Since Friday, the media has been absorbed with reporting on the terrorist attacks that wreaked havoc on Paris. Twitter was abuzz with live updates on all the latest news, while Facebook focused on updating its users on the attacks, providing a “safety check” feature to those in Paris, and prompting users to support the French via special red, white, and blue profile picture filters, or with hashtags such as #Parisjetaime, #PrayforParis, or #Jesuisparis.
But these signs of solidarity, while well-meant, will all most likely disappear within a few more days. I don’t want to sound cynical or unkind. But even the profile picture filter is—as Facebook calls it—”temporary,” one that users can only put up for a short period of time. The feelings, while largely sincere, are also temporal. This should prompt us to consider how social media prompts us to respond to global catastrophes and tragedies—and whether the emotions it generates are truly sincere.
Take Rurik Bradbury’s story: after the Twitter user posted a sarcastic (and fallacious) tweet on Friday about the Eiffel Tower having its lights off “for the first time since 1889,” nearly 30,000 people—including news organizations—retweeted his message. People finally started to call him out on the tweet, criticizing either the error or his sarcasm. But the point of his tweet was to demonstrate “why the rapid sharing of anything vaguely inspiration-shaped after a tragedy was so unsettling,” says the Washington Post‘s David Weigel. Bradbury wrote in an email to Weigel, “The part that feels the most useless to me is people’s vicarious participation in the event, which on the ground is a horrible tragedy, but in cyberspace is flattened to a meme like any other.” He continued,
Millions of people with no connection to Paris or the victims mindlessly throw in their two cents: performative signaling purely for their own selfish benefit, spreading information that is often false and which they have not vetted at all, simply for the sake of making noise … Instead of silence or helpfulness, social media pukes out stupidity, virtue-signaling and vicarious “enjoyment” (in a psychoanalytic sense) of a terrible tragedy by people thousands of miles away, for whom the event is just a meme they will participate in for a couple of days, then let fade into their timeline.
The Atlantic’s Megan Garber disagrees with Bradbury: she argues that social media’s response to the Paris terrorist attacks “‘is an act of mass compassion,” or more specifically, “compassion that has been converted, via the Internet’s alchemy, into political messaging. It is empathy, quantified.” She admits that this will change in the days to come,
just as all the “je suis Charlie” avatars reverted soon enough to human faces, just as all the marriage-equality rainbow filters dissipated, inevitably. The attention will also, as it were, flag. But, for now, all these expressions of solidarity with France are notable. Together, they treat the Internet not just as a commercial platform or a public square, but as an engine for empathy.
In her book Reclaiming Conversation, author Sherry Turkle considers the ways in which the media—and social media—have altered our reactions to news in the public square. She writes,
… The media supports a view of the world as a series of emergencies that we can take on, one by one. Events that have a long social and political history are presented as special, unusual, “unthinkable” events: massive oil spills, gun violence against elementary school children and their teachers, extreme weather—for the most part, all are represented as catastrophes. You know you are thinking in terms of catastrophe if your attention is riveted on the short term. In catastrophe culture, everyone feels part of a state of emergency but our agitation is channeled to donating money and affiliating with a website.
… Faced with a situation that you experience as an emergency, you want to use social media to huddle with your friends. A twenty-three year old who was in middle school during 9/11 says, “Most of the emergencies that are broadcast on the media, you can’t do anything about. There’s no action you know how to take that would improve the actual circumstances.” This does much to explain how the fretful self navigates the media stream of bad news: We learn about something, get anxious, and connect online.
There seem to be two especially popular ways to “connect online” in the wake of a catastrophe or disaster of the sort we’re seeing in Paris: the first is to show solidarity, through a #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, for instance. As I’ve written before for Acculturated, online social media campaigns generally make us feel good about ourselves, without forcing us beyond our spheres of comfort. Despite the collective voice our hashtag battles or profile pictures can amass, there is little practical worth in a tweet or a filter. This isn’t to condemn people’s efforts to show solidarity in this way—it is just to make sure that we don’t mistake such sympathy for real empathy: which I would argue is something that, when genuine, registers deeper and longer-lasting implications. “Empathy quantified” is not, I would argue, actual empathy.
The second way people “connect online” in response to catastrophe or disaster is to, unfortunately (yet inevitably), connect over controversy.
The controversy over Paris is starting to build now: one example of this is recent protest over the fact that Beirut’s terrorist attacks—suffered on the same day—have largely been ignored in social media and the press. What many of us did not realize was that Paris was the second area to be targeted by ISIS militants on Friday: as David A. Graham reports for The Atlantic,
Hours before the carnage in Paris on Friday, a double suicide bombing ripped through a working-class shopping district in Beirut. ISIS claimed responsibility for the explosions, which caused 43 deaths and hundreds of casualties in the worst bombing to strike the city in a quarter century. Then came ISIS’s attacks in France, which quickly subsumed much of the attention that might have been directed toward Lebanon.
… Viral articles on Facebook are demanding to know why the Beirut attacks have been overlooked. Lebanese have lamented the discrepancy. Many people are asking why Facebook didn’t allow people in Lebanon to check in as “safe” on the social network, as the company did for those in Paris.
There are some defensible reasons as to why the one attack got more attention than the other: as Graham points out, “There were three times more deaths in Paris than in Beirut.” Additionally, Graham notes that familiarity and proximity may have played a role: many Americans know people in Paris or have visited the country ourselves. We have a political history with France that dates back to our founding. Many feel some sort of connection to Paris via pop culture, as it’s been depicted in countless films, tv shows, and songs.
It could also be that the refugee crisis in Europe—a subject of debate and controversy for some time now—also caused people to pay greater attention to the situation in France. In recent weeks, some on the right have suggested that Europe’s massive wave of refugees could have security consequences. Regardless of whether they are right, that discussion has been percolating in the media long enough to lend this situation an air of political controversy for some, of political justification for others. And of course, in the responses we’ve seen in the media, many have been quick to use Paris as an opportunity to debate or discuss the refugee situation further.
None of this gives us reason to have ignored Beirut so blatantly—its situation in the Middle East is both unique and important, as Kevin A. Lees writes for The National Interest. But it does perhaps show our tendency to focus on the glamorous: the city of Paris, with all its cultural landmarks and sentimental ties, over a little-known or visited region of the Middle East that few in America feel a natural solidarity with.
But “solidarity” is a tricky feeling to muster. For countless people in Paris, a loved one is dead: a friend, family member, spouse, or child. Someone who went out innocently to enjoy their evening, and never came back.
The same happened in Beirut. As the New York Times notes, “Ali Awad, 14, was chopping vegetables when the first bomb struck. Adel Tormous, who would die tackling the second bomber, was sitting at a nearby coffee stand. Khodr Alaa Deen, a registered nurse, was on his way to work his night shift…”
Lives have been lost, mercilessly and needlessly. If we are to be honest, while we can try our best to empathize—to put ourselves in their shoes, or in the shoes of their loved ones—both emotional and physical distance will keep us apart.
So while there’s nothing wrong with the new (albeit temporary) profile pictures, with the memes, with the shows of “solidarity”—let us not mistake them for real, lasting empathy. And let’s not lose ourselves in the controversy and outrage porn that will likely continue to churn through the media in coming weeks. Hopefully the people of Beirut and Paris will experience true, immediate compassion in the days to come—not just the short, quick outbursts that social media is likely to foster.