Can Europe Make It?

Which lives do we mourn? And other questions we no longer decide for ourselves

What control does Facebook have over our experience of tragedy?

Kieran Ford
19 November 2015
Berlin mourns after Paris attacks.

Berlin mourns after Paris attacks. Demotix/Christina Palitzsch. All rights reserved. As news began to roll in of the horror unfolding on the streets of Paris on Friday night, it was Facebook where I went to get timely updates, to react with friends and indeed, to make sure that someone I knew who was visiting Paris at the time, was safe.

Facebook once again, and the online community in general became the eyes through which I could witness the events unfolding.Yet through watching my online community come together in grief, we learned uncomfortable things about Facebook's role in our mourning. What control does Facebook have over our experience of tragedy?

As often is the case in our modern world, it was online where friends could share with one another, to express our anger, sorrow, solidarity and fear as one community. With messages of prayer, thought, wishes and solidarity, we could express something to the online community that without technology in a previous generation may have remained much more restrained in a church, home or other private setting.

Facebook, and social media in general, have brought private lives into public view. Whether through sharing photos of birthday parties or post-work drinks, or through expressing a political opinion, a comment on a news article, whereas in a pre-technological era we would have expressed such things privately, now we do so publicly.

We no longer print out camera film to share over cups of tea on the sofa, we no longer cut out news articles we might have thought a friend would have found interesting. Instead, as we post, comment, muse and share, two things happen. Firstly, we end up doing all these things in front of many more people, who never would have sat down on the sofa next to us, who never would have received the news cutting or rescued the paper that might be of interest. Secondly, if we don't post these things, and publicly acknowledge the tragedy around us, it raises some doubt as to whether we have acknowledged them at all.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks such a new way of expressing grief and anger emerged. First, a public comment became essential. To not comment, to remain silent was no longer an option. There remains no room for private opinion it seems in today's world. We could not simply pray, or send our thoughts, or wish in solidarity that those in Paris could feel our pain, sorrow and anger.

If we didn't post, it didn't happen.

This became even more acutely obvious when Facebook offered us the chance to place a tricolour lens upon our photo. I watched as picture after picture changed colour, as more and more people expressed something that was at one level so wonderful – what could be better than an expression of humanity's connection in times of tragedy? - and yet on another level, I felt a great sense of discomfort. I felt this because in some sense I felt powerless, that there was a level of disconnect between me and my voice – if I did not change my picture, then what message did that send?

Having made my life public through having Facebook at all, to not change my picture was to send as much of a message as to change it. I was left with no choice – without speaking. My opinion was there, as crystal clear as it would have been if I'd just simply said what everyone else was saying. I had lost control of my voice.

Facebook was telling us how to feel. This is not to say that many of us did not want to express our feelings in as many ways as possible, and that Facebook offered many outlets that seemed to allow us to do such things. We wanted to tell everyone how sad we were, to express what we could of this seemingly unimaginable violence – so we told them. We wanted to show we were in solidarity with Paris, so we changed our pictures. Yet, as the dust settled, and shock turned to talk, to discussion and debate, Facebook's perceived acts of humanity turned slightly sour.

In the days before the Paris attacks in Beirut, 40 people were killed in attacks by ISIS. Since the Paris attacks, Boko Haram, in Nigeria, it has been estimated, has killed nearly 2000 people. In the war in Syria seemingly countless numbers of unarmed civilians, men, women and children have been killed. Some started to ask – where was Facebook's Syrian flag, Lebanese flag, Nigerian flag? Why did Facebook decide that the deaths in Paris were worth our mourning, and indeed – why did Facebook allow users to tell their networks that they were ‘safe’ after the Paris attacks, but such features were not accessible in other parts of the world?

It may seem like a side issue when facing the horror of death and tragedy on the streets of Paris. Yet, through witnessing atrocity through social media, we learn many things. Not only the horrors of the violence in the world, but also how public our voices have become, and how certain lives appear to matter more than others. Perhaps what is most worrying of all, is that in this world where social media is King, it is not necessarily us who get to decide whose lives we want to measure as equal to one another.

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