics, and may have galvanized a nation to bring back our girls.