Girl In Viral #BringBackOurGirls Photo Neither Nigerian Nor Abducted

Illustration for article titled Girl In Viral #BringBackOurGirls Photo Neither Nigerian Nor Abducted

This week, Twitter and Facebook's highly visible #BringBackOurGirls campaign highlighted the plight of 276 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. One problem: the most visible images used in that campaign are pictures of girls that aren't Nigerian. Or kidnapped. Or even technically girls anymore.

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According to the Washington Post, the photograph now most closely associated with the social media awareness campaign were taken fourteen years ago by photographer Ami Vitale, who spent months in Guinea-Bissau building relationships with her subjects before photographing them. Thousands of miles from Nigeria.

Vitale's photographs' journey began the way many viral errors' do — by being lifted from a place where they legitimately lived, fiddled with using some graphics software, and set free to run wild through the gullible hallways of social media. And, from there, legitimate media outlets like the BBC ran with them.

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Vitale didn't realize her photos were being misappropriated until after the campaign already had legs, and so her frantic texts at various news outlets didn't really convince the millions of others who had seen the images that they were stolen from the website of a social justice photojournalism organization by a Nigerian man and slapped with a hashtag that related to the abduction of women in an entirely different country, more than a decade later.

From the Washington Post,

Highlighting how far misinformation can go viral, the rampant tweeting of Vitale's photography raises disturbing questions about the accuracy of social media campaigns and the growing difficulty in discerning fact from fiction.

"It's a pretty sad view of the world," Vitale says. "I know these families really well and you go in and tell people you want to share their story, and then to see think, 'What if they saw their image was used this way?' It's very impoverished where I took those pictures, and I'm pretty sure they don't know about this."

Meanwhile, all 276 girls remain missing.

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DISCUSSION

I have really only barely seen this campaign but it never occurred to me to think that it would be literally one of the missing girls. Clearly it was a professional shot rather than a family snapshot so it would be unlikely to be a photo the family just happened to have. And how would you decide which of almost 300 girls to feature? I assumed this was a stand-in to serve as a representative photo. Does it matter that it's 14 years old and the girl is now a woman? Again not something that would have occurred to me to think about it because I didn't take it as literally one of the missing girls. Just like I wouldn't assume a woman or child featured in an anti-domestic violence PSA was necessarily actually a victim (unless there was a caption indicating they were). I would assume they were actors or stock photos as most ads that don't indicate they are a specific person are. I mean this was not meant to be a missing person flier a la "have you seen this girl?!". This was an image to raise awareness of a mass kidnapping.