by Karen Cuison (16A01D)
I first saw it at the top of my Facebook news feed: a lively exhortation to “Try it Now”. Beside the button, my profile picture – enlarged, and rendered in the French Tricolour. I paused before scrolling down decisively. I didn’t want a flag on my face.
Facebook introduced French flag filters to allow its users to publicly display their solidarity with Parisians, following the unexpected violence of last week. The filters have had their fair share of takers, but thinkpieces critical of them are mushrooming. Most of them accuse Facebook of unfairly ignoring Beirut and Baghdad – countries subjected to attacks on similar scales just hours before Paris was hit, yet left unacknowledged. I most certainly have not read every single article on Paris, or Beirut, or Baghdad, but as Facebook defenders and Facebook offenders battle it out online, I haven’t seen many perspectives that actually try to empathize with Facebook’s decision to offer only one flag filter instead of three. So that is what I will try to do. Empathize.
I think the main reason for the lack of Lebanese or Iraqi flag options on Facebook is the lack of demand for such filters. Not many people have emotional attachments to Beirut or Baghdad. Paris, on the other hand, is bursting with cultural capital. People are likelier to have friends in Paris or to have visited Paris, making them more inclined to want to show solidarity with its people.
Also, the conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon seem quite hard to understand. Both places have suffered from prolonged armed conflict in modern times, which might obfuscate or even decrease the significance of the most recent attacks. Meanwhile, the world hasn’t forgotten about Charlie Hebdo back in France, back in January – a convenient backdrop upon which one can easily understand the rationale for the Paris attacks. Nobody would fight for a plight they don’t understand. And partakers in the epitome of slacktivism, filtering your profile photo, are not likely to bother trying to understand it.
As if that isn’t enough, the arguments for and against free speech are quite applicable to most contexts and locales, including France. The conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq however, are characterized by religious and historical influences that are highly specific to each country. Another impediment to understanding their attacks.
I’m not blaming people for being irresponsible, selective consumers of Eurocentric media, as some others have. After all, the media is shaped by what people want to read – and people are tired of reading about the same old intractable conflicts. We can’t be blamed. These conflicts have no effect whatsoever on our daily lives. And with days already (seemingly) full of first-world angst and commitments, no rational human would spend precious time filling his or herself with stories of death and depression.
I am also not proclaiming the people on the blue, white and red profile photo bandwagon to be an uninformed, passive herd of sheep. On the contrary, I admire their guts in actively making that one profile update that Facebook broadcasts to every single one of their friends, and their confidence in throwing their faces out there to show that they know they have a stake in what is becoming an increasingly globalized fight against terror. That kind of solidarity can only be described as fraternité.
I’m just saying that I am upset at the seeming lack of empathy within the media storm that erupted in the wake of Paris – particularly with Facebook. Yes, it’s rather upsetting that they have provided only one flag filter instead of three, but it is not practical to provide flag filters for every single civil war or crisis. Doing that might even lessen the significance of these filters. Facebook was made to alert us about birthdays, not brutality.
To some extent, I am also upset at the lack of empathy with the people of Beirut, Baghdad and other similarly troubled parts of the world that didn’t make it to international headlines, or the tail-end of a conventional internet odyssey. But as I mentioned above, this is, at its core, chicken-and-egg situation, and it is not one that can be fixed easily. Even then, how are we to know whether “fixing” the situation would be for the better, or for the worse? The lazy answer is that we can’t. The simple answer is that we might never know.