By Bryony Gordon
Hashtag activism has proven next to useless for helping the 276 girls abducted by Boko Haram, and social media has already moved on
Is now a good time to mention Boko Haram, the Islamic extremists who are thought to control a portion of Nigeria the size of Belgium? Is it a good moment to mention the 276 girls they abducted, the ones taken from their school in the dead of night, herded into trucks like cattle, and then apparently sold into slavery like cows at market?
Nine months on, the majority of these souls are still missing, presumed lost forever, despite the online pleas from celebrities as varied as Cara Delevingne and P Diddy to #bringbackourgirls. Nobody really talks about that hashtag any more. It no longer trends on Twitter. It had its moment in the social media sun, didn’t work, next. The girls have been cast aside, forgotten about, as if they were former X Factor contestants or seasonal fashions to be paraded down a catwalk and later slung on a sales rack. In the western world, they exist only as a footnote in the annals of internet history.
Is now a good time to mention the 10-year-old child who was unwittingly used as a weapon by Boko Haram, sent into a crowd last week with a bomb strapped to her, the bomb detonating remotely, killing at least 20 people at a market in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri? This small child has been described as a “suicide bomber”, but that implies she wanted to die.
In fact, witnesses at the scene claim she had no idea of her fate. “The girl was about 10 years old and I doubt if she actually knew what was strapped to her body,” one onlooker told the news agency AFP. There is no hashtag for her, nor for the estimated 2,000 people – most of them women, children and the elderly – who were laid waste to last week by Boko Haram as the militants rampaged through north-eastern Nigeria.
There is no online campaign for the 30,000 people thought to have been displaced, nor for the hundreds currently marooned on islands in Lake Chad without food, water, or protection from swarms of malarial mosquitoes. #wherearetheirhashtags?
The solidarity marches for the victims of the Paris attacks were a beautiful, brilliant thing born out of the most unimaginable brutality. There was not just a sea of people bearing placards proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” – there was an ocean. The marches showed the positive power that can be harnessed through social media, but they also highlighted the fleeting fragility of it, the potential it has to turn the most solemn of issues into slogans.
One moment we want “our” girls back, the next we are all Charlie. Social media’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness – its speed and intensity seems to have given us all the attention spans of gnats, the inability to concentrate on more than one problem at a time. So while the victims of the Paris massacres were quite rightly commemorated at the weekend, all the other suffering in the world fell away, forgotten about, or never even brought to anyone’s attention in the first place.
“Je suis Charlie, n’oublions pas les victimes de Boko Haram,” proclaimed one placard on the solidarity march. But forget we do. We can put Boko Haram out of our minds and allow the kidnapped schoolgirls to slip from our memories because they were never really “our” girls to start with; both them and the terrorists belong to another world rather than one that is a mere three-hour train journey away.
This is the problem with hashtag activism. It gives voice to the people as long as the people have ready access to Twitter on their smart phones, tablets and computers, as they do in France and as they did in America last month after news broke of the appalling circumstances surrounding the death of Eric Garner.
But for the most disenfranchised people on the planet, like the kidnapped schoolgirls, hashtag activism has so far proven to be next to useless. Worse than that, it has made the western world look as if it treats the mass kidnap of children as a social media fad, on a par with Lolcats or neknominations.
As we gaze at images of Helen Mirren on the Golden Globes red carpet, holding up her “Je Suis Charlie” sign (would a better show of solidarity not have been ditching the glitzy awards ceremony and flying to Paris instead?), let us make sure that this hashtag doesn’t go the way of the one bandied about by celebrities at Cannes last year. Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammar, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone… together they brandished signs urging the world to “BRING BACK OUR GIRLS”. But the pictures of them doing this possessed all the depth and emotion of the action movie they happened to also be promoting at the time.
Our apparent amnesia about the horrific Boko Haram kidnapping should shame us all; ditto our ability to ignore the fact that 10-year-olds are being used as human bombs. From our armchairs, we may not be able to bring back any of these girls, but we should at least try and make sure that nobody forgets them.
Source: The Telegraph