A file of a screengrab taken on October 2, 2014 from a video released by the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram and obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has threatened Cameroon in a message on the video-sharing site YouTube, warning that the same fate would befall the country as neighbouring Nigeria. The video, which was posted on January 5, 2015, is directly addressed to Cameroon's President Paul Biya after repeated fighting between militants and troops in the country's far north. Image Credit: AFP

Is this a good time to mention Boko Haram, the extremist group believed to now control a portion of Nigeria the size of Belgium? Is it the right time to mention the 276 girls they abducted, the ones taken from their school, herded into trucks like cattle, most of them apparently sold into slavery like livestock at market?

Nine months on, most of those girls are still missing, despite online pleas from celebrities as varied as Michelle Obama, Cara Delevingne and P Diddy to #bringbackourgirls. Nobody talks about that hashtag now. It no longer trends on Twitter. It had its moment in the social media sun; didn’t work.

Next! To many, the girls exist only as a footnote in the annals of internet history. Is now a good time to mention the 10-year-old used as a weapon by Boko Haram, sent into a crowded market in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri last week with a bomb strapped to her?

The bomb was then detonated remotely, killing at least 20 people. This child has been called a “suicide bomber”, but that implies she wanted to die. In fact, witnesses at the scene claim she had no idea of her fate.

There is no hashtag for her, nor for the estimated 2,000 people — mostly women, children and the elderly — murdered by Boko Haram as the militants rampaged through north-eastern Nigeria just days ago.

There is no online campaign for the 30,000 thought to have been displaced by the terrorists, nor for those marooned on islands in Lake Chad without food, water, or protection from swarms of mosquitoes. #wherearetheirhashtags?

The solidarity marches for the victims of the Paris attacks were a beautiful, brilliant thing borne out of the most unimaginable brutality. There was not a sea of placards proclaiming Je suis Charlie — there was an ocean.

Biggest weakness

The marches showed the 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 biggest 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 rightly commemorated, all the other suffering in the world fell away, forgotten about, or not brought to anyone’s attention in the first place. “Je suis Charlie, n’oublions pas les victimes de Boko Haram,” read one placard in Paris — “Let’s not forget the Boko Haram victims.” But forget we do.

We allow the kidnapped schoolgirls to slip from our memories because they were never really “ours” to start with; both they and the terrorists belong to another world rather than one a three-hour train journey away. This is the problem with hashtag activism.

It gives voice to the people as long as the people have access to Twitter, just as they do in France and did in America last month after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer following the apparent choke-hold death of Eric Garner.

For that, hashtag activism should be commended. But for the schoolgirls, it has been next to useless. Worse, it has made the West 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 red carpet at the Golden Globes, holding up her Je suis Charlie sign, 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 Grammer, Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone brandished signs urging the world to “BRING BACK OUR GIRLS”.

The pictures of them doing this had all the depth and emotion of the action movie they were also promoting at the time.

Our apparent amnesia about the Boko Haram kidnapping should shame us all; ditto our ability to ignore the fact that 10-year-olds are being used as bombs. From our armchairs, we may not be able to bring back any of these girls, but we should at least try to make sure nobody ever forgets them.

—The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2015