Parents of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls are hoping for a miracle. So far, all they have is a hashtag.
More than three weeks after Islamic extremists abducted the girls, world outrage is galvanizing Twitter and other social media networks. But observers question whether the burst of online interest will last and whether it can ever elevate the case from a trending topic to a mandate for action.
The story broke April 15, but only recently saw more interest with people using the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag.
All told, police say, more than 300 girls were abducted from their secondary school in the country's remote northeast, and 276 remain in captivity.
More than 380,000 tweets carried the hashtag Wednesday, including one from Michelle Obama, who has been retweeted more than 53,000 times. Use continued to grow Thursday and Friday.
The first lady continued her effort to bring light to the cause on Saturday. Delivering the weekly presidential radio and Internet address on the eve of the U.S. holiday honoring mothers, the first lady and mother of two said that, like millions of people around the world, she and President Barack Obama are "outraged and heartbroken" over the mass abduction.
"In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters," Mrs. Obama said in the five-minute address, referring to Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12. "We see their hopes, their dreams, and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now."
The flurry of attention on Nigeria brings to mind a similar campaign two years ago that introduced many people to Joseph Kony, a guerrilla leader whose group has abducted many Ugandan children who then became sex slaves or fighters. A video about Kony went viral in 2012, but public attention waned, and the warlord remains at large.
G. Nelson Bass III, a professor who teaches politics and international relations at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, said the #BringBack OurGirls campaign appears far closer to the Kony campaign than to the kind of social media activity that organized much of the Arab Spring movement.
"At its current moment, I fear this campaign lacks the information to do much more than educate," he said.
Gordon Coonfield, a Villanova University professor who studies new media, said the story of the Nigerian girls is following a familiar arc, in which interest is ignited and then quickly dissipates.
The drama presents an opportunity to the masses to casually adopt the hashtag as their cause: "People can care so fiercely at this moment only on the condition that they can completely forget about it tomorrow," he said.
"Social media won't find them," he said, but it could fuel broader discussions on injustice and what led to the kidnappings. "This will happen only if we can sustain a network of attention longer than 140 characters."