I’m not sure how long it took after the Paris attacks before the first hashtags and photo filters popped up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But it was probably instantaneous. As soon as I saw the posts, the questions popped into my head. What is the point of these posts? Is it purely out of sympathy and solidarity with our French brethren who have suffered so much? Or is it out of some sort of look-at-me, “I care, too” mentality? In other words, a feeling of narcissism? I certainly hope it’s not the latter.
It made me want to steer clear of social media for a few days.
Check out THIS article from The Washington Post which put the issue on display.
Here’s a quote from the article that crystallized how I felt:
“People are motivated to control and craft their public persona,” said Karen North, a communication professor at the University of Southern California, who studies social media. “These events offer an opportunity to present themselves as ‘good people’ and/or people who are knowledgeable.”
I’m not saying that people who post on Facebook about tragedies like the Paris attacks are posers or insincere. All of us bleed blue, white and red when we see the horrid images and hear the disgusting details of what a bunch of thugs and murderers did to a free-loving, peaceful, democratic society that mirrors our own in many ways. Many of my Facebook friends and family members, whom I know are kind, thoughtful, value-oriented people, made a gesture of support or solidarity with the French. But my concern is this: when death and terror strike, is a Facebook post or a photo filter necessary? Is it an effective way to make a difference? Do those posts do anything to assuage the pain and hurt of a country reeling from a sucker punch of carnage and should that be our aim?
If we post on Facebook about the terrorist attacks in Paris, should we not post when ISIS murders more than 40 people in Beirut a week ago? Where was the image of the Lebanese flag? How about a non-ISIS crisis? Who put up a South Carolina photo filter when that young man shot up a church and callously killed several people earlier this year? My point is that tragedies happen each day all over the world and by cherry-picking the ones that we post about and publicly pray for are we diminishing those very prayers?
It also feels like a matter of scale. The people at the Parisian theater, restaurants and on the streets endured a terrifying violence that would fill our nightmares forever. Does a mere post on social media expressing a few kind words equate?
As all of these thoughts jammed into my head I had a conversation with a young man from France who was studying in the U.S. He had a different take. He said he was grateful to see French flags superimposed on people’s Facebook photos and the French colors popping up randomly online.
I think part of it is that we want to feel connected. We want to put a virtual hand on the shoulder of Parisians and say, “We’re sorry.” It’s nice. It’s thoughtful. It shows that we care. But in many instances in life when people suffer, many of us struggle with how to respond. What word or platitude is going to assuage the horror that people in Paris suffered?
Sometimes it feels like posting on Facebook or Twitter is a knee-jerk reaction to any and all events in our lives — from whether the bathroom in the new barbecue restaurant down the street is filthy or how we hate waiting in line to get our license renewed or how angry we are about a terrorist group inflicting unspeakable agony and emotional and physical distress on an entire nation. Maybe that’s the problem — posting on social media doesn’t make change. It affects the poster, not the postee. It makes the people who post feel slightly better that we might be dropping a virtual coin into a vast, ocean-sized wishing well of good vibes.
Ultimately, what does it change? If we want to make and effect real change, we must think broader and act boldly. Are there things that we can do in light of the Paris attacks to alter the conversation or the tide of world events? Sure, we feel powerless, which is one of the reasons why opening an app and writing something on our ubiquitous devices is such an easy remedy. But volunteering to give blood for victims, getting involved politically or financially supporting aid agencies assisting with Syrian refugees will create more of a lasting, permanent difference.