I learned about the recent Paris terror attacks from my Facebook feed when a friend posted a link to CNN’s live updates of the situation. Later in the evening, I also saw in my feed that a friend studying in Paris was “marked safe during The Paris Terror Attacks.” As Friday night went on, and the severity of the attacks became increasingly clear, what seemed like half of my Facebook friends had added a French flag filter to their profile pictures, and an equal number of my Snapchat friends had added a picture with the French flag to their “My Story.”
Social media plays a huge role in how we interact with tragedy, as it does with so many other important aspects of our lives. As it becomes a more integrated part of our society, we must grapple with the implications it has on how we interact with each other and the world.
The ISIS-affiliated Paris terror attacks, with their repulsive barbarism, incited a social media response that exemplifies the complex and ambivalent relationship between social media, solidarity and activism.
Societal movements and revolutions would not be what they are today without social media. We would not have the Black Lives Matter movement as we know it without the jarring video of Eric Garner gasping “I can’t breath,” as he is being choked to death. Maybe, we would still have the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt without the Twitter revolutionaries of the Arab Spring. Social media can have a great impact on social change.
Social media has also played a large role in society’s reaction to tragedy, with campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls and the current social media reaction to the Paris attacks.
This type of activism can certainly be a source of good. It raises awareness among those who may not follow the news but do follow their friends’ activities on Facebook. When a Facebook friend posts an article about the Paris terror attacks, you see it just as you would photos from their family trip to Paris.
Social media also spreads information more quickly than traditional media. As fast as a tweet can be typed, the news can reach the world.
Anyone can contribute to social news and open the spread of information, not just media institutions and their limited perspectives.
But this limited perspective can extend to social media as well. Social media thrives on what is trendy above all else.
Take the case of the Nov. 12 terror attack that Beirut fell victim to. Forty-three innocent civilians were slain by ISIS suicide bombers. The attack received a fraction of the attention in America that Paris’ attack received. It could be endlessly debated why this is, be it because of racism, lack of familiarity with the city, a calloused attitude toward violence in the Middle East or some combination thereof.
There have been other comparable attacks this year that have received even less attention than the Beirut bombings. There have been multiple terror attacks in West Africa and Iraq perpetrated by Boko Haram and ISIS respectively, in which more than 100 innocents were killed.
Where were the hashtags and profile picture filters for these people, suffering from the same unjust deaths as the victims in France?
Even when something goes viral on social media, like the outpouring of sympathy for France, it does not equate to meaningful results. Being an activist on social media is pretty easy. It only requires a share, hashtag or Facebook profile picture filter to show you care. But if support stops when you click on the Post button, it is but only a token demonstration of solidarity.
However, token solidarity is better than no solidarity. Your social media friends can learn more about an issue from your post. But even if everyone on the internet were to add a flag filter to their profile picture or send a Tweet with #Paris, it would not do a thing to stop ISIS or ease the pain of those who have lost loved ones to terrorism.
Perhaps most concerning is that social media discussion of an issue or a demonstration of solidarity comes with the bereaved risks of being warped into yet another means of accumulating the currencies of social media prestige, be they Likes, Favorites, Retweets or Replays.
We can never know if someone is posting because they care or if they are fishing for likes, but personally it is worth keeping your intentions in mind before deciding to post. If you are just posting to get Likes, maybe consider getting a profile picture with Jimmy Carter instead — those seem to get a ton of Likes.
As social media becomes ever more integral to our social interaction, we must consider before and analyze after, our actions on it. We must keep in mind that the same ethical considerations in the digital realm also regulate our real world interactions.
Think about the issue you are posting about. Read some articles about it. Do not let your post be your only interaction with whatever the trending topic is.
Ben Perlmutter is a College senior from Chappaqua, New York.