Social media is a powerful thing. Sites like Facebook and Twitter inform us about one another, unite us under a common social rhetoric, give rise to the Occupy Wall Streets and power to Bernie Sanders, make us smile, laugh, and cry together, and bring the corners of our earth that much closer. Other times, they serve as a painful reminder of the deep chasm that divides our world along ethnic and geographical boundary lines.
As the world is now fully aware, just under a week ago, Paris was hit with a series of bombings and shootings all connected with the international terrorist organization known as ISIS, resulting in the deaths of over 130 people. Following the attacks, a tidal wave of social media activism hit the United States, primarily in the form of French Flags. Within the past week, popular sites put French flags in an unprecedented amount of places—Google had it etched into its home page, Facebook showed red white and blue projected onto scores of international monuments such as Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer and Australia’s Sydney Opera House, and even the Uber app overlaid the normally jet black Uber cars with the tricolor flag as they made their way to customers over the weekend.
These days, it’s just so easy to click “Like” or “Share” that showing solidarity with the people of Paris in this way hardly means anything anymore. So when I wade through hundreds of “Francified” profile pictures on Facebook and #prayforparis hashtags, I can’t help but wonder what this is all doing. Is our unmindful and effortless alignment with social causes—our “slacktivism,” so to speak—justified, or does it reveal a deeper flaw of our westernized, eurocentric culture?
Yes, pray for Paris and the lives that were lost, but realize that doing so so publicly and to the extent that we have only affirms our pervasive bias towards cultures we feel a stronger connection to—whether for religious, cultural, political, or ethnic reasons. With the overwhelming number of posts and circulating articles concerning the Paris attacks, many have overlooked similar tragedies occurring elsewhere across the world, mainly Beirut, where 47 people lost their lives to suicide bombers last Thursday—exactly one day before ISIS hit Paris.
As it turns out, this has become a trend in our society. Through our western lens, we tend to ignore events outside of North America and Europe and only jump on the bandwagon if we feel connected or “close” to those affected in some way. Last April, for example, many simply glossed over the shootings in Kenya, which killed 147 people at Garissa University College, and similarly, countries such as Iraq and Syria face terrorist related violence on a daily basis.
Yet, it was not until the bombings in France—a culture we have always emulated—that we started to really pay attention, and suddenly the ISIS threat feels very close to home in a way that attacks on Lebanon or Kenya did not.
Many Americans have also pointed out this inconsistency in news coverage and voiced similar frustrations over Facebook and Instagram, and the ratio of Paris posts to anti-Paris posts has gradually declined. People are increasingly angry at the media, blaming journalists and news sources for only choosing to focus on Paris, but they’re only telling half of the story. There is an overwhelming disproportionality between media coverage of the attacks in Paris and those in Lebanon and Kenya, but only because we chose Paris, a westernized, democratic nation more closely tied to our economic and political interests than Beirut or Garissa. We clicked the links to stories about Paris, changed our profile pictures, coined the hashtags and thus are collectively responsible for the overwhelming media bias towards Paris.
So instead of pointing fingers at social media for their biased coverage, we should really be questioning our own role in reinforcing racial and political stereotypes. Please keep Paris in your prayers, but challenge yourself to look beyond the victims we feel closer to and remember that we often confine ourselves too strictly to issues that we feel affect our western world more directly. As a country that prides itself on diversity and tolerance, we should reach out to all those affected by terrorism and not be so selective with our attention. Likewise, we become so reliant on Facebook and Instagram as our sources of news—sites that are likely biased by news stories we are more likely to share—when we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. Don’t abandon Facebook, but look to broaden your search to include non-social media like BBC, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera, among others, for coverage of just as important, if less popular, news. There is no easy answer for how to better support all those who are suffering, and no one is saying that mourning for France is wrong—it’s simply not the whole story.