On May 8th, First Lady Michelle Obama posted a selfie on her twitter account holding a sign with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. Over the last week, public response to this selfie has ranged from enthusiastic to hostile with some journalists attacking the First Lady for taking pictures rather than taking action to rescue the 250 Nigerian school girls abducted by the Islamist Boko Hraam group.
— The First Lady (@FLOTUS) May 7, 2014
This weekend, one of Israel’s most prominent papers, Haaretz, ran an op-ed titled “Michelle settles for a hashtag” in which the writer attacks the First Lady arguing that the most Michelle Obama’s selfie could achieve is greater media attention and, maybe, greater public awareness to the fate of the 250 abducted girls. The writer went on to state that the west and the U.S. should support Nigerian women all year round and not only when it is “trendy to do so.”
As someone who has been observing digital diplomacy for some time I disagree with the op-ed in Haaretz and view Michelle Obama’s selfie as much more than just a tool for increasing media attention or public awareness. There is a great difference between a selfie posted by a celebrity and that posted by the First Lady of the United States. While the former may raise awareness to an issue, the latter is an official statement by the U.S. administration.
First ladies are prominent and influential political figures in the U.S. as is made evident by the fact that every four years the wives of Presidential candidates address the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Traditionally, first ladies take part in actively promoting the administration’s domestic policies while also furthering their own agenda. In Nancy Reagan’s case it was “Just Say No” to drugs, in Michelle Obama’s case it’s a national effort to reduce childhood obesity.
Thus, when a first lady makes a statement regarding international events, she does not speak solely for herself. She represents the Administration, the president and the White House. Michelle’s call to aid the abducted girls was much more than “settling for a hashtag,” it was a declaration that the United States is concerned regarding the fate of the girls, that it is working towards a possible resolution to the crisis and that the U.S. has placed the girls’ fate at the top of its agenda. Michelle’s selfie is therefore the twitterian equivalent of a press conference by the President or the White House spokesperson in which they address the issue at hand.
Michelle’s tweets can be viewed as a declaration by the administration given the fact that it was published on the First Lady’s official twitter account (@FLOTUS) and that it was immediately re-tweeted by both the White House and the U.S. State Department. Once the tweet was published by the State Department it quickly made its way through the social network of foreign ministries which routinely follow each other on twitter in order to identify the issues shaping world events. Through her selfie, Michel Obama also placed the fate of the abducted Nigerian girls at the top of the world’s agenda and at the heart of international diplomacy.
With regard to the U.S. support of Nigerian women, it is important to note that during 2012 Nigeria received more than 600 million dollars in foreign aid from the US. In 2014, this sum is expected to increase. U.S. foreign aid to Nigeria focuses on training teachers in secular and religious schools, fighting TB and Malaria and providing primary medical care for pregnant woman. These figures indicate that the U.S. support of Nigerian women is consistent, comprehensive and far from “trendy”.
It is also possible that the importance of the First Lady’s tweet lies in the manner in which it was received by global audiences. Soon after the tweet was published, a counter campaign sprung-up consisting of the hashtag #bringbackyourdrones referring to the frequent use of drones by the U.S. military in killing suspected terrorists. This campaign may indicate that the U.S. policy of using drones is hindering one of its most important foreign polices — promoting dialogue with the Muslim world post Iraq and Afghanistan.
Herein lays the true power of a tweet as a source of information. Tweets can tell us much about the relationship between two countries, the manner in which one country is perceived by global audiences, whether a country is successful in achieving its foreign policy goals and even what issues are at the top of the U.S. president’s agenda.