After the Paris attacks, social media solidarity spread like wildfire. People everywhere took to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to express their condolences and post their vacation pics of the Eiffel Tower, hashtagged with #PrayforParis, #JeSuisParis, and #PeaceforParis. French illustrator Jean Jullien’s drawing, pictured below, circulated around the globe as the unifying symbol of worldwide support for Paris. As expected, Facebook released a profile picture filter of the French flag (similar to the rainbow filters used to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage).
In a broadcast soon after the attacks, Stephen Colbert commented on this social media phenomenon:
“Anything that is an attempt at human connection in the world right now is positive. Because who knows what to do?”
Likewise, UCLA Psychology professor Gerald Goodman told the Huffington Post, “It’s too uncomfortable to sit there and do nothing […] it stems from an emotion of wanting to be connected, feeling helpless, then doing something about it.”
I do believe that social media successfully spreads awareness and encourages worldwide support. I myself learned more about the events in Paris through social media. These highly accessible platforms of expression facilitate dialogue and community, defying geographical and cultural bounds.
However, there are some aspects of social media solidarity that are potentially problematic.
Yes, I agree with Colbert that we latch onto social media because we feel helpless and want to act. Posting pictures and status updates about the attacks is therefore a form of catharsis. And it’s better than nothing. Many people probably post about the tragedy because it makes them feel better; it relieves them, makes them feel like they contributed to positive change someway, somehow. Although they undoubtedly spread positivity and kindness, these social media trends more often than not extinguish that itching, burning desire to do something. Posting one’s sympathies on social media with hashtags (etc.) is like signing one big Hallmark condolence card: while it is a kind gesture, it relinquishes you of the responsibility to find your own way of enacting long-term change.
Social media solidarity also runs the risk of misdirecting the mass’s attention. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of my friends posted pictures from their vacations to Paris with captions recounting their memories of the city’s beautiful architecture and delicious cuisine. Those who had not been to Paris wistfully commented on how they had always wanted to visit. These posts direct attention to Paris as a place, as a tourist’s favorite, as opposed to a home to millions, a community–they render the people irrelevant. These romanticizations of Paris are ill-timed and, frankly, inappropriate.
The French flag filter on Facebook also turns our attention away from the gruesome events and towards our friends’ faces, stylized by blue, white and red. This filter transforms the demonstration of solidarity into a thoughtless act, as easy as clicking a button–it becomes trivial. Solidarity is trendy. It’s an aesthetic. These filters are a proclamation, as well as a plea for validation: I am aware! I am supportive! I care about the cause! I, I, I!
Not to mention, these filters reinforce our Eurocentrism. There are terrorist attacks occurring worldwide, all too often, but we do not hear about them in this way; we do not see their flags on Facebook. We do not have hashtags for them. Thus, this movement of social media solidarity is indicative of selective empathy, insinuating that some countries have more value than others.
So what do we do about this?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to this, not really. But if it is a more kind and peaceful world that we want, then that is what we must work towards, everyday, all of the time. And hopefully, the magnitude of empathy and support that we saw on social media in response to the Paris attacks will manifest in the real, tangible world as a way of being, as a way of connecting with one another…until it is no longer just a trend.