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The significance of a tragedy and the loss of human life cannot be measured in numbers. Are the lives of those 17 French journalists/cartoonists and police murdered in cold blood on Wednesday the 7th more important than the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Nigerian civilians massacred by Boko Haram last week Friday?
No, of course not. However, its weight as a story of worth across international media gives a different answer. The attacks in Baga have barely merited a mention along the flood of coverage on Charlie Hebdo. Of the 5 714 348 million tweets and Facebook posts commenting on both incidents of terror; the overwhelming majority (83%) of tweets/posts are talking about Charlie Hebdo.
The Charlie Hebdo attacks have been the dominant story in major Media Outlets (including CNN, Time, BBC, The New Yorker etc) and even other international media channels such as RT and Aljazeera for the past week; with very little mention of the attacks in North east Nigeria. Even more surprising is the fact that major Nigerian Media Outlets aren’t featuring the Baga massacres as a major front page story. Of several major national Nigerian media outlets only ‘Peoples Daily’ included the attacks as a feature headline.
So why the disparity? The hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #CharlieHebdo have been trending for a week now across social and mainstream media, and they have been punted by everything from global headlines to Hollywood Royalty at the Golden Globes. The solidarity in the face of the attacks that shocked France and the world has culminated in a march of millions and a global outcry against barbarity and terror. France’s reaction to the attacks was immediate, Nigeria’s was delayed at best, with its President Goodluck Jonathan paying his respects to Paris but failing to officially acknowledge the brutal killings in Baga according to Nigeria’s Daily Independent.
Boko Haram has terrorized northern Nigeria regularly since 2009, attacking police, schools, churches and civilians. It has also kidnapped students, including more than 200 schoolgirls who were abducted in April 2014 and remain missing. The five-year insurgency has led to the deaths of more than 10000 people last year (2014) alone – according to the Washington-based, Council on Foreign Relations. So why has #JeSuisCharlie dominated headlines and Twitter feeds for the past week and the Boko Haram massacre in Baga not? The answer I believe, lies in five factors: timing, freedom of speech, location, scale and ‘virality’.
For one, the crisis and subsequent terrorist manhunt in Paris unfolded in real time on our TVs, desktops, tablets and smart phones. It was pure, unadulterated reality TV and the world could witness in near real-time. I spent the better part of Friday glued to my laptop screen and Twitter feed watching as the events unfolded.
I had seen this movie before a hundred times, the bad guys cornered, SWAT gearing up and in position waiting for the green light. Except this wasn’t a movie, this was real life, and the attack on Charlie Hebdo offices had become a microcosm of ‘The War on Terror’ and we all had front row seats. In contrast, the attacks in North East Nigeria have been sporadic, intensifying over the course of the last week, with no media coverage.
It can be argued that the attacks in Nigeria have been a war that occurred over time. Boko Haram has been strategic, moving slower and dominating news about Nigeria so much that they have become permanent news fixture. These variables have, to a point, desensitised the world their actions and moved them outside of our ‘news and interest radar’. The internet lines up behind ‘the new’, the latest fad and trending story.
Freedom of Speech
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was more than an act of terror, it was an attack against the democratic principle of ‘Freedom of Speech’; something that the Western World holds as paramount and absolute; and when you attack ‘Freedom of Speech’ you attack its champions, the global fraternity of journalists and consequently, those with the power of the pen. Consequently, Charlie Hebdo has become a rallying cry for this global fraternity of journalists. In a rare event, journalists aren’t seeking protagonists for an evening news tragedy, they ARE the protagonists. They are the heroes of Charlie Hebdo, the brave men and women who faced bullets in defence of their fraternity’s creed. Freedom of Speech. The world’s spot light is on them and they’re holding their pens up high for all to see.
The global perception is that it is easier (and safer) to book a one way ticket to Paris France than it is to visit Baga, Nigeria. The North Eastern Region of Nigeria has been completely destabilized, with Boko Haram operating largely unchecked in many areas. According to an article featured in the Daily Maverick, reports of the massacre are unclear; the nearest journalists are hundreds of kilometres away and information comes almost exclusively from traumatized refugees and unreliable government sources. In order for a credible story to gain traction, you need eyes and ears on the ground; logistics and location matter. Easier access allows for easier coverage. France’s government reacted to the terror attacks immediately; asserting a strong stance that the terrorists would be dealt with in the strictest sense. There was clarity and unity in France. Not so in Nigeria, conflicting reports on casualties and not even an official statement or call to action from its President.
There is something incredibly moving about seeing people marching arm in arm, chanting, singing, holding signs, determined to be heard. Solidarity is rare, especially solidarity across multiple creeds, demographics and races; when we see it, when millions of people marching together in solidarity, it moves us because it appeals to our inner humanity. That sense of brotherhood, of unity and defiance of tyranny makes us feel good. In contrast, there have been no mass protests and moving midnight vigils to honour the slain in Nigeria; and according to News24, there are still no independently corroborated figures for the huge numbers said to have been killed in Baga.
Social media trends that go viral, do so because they successfully galvanise a community into action. As a democratic set of platforms where people can participate and share their opinions as equals, social media allows for mass global solidarity. They can access and share whatever they want. In theory. In practice however, and aptly put by ‘The Conversations’, Shanton Chang, ‘like all democracies, although people may have the right to participate equally, the reality is that they do not do so. In the case of social media, access to technology, digital literacy and, most likely of all, personal interest all affect participation’.
Social Media is divided into groups or ‘tribes’ that have a certain commonality; in that, in social media, people naturally gravitate toward others with common interests. Again, Shanton Chang makes a valid observation, for a cause to go viral, it has to garner widespread interest from enough members of a diversity of tribes, not just one.
A message or call to action needs to be appealing in order for it to go Viral. Messages that are too long, unclear or complex or difficult to contribute to, are unlikely to gain traction and support. With this in mind, something as simple as a # can convey clarity. A hashtag acts like a social media protest sign. It says in just a few letters, this is what I’m interested in, this is what I am talking about. #JeSuisCharlie and #CharlieHebdo – convey a simple message, ‘I am thinking about the attacks in France; I am standing in solidarity with France’. The hashtags #CharlieHebdo and #JeSuisCharlie have been used over 4 million times over the past 6 days. In contrast, the only hashtag pertaining to the attacks in Nigeria, #BokoHaram, has been used in only 40 000 tweets. The call to action from Paris had clarity, the above two hashtags, #CharlieHebdo and #JeSuisCharlie, had clarity.
Why Paris and not Nigeria?
Do these figures suggest that the lives of those murdered Parisians mean more than the lives of those civilians murdered by Boko Haram in Nigeria? Of course not. The terrorist attacks in Paris just drew more attention. Why? Because of timing, location and a clear call-to-action. Western media also flocked to Paris.
In April of last year #BringBackOurGirls was the biggest trending subject on social media. The social media world rallied in support of Nigeria with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls in response to the kidnapping of 300 Nigerian School girls by Boko Haram. Since April of last year the #BringBackOurGirls was used in 4 596 647 million unique posts, which relates back to timing and a clear call-to-action. That being said, traditional media and social media are still in many ways intrinsically linked. Whatever content or subject matter journalists decide to push, we in turn digest on our phones, tablets, TVs and desktops and accordingly share this information on those platforms. Thus, Social media content is still very much a bi-product of traditional media content.
Click here to download a detailed report [PDF] with all the findings.
Image: Keno Photography via Flickr.