How Facebook has the power to unite us – and divide us – in times of crisis

The reaction to the Paris terror attacks seemed to divide Facebook users as much as it brought them together. Siobhan Smith considers how the world’s biggest social media platform has influenced how we respond to public tragedies

The world was quick to rise in a unified voice of condemnation after Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, offering support and expressing solidarity and messages of peace on social media.

Hashtags such as #porteouverte surfaced quickly on Twitter, usefully providing places of refuge to stranded citizens.

However, as time went on cracks began to appear, and it seemed that there was often more squabbling than sympathy on social media, not helped by Facebook’s own interventions.

Attention Hijacking and Tragedy Hipsters

Paris Attacks
Tributes left at the Place de la Republique in Paris – Getty Images

The day before the Paris attacks on Friday, suicide bombers killed 43 in Beirut, with at least 200 injured. While the incident was reported by the media, it didn’t pick up much attention on social media, and certainly wasn’t offered united support from the global citizens of Facebook.

Rather than allow people to pay tribute to the Paris attacks in whichever way wanted to, many have taken it upon themselves to point out what they view as hypocrisy or double standards by anyone who didn’t post a message about this other tragedy.

One potent question started to spread: why does the Paris atrocity matter more than the bombings in Beirut? Why does Paris matter more than the 147 people killed in the Kenyan University bombing earlier this year? Or Peshawar in Pakistan, where 141 people were killed last year, including 132 schoolchildren?

The western world didn’t start updating their Facebook profile photos en masse about these events. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t intervene then with an easy tool to allow them do so at the click of a button.

And while there is certainly some weight in that argument, there is a much larger discussion about people feeling as though Western lives are more important, that this represents a clear bias in our attention spans.

In a stream of Tweets, Jamiles Lartey, a Guardian US journalist, discussed the idea of “Tragedy Hipsters” and urged people to stop belittling others for expressing an opinion about the Paris attacks.

We can all probably think of at least a few ‘tragedy hipsters’ on our own newsfeeds, but there is a valid point that shouldn’t be ignored.

Terrorist attacks are happening almost every day. And largely, we ignore them.

This isn’t because they’re going unreported; it’s because, for a variety of reasons, they exist in the margins of our collective consciousness.

And in countries blighted by decades of bloodshed, often fuelled by misguided western interventions and foreign policy, they unfortunately seem less remarkable, when compared to terrorist violence on the relatively ‘safe’ streets of Europe or America.

Lartey also discussed the idea of ‘Attention Hijacking’ – which he described as being when people attempt to raise the profile of other incidents off the back of an event like the Paris attacks.

Similarly, Frank Bruni of the New York Times complained about the eagerness to use the attacks as a springboard for sounding off about often unrelated issues.

“Before we knew all that much about what had happened, before many Americans had even caught word of it, before the ones who were aware had moved past horror and numbness, Paris wasn’t just a massacre. It was a megaphone to be used for whatever you yearned to shout.”

While this argument is convincing, there is also a strong counter-argument, the “Tragedy Hipster” argument, for calling out perceived double standards in what is deemed important. And, crucially, who decides what is important.

In the same way people have said they should be allowed to express grief, solidarity or anger about the Paris attacks, they should be allowed to voice their opinions freely on other tragic events. Shouldn’t they?

The Tricolore Filter

There are always going to be disputes and divided opinions amongst Facebook users – and that’ healthy. There are over a billion of us, after all.

But was it the intervention of Facebook itself that fuelled this particularly heated debate?


Mark Zukerberg got the ball rolling by prompting us with the option to add a French flag filter to our profile pictures, as a gesture of solidarity.

Facebook users followed in their droves, and over the weekend most of our newsfeeds probably resembled a wall of red, white and blue.

This did more than outrage the “tragedy hipsters”; people from all corners of the globe started questioning why Facebook hadn’t offered this feature for any other country in times of national crisis?

After all, millions of innocent civilians have been killed in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon, to name a few.

Did Facebook make the right decision in their flag tribute? With such a delicate subject, would they have been better to let people post their own individual tributes, photos and messages, rather than provide an opt in/opt out feature?

An interesting “experiment’ on this topic came from Rurik Bradbury, owner of a well known Twitter parody account, who Tweeted a fake claim that the Eiffel Tower had turned off its lights as a mark of respect. He stated that it was the first time the lights had been switched off since 1889.

Apart from the fact that this is obviously a nonsensical claim (fully lit up through two World Wars, for starters, and the lighting was only installed in 1925), the Eiffel Tower lights are turned off every night at 1am.

The hoax/social experiment spread: his false message was retweeted over 28,000 times and even used by Fox News (although perhaps that’s less than surprising).

Bradbury has explained that he was using the Tweet to show how quickly people get caught up in an event and feel the need to comment on it.

“But the part that feels the most useless to me is people’s vicarious participation in the event, which on the ground is a horrible tragedy, but in cyberspace is flattened to a meme like any other,” said Bradbury in an email to the Washington Post.

“Millions of people with no connection to Paris or the victims mindlessly throw in their two cents: performative signaling purely for their own selfish benefit, spreading information that is often false and which they have not vetted at all, simply for the sake of making noise.

“Instead of silence or helpfulness, social media pukes out stupidity, virtue-signaling and vicarious “enjoyment” (in a psychoanalytic sense) of a terrible tragedy by people thousands of miles away, for whom the event is just a meme they will participate in for a couple of days, then let fade into their timeline.”

“Letting the picture fade into your timeline.” This begs the question: when is it OK to turn your picture back to normal? A few days? A week? A month?

Hubert Southall, a Vietnamese based designer, has since offered his services to create tribute flags for Kenya, Lebanon and Iraq.

Hubert Southall / Facebook

“I am struggling to keep up,” he has said. “I’ve had requests from thousands of people from over 30 countries. People want a way to support without exclusion. I think it’d be great if all designers offer their services on Facebook to help out. Adding a filter over someone’s picture takes about 10 seconds to do.”

While this is, in essence, a positive and supportive move, is it perhaps creating more division when it becomes easy to judge at first glance where a person’s attentions lie? Is it a needlessly reactive move in a time of heightened emotions?

Safety Check

One undeniably useful feature that Facebook enabled in the wake of the attacks was the ‘Safety Check’ app, which allowed people to check in and let their friends and family know that they were safe and well.

This feature was launched for the Nepal Earthquake disaster but has never before been used for a terror attack

safety check

In the space of 24 hours, 4.1 million people checked in as being “safe” and the tool has largely been praised for its functionality in a time of crisis.

But the bone of contention again lay in why Facebook hadn’t enabled this tool for previous terrorist attacks, such as the Beirut bombings the day before.

“In the case of natural disasters, we apply a set of criteria that includes the scope, scale and impact,” said Facebook’s vice president of growth, Alex Schultz. “During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly “safe.” Each time we have launched the tool, we’ve improved it.

“We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding… We talked with our employees on the ground, who felt that there was still a need that we could fill. So we made the decision to try something we’ve never done before: activating Safety Check for something other than a natural disaster. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.”

Zuckerburg has since announced that Facebook will activate Safety Check for more disasters going forward, saying that “we care about all people equally”.

mark z statement

It has become clear that, while social media can be used for good as an outlet for grief and a way of establishing contact in times of disaster, perhaps Facebook shouldn’t intervene with tools and visual tributes, and just let people post what they want.

The arguments around “tragedy hipsters” and Facebook’s French flag filter in particular have only detracted from the real matter at hand, and perpetuated the sense that everything, even the most terrible tragedies, can be reduced to a meme.

One icon that did seem to go viral without the aid of a tech giant was a simple sketch of the Eiffel Tower by designer Jean Jullien:

"Peace for Paris" Illustration by @jean_jullien #jesuisparis 🇫🇷

A photo posted by Instagram (@instagram) on

This was a simple message of peace that resonated with millions precisely because it transcended politics and expressed two human emotions that we all felt over the weekend: sadness and sympathy.