THE BLOG
09/05/2014 09:33 BST | Updated 09/07/2014 06:59 BST

The good side of Twitter #BringBackOurGirls

There has been much written about the negative influence of Twitter over the last twelve months, as countless 'trolls' have been paraded in front of the press, having been arrested and prosecuted for using the channel for all the wrong reasons.

Indeed, a significant proportion of the comment on Twitter every day is obnoxious and, at times, abusive nonsense, and the social network has had to fight a fair chunk of negative publicity as a result. However, it's certainly not all bad, as many of the headlines would suggest. At times it seems that people have forgotten what good a powerful influencing tool can do when someone comes up with a decent line.

It was pleasing, then, to see some positive news emerge this week, about Twitter's capacity to act as a unifying force and create momentum for something really important.

The abduction of the Nigerian school girls by Islamic extremists (although violent mercenaries would be a much better description) 'Boko Haram' has shocked the world. However, it is through the effective use of a hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, that the campaign to free them has gathered some real global momentum, prompting action and intervention by the international community.

The hashtag, which was conceived by Ibrahim Abdullahi, a Nigerian lawyer, was first tweeted a week after the reports of the kidnapping had emerged. Observers had widely criticised the Nigerian government's response to the crisis, claiming it had failed to act decisively to get the children back.

What the social media campaign was able to do was bring all the dissenting voices together under one banner, creating global momentum, drawing more and more high profile people in, and quickly prompting the US government to intervene directly in the crisis - sending a security team to the region to help with the rescue operation.

It's easy to focus on the negative behaviour we see every day on social media channels. The relative anonymity of posting certainly encourages people to be forthright with their views, and often this spills over into negativity and outright aggression. But in the same vein, social media also magnifies and accelerates the good side of human nature - the part of us which is interested in the world around us and wants to share experiences with our peers. The side of us which cares about the welfare of others, even if they are in a part of the world far removed from our own direct experience.

The power of hashtags to create momentum is obviously not lost on brands, celebrities or politicians, and everyone who wants to get their message out there these days is constantly reaching for that 'viral hashtag' which will make their campaign 'go global'. Some have been successful, but with so many people scrambling to achieve the same goal these efforts are often lost as all the competing messages drown each other out.

What occurred to me when watching the momentum of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is that this was a message which has emerged spontaneously and organically as a response to something that really matters.

There may be millions of voices all competing frantically for attention on Twitter, but if you can find a way of making a compelling, clear statement it is possible to cut through the noise and do great things in a short space of time - and that's entirely progressive in this context.

In this case, Twitter has prompted intervention and action by the global community - this may not have happened if Abdullahi hadn't sent his tweet. Furthermore, the hashtag has drawn our collective attention towards the plight of women and children in Northern Nigeria in general, and the terror being wrought on the ordinary people there every day by these violent insurgent groups.

Much like hashtags on Twitter, these problems are forced to compete for our attention with the countless other stories of human tragedy unfolding around the world. In the mainstream news there's only so much airtime or news-space to go around. However, with everyone from Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton to Angleina Jolie and Wyclef adding their voices to the cause, #BringBackOurGirls has forced Nigeria into the spotlight.

At the time of writing, the missing girls still haven't been returned, but with the US throwing their military and logistical power behind the operation everyone is hoping for, and expecting that we will get them back soon. This kidnapping has become the world's problem, and Twitter has certainly played a part in that.