The girls are still missing. Their mothers still protest in Nigeria’s capital. International assistance is flowing into the country to aid in the search. Despite that, the interest in the plight of the nearly three hundred school-aged girls taken over a month ago has plummeted since the story first became the latest cause célèbre on the Internet.
It’s a common enough assumption as to become cliche that interest in news stories, barring large flashy developments, tends to fade over time. But the data backs up that idea, particularly in the case of the story of the three hundred girls from the Government Girls Secondary School in the town of Chibok, located in Nigeria’s northeast Borno state. Militants from the terrorist group commonly known as Boko Haram abducted the girls on April 14, 2014, with the news only reaching American audiences weeks later. And according to the data, that interest lasted for roughly a week before sharply dropping to the levels seen today.
Since the kidnapping finally made its way into the international press, the story has been shared and tracked on social media through the hashtag “#BringBackOurGirls,” serving almost as a brand for the abduction, an easy way to refer to the complex situation unraveling. Google, the world’s largest search engine, offers a service called Google Trends which can be used to examine how many people worldwide search for given terms compared to other points over a certain period. Plugging “#BringBackOurGirls” into Google Trends, modeling the last 90 days of search traffic, shows a surge of interest in the term peaking on Fri. May 9, before a sharp drop-off the following Monday.
The hashtag originated in Nigeria roughly two weeks after the girls’ kidnapping, but examining the search for the term solely in the United States shows a similar pattern of interest. Searches for the hashtag on Google skyrocketed the third week of the girls’ kidnapping with Americans reaching their most curious about the hashtag on May 8, midway into the week when the most U.S. news coverage about the girls was being generated.
But a drop-off in interest into the hashtag doesn’t necessary mean that interest in the story writ large is also falling. As a way to minimize the chances of that, ThinkProgress also ran a query for the term “Nigeria girls,” a simple shorthand for the story. The results are similar in terms of a clear peak followed by a substantial drop-off in interest. A small surge can be seen around May 1, the day after families of the kidnapped girls launched their first protest demanding that the government move faster to locate their sisters, nieces, and daughters. Interest began to climb before — as seen with searches for #BringBackOurGirls — reaching an apex on May 8.
When modeled just for the United States, the results are again similar. By May 12, when a new video featuring Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau offering to trade the kidnapped girls for the release of jailed compatriots — and allegedly showing around half of the kidnapped girls clad in full-length jilbābs — emerged, the interest had clearly waned.
The other piece to this story is the involvement of Boko Haram, as the identity of the kidnappers was suspected but unconfirmed for the first weeks of the abduction. Once Shekau released his video listing his demands, the searches for “Boko Haram” on Google worldwide peaked. But much like the other search terms, the interest has since fallen off precipitously, though not to the same degree.
In contrast, interest in the terrorist group spiked on May 8, the day after the Daily Beast released an article highlighting the fact that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not name Boko Haram to the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list back in 2011. Though the reasons for not doing so then were numerous, adding Clinton to the story clearly generated even more interest, and could serve to help explain why the story peaked when it did among American searchers.
ThinkProgress also ran a search on LexisNexis for the terms “Nigeria AND kidnapping” for each of the days since the girls were first abducted to examine whether a similar pattern could be seen between the media’s coverage and the organic interest from users of search engines and social media. It’s true that this method could easily run into the some of the same problems that media outlet FiveThirtyEight saw when it used the GDELT database for a similar purpose. But here, rather than attempting to show that the actual number of kidnappings in Nigeria has been on the rise, we’re focusing on intentionally tracking media stories about the issue. Some duplicated stories likely exist within the findings, and several stories refer to other kidnappings that had taken place in Nigeria during the same time-frame, but the resulting graph tracks closely to the Google searches performed during the period.
Despite the lagging interest, events continue apace in the pursuit of the girls and the efforts to rein in Boko Haram. A full international presence has been mobilized in Nigeria, though President Goodluck Jonathan showed hesitancy to accept the outpouring of offers in the first weeks of the crisis. The United States is currently flying both manned and unmanned missions over Nigeria in an attempt to gain intelligence on just where the girls may be located. Countries as far-flung as Israel — who has sent intelligence experts to aid the government — have even contributed to the cause.
Nigeria is also currently serving a term on the United Nations Security Council, the fifteen-member panel charged with matters of war and peace. On Tuesday, Nigeria formally asked the committee under the Council responsible for upholding sanctions on al Qaeda and its affiliates to add Boko Haram to the blacklist. Boko Haram has for nearly five years now waged a war against the government and citizens of Nigeria, killing an estimated 4,000 people since it first began its campaign. Just on Tuesday, a new series of explosions rocked the Nigerian city of Jos — while Boko Haram hasn’t formally taken credit for the attack, the group are the most likely culprits.
Even as the cameras leave the country, Nigerians in the north, where Boko Haram is strongest, are still fleeing the fighting across the border. “In all 250,000 people are now internally displaced, according to the Nigeria Emergency Management Agency (NEMA),” United Nations High Commission for Refugees spokesperson Adrian Edwards said on May 9. “Some 61,000 others have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.” But now, Boko Haram’s campaign appears to be following them. An attack on a Chinese work site in Cameroon on Friday is suspected to be the work of Boko Haram.
And the protests that first captured the attention of international observers continue on. This Thursday, activists from the #BringBackOurGirls group say “they will present a ‘charter of demands’ to the president, including calls for a more effective presence in militant strongholds and greater engagement with the community of Chibok,” according to the Guardian. The chance remains that the Jonathan government, which has been sharply criticized for its response to the crisis, could react harshly to such a strong rebuke and what is quickly becoming a referendum on his leadership. So while interest in the tale of Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls is exiting the public imagination around the world, the story remains sharply burned in the minds of Nigerians.