As sure as night follows day, online disputes follow a mass-shooting or terrorist attack. They almost invariably follow a very predictable pattern of action and reaction, or statement and counter-statement that ends up focusing almost as much on assessments (or condemnations) of how social media have responded to the event in question, as it does looking at the event itself.
The aftermath of the horrible events that enveloped Paris on an initially unremarkable Friday evening has not broken this pattern. One of the main focal points of this discussion was Facebook’s decision to proactively offer a French flag filter to place over profile pictures. While it might be useful for Facebook to be more clear about what is the trigger for such an offering (is it subjective, or based on a ghoulish body-count or measurement of online mentions, for example), it offered people on Facebook the opportunity to do something, anything, in the face of scarcely imaginable horror.
Putting a flag over your avatar is, of course, a largely futile and pointless gesture – it is not going to cause members of Daesh/ISIS, a jihadi death cult, to have a rethink about where they are going in life. But it does give people a tiny sense of control in the face of what is otherwise helplessness in the face of senseless and random death and destruction. And while I respect the right of those who choose not to adopt a filter/flag/photo/avatar to do so, it has been impossible not to detect a hint of superiority emanating from some quarters among those who chose to exercise that right.
When mass murder visited the streets of Paris earlier this year, I myself pointedly declined to adopt “Je suis Charlie” as my social media avatar. I explained my reasons in a blog post at the time, which related largely to the relationship between satire, religion and remaining united in the face of terror. Saying yes to the tricolore filter was less of a political statement than one of sympathy and empathy; it is the 21st-century equivalent of sending flowers and a card, except in the digital age many feel compelled to do so to strangers in far-off places.
This then gets to a second complaint from the more churlish corners of the digital space: either that people are hypocritical for putting up a flag for country X and not country Y; or that it is unfair that the media is paying so much attention to Paris and not to Beirut/Ankara/Garissa or whichever outrage this individual feels went unreported. Except the problem is that whichever outrage the individual feels went unreported didn’t go unreported. They just weren’t paying attention.
Did Beirut/Ankara/Garissa get the wall-to-wall rolling coverage on CNN, the BBC and Deutsche Welle that Paris did? No, they did not. But the reasons are not difficult to understand and are inherent in every human being: unfortunately, like Belfast and Sarajevo, Beirut is a byword for bombing and murder. A bomb in Beirut is, sadly, a “Dog Bites Man” news story. A bomb in Paris, on the other hand, is “Man Bites Dog.” And inherent in this dynamic of the news cycle is the fact that if bombs in Paris become commonplace, then bombs in Paris will too become “Dog Bites Man”. It will cease to be “new”s. Do you have any idea how many people have died in Ukraine, a country as white as they come, in the past 12 months?
There is also the question of empathy, which the begrudgers appear incapable of differentiating from sympathy. Paris is one of the world’s great cities, home to one of the world’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. It is one of the most visited cities in the world, with over 16 million international visitors annually. There is an extremely high chance that most of the people reading this have either been to Paris, or if they have not would like to. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s position: it is easier, for most people in Europe and North America, to imagine themselves eating in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement, having a coffee at a sidewalk café, attending a concert by an American band, than it is to picture themselves attending a residential agricultural college in rural Kenya near the Somali border or shopping at a market in a Hezbollah-run neighbourhood in southern Beirut.
It is easier to picture yourself in a place you feel familiar with than one you have never heard of. And without the ability to imagine ourselves as a victim, empathy is difficult to rouse. Someone who has never been on a plane is going to struggle more to imagine the terror felt by passengers on a hijacked flight than someone who flies on a weekly basis. Students in Kenya paid more attention to the attack on Garissa than they did to the bombed Russian plane in the Sinai. They should not be faulted for it.
Ironically, many of those who complain about the imbalance in how “the world” treats Paris versus Garissa/Beirut/Ankara etc. are equating European and North American media with “the world”, thereby exhibiting the very Euro-/America-centric worldview they complain about in others. And how many of them posted stories about Garissa and Beirut, or took some other act to express their solidarity with the victims of these horrible tragedies? Very few, for the same reasons as everybody else.
The goal of many of these people is not to raise awareness of what happens in Beirut or Ankara or Garissa or Kunming or Ciudad Juarez or anywhere else – for if it were the tactic to adopt is not to condemn people and call them hypocrites for caring about Paris. It is an unconvincing attempt to demonstrate their own moral superiority and supposed worldliness. It says there is great pain in the world, so we should not care about one more than the other, as if time, place and personal experience are irrelevant. It’s like responding to an African-American who stands in front of you and says “Black lives matter!” with the retort “All lives matter!”, as if their own personal experience and feeling should be subsumed and rolled up into the greater tragedy of the world.
Before the digital age, the media could set the news agenda through what they chose to cover and what they chose to ignore. That remains only partly true, and what drives coverage in 2015 is clicks, and likes, and comments. If the death of an 85-year old man in Tajikistan was going to drive web traffic to news sites, there would be a crowd of reporters outside his door with a live blog giving minute-by-minute updates.
If people want to raise in others awareness of, and empathy for, causes and deaths that they otherwise may show little interest in, the way to go about it is not to castigate them for caring about the loss of life that they do, or at least claim to do. Is it unfair that it should be this way? Yes, of course, it is. But if life were not unfair, then there would be no need for Black Lives Matter or flag filters of mourning on Facebook.