Ramaa Mosley didn't know how bad things were until she received an anonymous phone call at her home.
“I'm not sure if you've seen Twitter,” the caller said, “but you've got a real situation on your hands. This is going to be going to be KONY 2012 all over again, or worse…”
The caller was referring to the criticism that erupted in 2012 over a San Diego charity's 30-minute film about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. After the video went viral, the charity came under attack for everything from its overly simplistic message to the “action kits” it was selling. Its co-founder cracked under the stress and ended up in police custody in San Diego after running naked into the city streets.
Mosley, the caller warned, was about to face a similar backlash for her involvement with #bringbackourgirls, a social media campaign advocating for the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram.
Mosley, who created the Facebook page for Bring Back Our Girls, had made a flurry of appearances on CNN, ABC and NBC to discuss the missing schoolgirls. Almost overnight, the L.A.-based filmmaker had become a central figure in an international movement, with #bringbackourgirls tweeted by everyone from Michelle Obama to Chris Brown.
But the caller suggested things were about to turn. Alarmed by his words, Mosley and her husband did a quick Google search. “Our jaws just dropped,” she recalls.
Articles and tweets called Mosley a “liar” and a “racist.” Memes superimposed her head on Martin Luther King Jr.'s body, with tags ridiculing her as “Africa's White Savior.” Soon after, she began receiving death threats.
Much of the ire stemmed from the idea that Mosley had claimed to create the hashtag, when the first person to use it was actually Nigerian attorney Ibrahim Musa Abdullahi, who tweeted both #BringBackOurDaughters and #BringBackOurGirls on April 23. Abdullahi was echoing the chant “Bring Back Our Daughters,” which he'd heard in a speech by former World Bank vice president Obiageli Ezekwesili.
But Mosley says she was broadsided by allegations that she'd assumed ownership of the hashtag: “I never once claimed to create it.”
In an interview with L.A. Weekly, she recounts a cautionary experience of what happens when online energy turns toxic – and the target becomes someone suspected of “profiting” from tragedy. While Mosley remains adamant that #bringbackourgirls has been the most rewarding experience of her life, she is shocked by the damage done to her name and her family.
“I never did this for me, so I didn't anticipate all the personal attention I'd get,” she says.
Ramaa Mosley's involvement with Bring Back Our Girls began on April 23, when she heard a brief news bulletin about the abducted students on KPCC.
“When I heard the news, I was devastated,” she recalls.
A 38-year-old documentary filmmaker and mother of two, Mosley's emotional reaction to the abduction stemmed, in part, from her involvement with Girl Rising, a film about girls' education in nine countries. Mosley directed the Afghanistan chapter of the film.
When Mosley looked online for more news about the abductions, she found little in English beyond some posts on African news outlets and the BBC. In America, the Donald Sterling scandal and the missing Malaysian airliner dominated the headlines. “I thought: Why is this not being talked about more?”
She adds, “Without thinking, my first reaction was to buy plane tickets and fly to Nigeria to help.” But she canceled the trip when her 11-year-old daughter urged her not to go.
Instead, Mosley launched an effort from Los Angeles. She sent a letter to 60 friends, giving them contact information for Barack Obama and John Kerry to demand that they help.
Using search terms on Twitter such as “Nigerian Schoolgirls” and “Boko Haram,” Mosley identified the Nigerian activists already tweeting about the abduction. This is when, she says, she found #bringbackourgirls. “I saw it and thought it was powerful – that it was the right message.”
When she saw the name was not taken on Facebook, Mosley created the “Bring Back Our Girls” page and began using it to organize events and post news.
“At first only 160 of my friends joined. So I became this total Facebook stalker, asking everyone to post about it,” she says. Within days, the numbers of likes had grown into the tens of thousands (it now has more than 214,000). That's when it caught the media's attention. (With her daughter's help, Mosley also started an Instagram account, which gathered 43,000 followers, and a Twitter account.)
“When CNN International called me at 10 a.m. asking to interview me in their Los Angeles studio, I didn't even give it a second's thought,” she says.
But something happened in that May 2 interview that changed the course of the campaign.
“I showed up to the studio, and I was super-nervous because it was my first time being interviewed on TV,” she says. As a filmmaker, she was more used to being behind the camera.
The music was cued, the show started, and anchor Jim Clancy introduced Mosley to the television audience, calling her “creator of Bring Back Our Girls.” That wasn't entirely untrue, since Mosley did make the Facebook page, but Clancy didn't credit the Nigerians who first used the term.
And Mosley didn't correct him. “I didn't even realize what happened because I was so focused on answering [Clancy's] questions,” she says.
Over the next few days, Mosley appeared twice more on CNN and once each on ABC and NBC. In no interview was she asked directly, “Did you invent the phrase 'Bring Back Our Girls'?” And in two of the four interviews, Mosley explained that she'd been watching people in Nigeria and echoed their calls – though she never mentioned Abdullahi and Ezekwesili by name.
But the media narrative was set: Here was the woman behind the viral campaign. The NBC interview even included a graphic superimposed on-screen identifying her as the creator of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Mosley had no way of seeing it, so no way of knowing she needed to address it – and at any rate, she was riding a wave of goodwill, bringing attention to a cause she was passionate about. “Things were moving so fast,” she says.
Then came the anonymous phone call. Mosley issued a public correction, but it did little to stem the backlash. The Wall Street Journal suggested Mosley “took credit” for the hashtag and that “her effort to draw attention to the kidnappings is part of a push by the Documentary Group, a for-profit company,” to promote Girl Rising.
Critics seized upon the Journal's finding that CNN Films paid $500,000 for rights to screen Girl Rising, even though that sum was paid last year, long before the girls were kidnapped. Mosley also raised suspicions when she posted a link to a girls education charity in response to thousands of emails asking her where to donate, even though the donations did not go to her or her film.
“I never accepted or solicited donations on behalf of Bring Back Our Girls,” Mosley says. “I only wanted to get people talking about this until news networks sent their own reporters to Borno [in Nigeria]. That was what finally happened, and I am proud to have helped accomplished that.”
More than a month after her first CNN interview, Mosley continues to receive hate mail and threats. She stopped answering her home phone the day her daughter picked up the receiver and a caller threatened to hurt the family.
As for the Nigerian schoolgirls, the L.A. Times reports that 272 are still in the clutches of Boko Haram. The irony is that much of the news coverage for which Mosley fought is starting to wane because there have been few developments in the situation.
But Mosley continues to run the Facebook page, organizing more marches and awareness campaigns.
“Looking back, I used the tools I had to work for what was right,” she says. “I also know the naysayers are small in comparison to those who understand the real value of this, and it has helped bring people together beyond my wildest expectations.”
Mosley says she will continue with the campaign until the girls are back.