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#BringBackOurGirls illustrates the power of a hashtag

After more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls are kidnapped, a viral hashtag makes the world pay attention.

Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai posted this photo of herself to her Twitter page. The Malala Fund

About 250 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria three and a half weeks ago. Yet, much of the world didn't hear about it until this week. While there's ample speculation as to why it took so long for the news to get out, it is clear that one hashtag helped bring the world's attention to the incident: #BringBackOurGirls.

As of this writing, the hashtag has been tweeted on Twitter more than 1.7 million times, posted on Instagram nearly 235,000 times, and countlessly shared on Facebook.

Politicians, human rights activists, and celebrities -- including First Lady Michelle Obama, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, and actor Angelina Jolie -- have either shared the hashtag on social media or posted photos of themselves holding a piece of paper saying #BringBackOurGirls.

So, how did it all start?

It began with one Nigerian man named Ibrahim M. Abdullahi. On April 23, as he watched the former Nigerian Minister of Education Obiageli Ezekwesili give a speech calling on the government to "bring back our daughters," he tweeted out, "Yes #BringBackOurDaughters #BringBackOurGirls," according to ITV News.

Ezekwesili retweeted Abdullahi's tweet to her tens of thousands of followers and the rest is history.

Abdullahi told ITV News that before the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag went viral, the government was slow to take action. He credits the international community for helping pressure the government to begin work on a rescue.

"It is the world's outcry that forced the Nigerian government to stand up to its obligations and start working towards finding the girls," Abdullahi told ITV News.

The kidnapping occurred on April 14 when hundreds of girls -- 276 by some counts -- were abducted from their school in rural northeastern Nigeria. According to The New York Times, terrorist group Boko Haram has reportedly claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and has threatened to sell the girls into slavery. As of this writing, none of the girls have been rescued.

CNET contacted Twitter for more details on how the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag went viral. We'll update the story when we get more information.