The online landscape has been akin to the shifting sands of the desert in the days since the attacks in Paris. As also happened after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, many of the initial responses were graphical, with a very striking image of the Eiffel Tower looking like a CND badge by Jean Jullien quickly being shared far and wide. Facebook, which had initially offered a service to Parisians to let friends know they were safe, also rolled out a feature which allowed users to superimpose the French flag over their profile pictures, akin to the rainbow flags which did the rounds after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling earlier in the year.
This wave of virtual tears then crashed on the shores of ‘whataboutery’, when other similar yet less prominent killings in other countries and cities around the world were invoked, culminating in a debate about whether higher prominence should have been given to the 43 people killed by a bomb that went off in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks. Did you care about Beirut? And did you do it quickly enough? Before or after this prompting?
As one article pointed out, sharing a link from the BBC News website and complaining that the media is ignoring a story you feel should be receiving greater attention shows you the limitations of this argument: The media did cover the attacks, you just weren’t reading it. The writer notes:
“Why didn’t the media cover *insert country here*?” appears to actually be shorthand for “Why wasn’t this story shared extensively on my Facebook feed?”
Increasingly we are taking our news via the social media sites and the way in which such stories reach us – via the algorithms which determine which friends’ posts we see the most of and which kinds of stories ‘pop up’ – is anything but random. Facebook is in the business of generating engagement and it is enhancing that by learning about our habits. That function on Facebook for Parisians to show they were safe that I was so impressed by was perhaps in response to a ‘person finder’ function that Google enabled after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. There are social benefits to these initiatives, of course, but the sites are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, remember. They want our engagement and they generate that partly by linking us with our global communities as well as by making themselves invaluable to us.
You could call me paranoid, I suppose, but the way that the Tricolore spread across the profile pictures of friends around the world and how that change was prompted by Facebook itself does make me wonder. Were we the guinea pigs in another behavioural study similar to this one on the Diffusion of Support in an Online Social Movement, as mentioned in this Washington Post story about the rainbow flags? Facebook was not particularly subtle in its prompting: a story about a friend’s updated profile picture with a button below to allow you to change yours. I am sure that they would never in a month of Sundays admit to using this kind of news story in such a way, but it does make you wonder. Or perhaps I need a tinfoil hat…
If, as this intriguing read from the New Statesman on PETA, Ferguson, jihad, Doctor Who, rape and kitten pictures (honestly, it’s great, give it a read) suggests:
Anger online is a cyclical parasite
then it stands to reason that online compassion or empathy is too. If you are pissed off that *insert location here* is not getting the right amount of attention, you must share more stories about that place in such a way that encourages your friend group to share those stories. Maybe then we will soon see the option to superimpose the flag of Lebanon over our profile pictures.