In the wake of a series of horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that left over 100 dead and many more wounded, people across the globe have moved quickly to denounce the violence and express their solidarity with France. Famous monuments such as the Sydney Opera House, the statue of Christ the Redeemer and the World Trade Center lit up the colors of the Tricolore. Snapchat offered a temporary filter with the text “Pray for Paris,” and Facebook gave its users the option to superimpose the French flag on their profile pictures.
The day after the attacks, I checked my Facebook feed and encountered a sea of red, white and blue; my Facebook friends had changed their profile pictures in an attempt to express their support for the nation of France. Feeling moved by this display of solidarity, I quickly decided to take up Facebook’s offer and change my profile picture too.
Then, in the very moment I clicked post, a question occurred to me: Was there any value in what I just did?
I tried to process the rationale behind my decision. Did I change my profile picture to raise awareness? Absolutely not. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know this tragedy occurred.
Did I do it to console people in a time of grief? Well, if that was my objective, I wasn’t sure if seeing the French flag overlaid over Facebook profile pictures was of genuine solace to people intimately connected with France. To get more insight, I spoke with junior Emily Read, who lived in a small town outside of Paris for several years. She changed her Facebook profile picture to the “Peace for Paris” Eiffel Tower graphic that was widely popularized on social media in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“Seeing people’s profile pictures and buildings across the world light up red, white and blue is nice because it’s really uniting,” Read said. “We can’t really do anything actively about the attacks, but we can at least show our support.”
Read did note that she was personally disappointed by the fact that Facebook had made it an option to overlay only the French flag, when there had been so many attacks in other parts of the world. However, she criticized some for perpetuating the notion that the attention directed toward the tragedy in France was excessive.
“I did not like that some people negated the support toward Paris and said ‘Why are we supporting Paris so much? We should be supporting the other places instead,’” she said. “We shouldn’t be neglecting our support toward Paris; we should be supporting everyone at the same time.”
Of course, perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding the social media movement is that these gestures are inherently Eurocentric. We had the option to display our support for France, but not for Lebanon, nor Syria nor any other nation that experienced tremendous tragedies that same day. Have people, perhaps inadvertently, espoused Western-centrism by making this display of solidarity?
Even if the gesture does come across as Western-centric, all the blame cannot be placed squarely on the individuals who adopted it. The reason that so many Americans sprung to change their profile pictures to the flag of France and not that of other nations is the result of years and years of close cultural ties with Europe, in tandem with minimal media coverage in non-Western nations. I’m not suggesting that we should shirk our obligations to be informed about world affairs — rather, I’m simply saying that this kind of social media mobilization in response to a tragedy in a western European nation should not have been unexpected.
Ultimately, I don’t think that the outpouring of support on social media in this manner was inherently ill-intentioned. It may come across as perfunctory and not all that useful — how is superimposing the French flag over our faces supposed to solve anything? — but there is, oddly enough, an element of pragmatism in such a gesture. It stems from the realization that we don’t have the capability to solve the insidious problem at hand, but we can show our solidarity. And of course, social media is one of the most accessible platforms to display that sentiment.
The French flag stunt is simply the most recent manifestation of a wide-spread cultural phenomenon — taking to social media to express support for causes that are morally resonant but perhaps feel remote and intangible. We should be careful to avoid thinking that social media activity is the sole way we can make a difference. I know that none of us are going to single-handedly stamp out terrorism, but we do have a role to play. We can, for example, combat the rampant Islamophobia and xenophobia that is unfounded and causes extremist organizations to fester, while still engaging in meaningful dialogue about eradicating terrorism. Furthermore, we can take it upon ourselves to become more informed citizens (perhaps all that entails is parsing over the World News section for a little bit longer).
At some point, the last traces of red, white and blue will disappear from our newsfeeds, perhaps to be replaced by another social media crusade. There is some value to be found in such a display, but it’s important that we are not deluded into thinking symbolism is the only means by which we can effect change.