Like any major event, tragic or not, the terrorism attacks in Paris generated an incredible outpouring of traffic and content from digital and social media. This past Saturday, you couldn’t scroll past three items in your news feed without finding something related to Paris. While the intent behind much of this activity may have been well-meaning on the surface, much of it was, to put it lightly, rather silly. While we can all agree that the events were historic in their nature, and it is human nature to express concern or anguish for tragic events of this magnitude, social media has unfortunately given a rather attention-seeking undertone to expressing sympathy.
We are all guilty of actions like this at one point or another, whether it’s with international news like the events in Paris, a national election, or a big play during the SuperBowl. It’s important to recognize times where we may be a little more self-serving than we think, so the goal of this list isn’t to point fingers, it’s merely an exercise in learning to laugh at how easy it is to get swept up in trending stories like the attacks in Paris. I’ll begin with comedian Anthony Jeselnik’s excellent take on this trend to lighten the mood a little:
Now on to the list:
1. The standard “throw my hat in the mix” status
The most common status by far. Thanks to the effect that such a shocking event has on the digital world, everyone felt that it was their duty to show their support for Paris by taking a minute out of their day to express the incredibly obvious thought that all of our thoughts and prayers should be with the people in Paris. It’s really funny how difficult it is to resist this type of status. I’ve been guilty of it numerous times – usually with sports – and the Paris Terrorist attacks brought out some sort of reaction from just about everyone. While it’s noble to demonstrate your concern for a terrible and no doubt historic event, it’s also a little self-serving to seek validation about a tragedy that likely had no direct impact on your life. At the end of the day, you’re really just fishing for validation in the form of likes.
2. The islamophobic/religiophobic/borderline racist rant
These are always entertaining, because you know that anyone who posts one of these is laying it all on the line. They could risk losing a few friends or getting some angry private messages about how much of a bigot/racist they are, or they could be touted as a hero for actually having the balls to say something that some other people were probably thinking, even if it’s not the best choice of words for a public domain like Facebook. Either way, it’s never pretty to see a status of this sort. The public’s sensitivity related to religion and race are at an all-time high, so even if you bring up some valid, non-racist points in your argument, the backlash from the rest of your social mediasphere may not be worth it. That being said, when a status like this appears, it’s usually just watching a train wreck in slow motion, and the comments section will likely yield little hope for the future of humanity.
3. The counter rant to the above rant(s)
Otherwise known as the obvious level-headed thought, this status was offered as the counter to the often more vicious ones above. In the case of Paris, almost all well-informed people know that extremists are not representative of one group of people, so taking the time to inform your listeners of that fact is a pointless endeavour. Why? We tend to attract like-minded people, so most of your friends will likely share your opinion, and thus your opinion becomes as self-serving as anything else posted about a major event that everyone is aware of. Insight is only valuable to those who did not possess it beforehand; otherwise you’re just screaming in an echo chamber.
4. The guilt-seeking missile of alternative viewpoint
Next we have the status that tries to wrestle attention away from the primary tragedy to focus on the little guy – in this case, the bombings that took place in Beirut, Lebanon that same day that tragically claimed the lives of 43 people and wounded over 200. This is perhaps the most noble, yet misinformed, of all the usual statuses that occur when any major tragedy takes place. While the poster may consider themselves particularly insightful for bringing attention away from the popular tragedy that the mainstream media has enveloped, there is a rational explanation for why some tragedies are front page news and others barely make the international news briefs.
First, it is important to understand that almost all international news is very boring to us in North America because we are unfamiliar with the country or region in the news. We are unable to sympathize because we lack that rooted connection to most foreign regions. The fact that the Western media is paying more attention to Paris, one of the most storied cities in recent history, is receiving all of the press is a no brainer. We are automatically drawn to be sympathetic to things that we are familiar with. The fact that Paris is so familiar to many of us, whether by direct contact with the city as a result of our past travels or through its coverage in modern cinema, is the reason why the Western world was so focused on Paris and not Beirut. Paris is almost magical to many of us, most of whom haven’t even set foot in the city itself.
I’ll let philosopher Alain de Botton phrase this a bit more eloquently than I could ever hope to do:
“To grow interested in any piece of information, we need somewhere to ‘put’ it, which means some way of connecting it to an issue we already now how to care about…Properly told, stories are able to operate on two levels. On the surface, they deal with particulars involving a range of facts related to a given time and place, a local culture and a social group–and it is these specifics that tend to bore us whenever they lie outside of our own experience. But then, a layer beneath the particulars, the universals are hidden: the psychological, social and political themes that transcend the stories’ temporal and geographical settings and are founded on unvarying fundamentals of human nature.” (from The News: A User’s Manual, 2014)
Basically, there’s a good reason why we all took to the Paris tragedy and not to the one in Beirut. It’s not a racial issue like many of the accusatory posts or shares imply; it’s simply an issue of familiarity. While easily conflated, the two are vastly different in their intent and underlying reason. Most of us are not familiar with Beirut or the country of Lebanon, and since we compartmentalize the Middle East with constant conflicts to the point that we barely bat an eyelash when news breaks of violence in the region, it should come as no surprise that Paris shocked us while Beirut (sadly) went unnoticed.
5. The French Flag profile picture
If you’re one of the many people reading this who currently has their profile picture tinged with some blue, white, and red, relax. It’s no fault of your own and I , nor anyone who abstained from changing their profile picture, thinks that they’re better than you. Honestly, it’s a little ridiculous for me to even re-read that sentence.
The meme above should have made you laugh even if you decided to alter your profile picture with the French flag. When we take a step back and actually evaluate why this trend spread so fast and why we participated, it’s easy to say “to show solidarity for the people of Paris”, or something similar, but that’s not really why most of us participated. We are naturally drawn to express concern and sensitivity to important events of intense tragedy or joy. Look at the similar trend with the legalization of gay marriage in the United States a few months ago. Rainbow flag tinged profile pictures were everywhere. However, the two examples are vastly different in terms of context; legalizing gay marriage was a fantastic success that resulted from a social movement based on progressive beliefs held by the majority of the public, so by offering your support in any form, you were assisting the change and overall impact of the movement. An overwhelming number of rainbow tinged flags was a moral and socially progressive victory for society.
With Paris, the situation is a little different. Victims of a tragedy still need support, but there is no “cause” that these victims have struggled against, merely an effect that they have suffered from. The attacks were a random act of violence that endured no long-term political struggle or social stigma. As a result, showing support or solidarity doesn’t really accomplish anything other than everyone giving everyone else a pat on the back for participating. Victims of tragedy like this need tangible support such as food, medical supplies, or monetary donations to help overcome the effect.
Let’s say you’re watching a youth football game and a child encounters a serious injury. Suddenly, the majority of the crowd all jumps out of their seats and surrounds the child. Some offer words of encouragement, some perhaps ask the child if it’s ok, while others may simply stand around and watch. While this isn’t the wrong thing to do, it’s also not the right thing – or at least not the best thing- to do, since ultimately, the collective actions of these parents are no more effective than those who are still sitting in the bleachers. Someone needs to spring into action, stabilize the victim, and call an ambulance.
The city of Paris is not struggling against a social construct or invention, it’s struggling against the emotional and physical effects of a direct physical assault. Showing your support or solidarity with those affected is not a bad thing; it’s merely a little ridiculous to think that your contribution is actually affecting any measurable change. All that’s accomplished from a move like this is a demonstration that you’re present.
6. The Thoughts and Prayers Humble Brag
Perhaps most confusing were instances of people who took to social media to post a picture of themselves traveling in Paris with a caption related to the attacks in Paris as a way to demonstrate their support of the issue. While this does tie in to issue # 4 and the Western World’s widespread familiarity with Paris, it’s something more confusing altogether to think that some people felt it appropriate to divert attention away from the actual events at play and somehow make a terrible tragedy about themselves and their past travels. While throwing one’s hat into the mix at all is rather silly at any level, the fact that some people took the time to remind their audience that they’re not only concerned about Paris, but they’ve actually been there, as if to reinforce that they have some special connection to the city, is somewhat alarming given the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with the issue at play.
It’s important to recognize our motivations behind our actions, and our participation on social media is no different. While some of us may dismiss that point with something along the lines of “relax, it’s just Facebook”, that ignores the fact that our personas that we craft online have impacts on our real world selves as well. There is already ample evidence in the literature that suggests that seeking attention online is rooted in deeper problems in real life. For most of us, these issues are trivial – after all, who doesn’t like a little attention? The real damage comes when we invest too much of our energies in our online social capital.
The other issue stems from clicktivism, slacktivism, or whatever else you’d like to call it. Malcolm Gladwell penned an excellent piece on the matter for The New Yorker in 2010, so please check out his article for a great description of the issue. Clicktivism is indicative of a larger issue that has emerged from social media – our obsession with image. According to an Elections Canada survey, 74 percent of youth voters aged 18-24 reported voting in the 2011 Canadian Federal Election; in reality, that number was closer to 39 percent, which means that almost half of those youth surveyed lied about voting. That seems like an odd thing to lie about. Until you begin to think about the pressure most youth today are under to appear as close to perfection as possible.
Being politically involved has been deemed important by the vocal few, and this has unfortunately placed pressure on the rest of society to appear involved in current events, whether that involves condemning Joseph Kony (remember KONY 2012?), changing your profile picture, or lying in a survey about whether you voted or not. Ultimately, the lesson to take from our collective reaction to the tragedies in Paris is that most of us are just trying to keep up with one another. It’s not that different from our pursuits in real life, but it’s often much easier because we are in control of the filter strength.