“#Bring back our girls”? Bring back our balls!, commentator Mark Steyn snaps back.

People sometimes ask, will social media help or hurt human rights causes?

That’s a bit like asking, will more water help or hurt me? First, what’s happening? Second, what is the relationship between what’s happening and what specific media can do? Once we have correct answers to those questions, we can hazard an answer to the first one.

What’s happening:

Nigeria’s Islamic extremist leader is threatening to sell the nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls abducted from a school in the remote northeast three weeks ago, in a new videotape received Monday.

“I abducted your girls,” said the leader of Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful.”

He described the girls as “slaves” and said “By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace.” The hour-long video starts with fighters lofting automatic rifles and shooting in the air as they chant “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great.”

It is difficult to be sure of information from the region, but some of the students may already have been sold.

What can media do? Twitter is a magnet for celebs and wannabes and anyone who wants to make a statement in 140 characters or less. After that, usually nothing.

Steyn’s point was,

Just as the last floppo hashtag, #WeStandWithUkraine, didn’t actually involve standing with Ukraine, so #BringBackOurGirls doesn’t require bringing back our girls. There are only a half-dozen special forces around the planet capable of doing that without getting most or all of the hostages killed: the British, the French, the Americans, Israelis, Germans, Aussies, maybe a couple of others. So, unless something of that nature is being lined up, those schoolgirls are headed into slavery, and the wretched pleading passivity of Mrs Obama’s hashtag is just a form of moral preening.

That’s the essential weakness of the Internet. At one remove from reality, it becomes an opportunity to express correct sentiment without action because, in a virtual world, there is no action to be taken. (Note: Hashtag = #[Twitter address])

Human rights campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was recently disinvited by Brandeis University as a commencement speaker because of her criticisms of Islam (she was herself subjected to FGM), comments

The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists’ mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai—as she rode a school bus home in 2012—because she advocated girls’ education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.

How to explain this phenomenon to baffled Westerners, who these days seem more eager to smear the critics of jihadism as “Islamophobes” than to stand up for women’s most basic rights? Where are the Muslim college-student organizations denouncing Boko Haram? Where is the outrage during Friday prayers? These girls’ lives deserve more than a Twitter hashtag protest.

But, as Steyn pointed out above, anything more would require engagement. Engagement requires commitment. Commitment entails risk. Risk today usually means political incorrectness. Political incorrectness can mean ending up like Hirsi Ali, a refugee fleeing for her life, first from Somalia, then the Netherlands.

Boko Haram knows, as well as anyone ever did, that their opponents are mostly mere hashtags, Twitter scores, Facebook friend tallies, and Google search results.

Moral preening has always been with us. We didn’t used to think so highly of it.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...