I saw a post on Facebook yesterday that made me very angry, although I do not disagree with all the points it makes. The post was made public. I do not know the writer, however, and I am not going to publish his/her name here. Personal attacks and slagging matches are not my thing.
The questions the person posted are in bold, and I have written my answers below each one.
Exercise in critical thinking.
Are the people changing their profile pictures to a French flag picture the same who changed their profile picture to a Pride flag a few months ago? Interesting how the profile filter is used for both celebration and mourning.
I did not, as it happens, change my filter to the French flag today, although I did write a brief post expressing my shock and horror over what had happened, along with a picture from Le Monde that I found moving and appropriate.
If you have changed your profile picture, what is the meaning of the French flag filter for you?
I would like to answer this on the behalf of my many Facebook friends who did change their pictures. There were a whole host of reasons behind that decision, some of which I am aware, and others of which I am not. Two have lived in Paris, and spent many anxious hours contacting friends to make sure they were OK. Quite a few are Muslims, and have been devastated to see their religion used by a small minority to excuse mass murder. Others, I imagine, heard the news yesterday and simply felt distraught and helpless. They cannot comfort those who have lost loved ones in person. But they wish to express their empathy and solidarity.
How do you think it makes other people perceive you?
You are implying, of course, that the people who changed their profile pictures were merely ‘virtue-signalling’, that modish phrase suggesting such online gestures have no real substance or feeling behind them, but are used to show the person in question is ‘right on’. We use social media to form digital identities, and many of us are guilty of posting pictures and messages merely to gain ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’ from our Followers or FB Friends. But when a huge number of people choose to display grief using a particular visual symbol, it will hardly have an impact on how they, as individuals, are perceived.
Now that we are on the subject of seeking approval, though, do you think you yourself might be entirely innocent of this very 21st century vice? As you posted your list of clever questions, I wonder if you experienced a little frisson, thinking about how ‘ahead of the curve’ you were, how intellectually superior to all these sheep-like FB users who had decided to show their outrage and sadness communally.
There is always an element of discomfort in using social media sites to comment on large-scale tragedies, simply because they are designed for self-promotion. But do we really want Facebook reserved for selfies and pictures of our desserts?
How do you negotiate the fact that Facebook only cares about European lives (it did not offer flags from non-European countries when such countries are victims of terrorist attacks)?
You are right. Eurocentrism reigns supreme in the media, both traditional and social, and that is wrong on so many levels. But why do you choose to express your anger about this by obliquely criticizing those who have shared their sorrow online? Would it not be better to raise awareness of terrorism and suffering in other parts of the world?
Would you have changed your profile picture to a Lebanon flag if it had been an option?
As stated previously, I did not choose to change my profile picture. I did post a story about the Lebanon bombing, as did many of my friends who did change their pictures. But, yes, Facebook needs to re-consider its approach on this.
What does it take for you to change your profile picture?
A celebration of an achievement (eg. marriage for all in the USA a few months ago)?
I did change my filter to the Pride flag when the law in the US and Ireland changed. I have quite a few gay and bisexual friends, and I was elated on their behalf.
Deaths? If so, how many deaths does it take? And the deaths of whom?
I choose not to change my profile picture in response to disaster or atrocities, because it does make me feel uneasy. But I would never dare to tell other people not to. Would you go to a funeral and openly sneer at a mourner who is wearing black for being ‘ostentatious’? If you saw a stranger wearing the Marie Curie daffodil, or a pink ribbon for breast cancer, would you scold them for not donating to a Malaria charity instead? I suspect not, mostly because we tend to shy away from face-to-face confrontation, but also because you have no idea why that person is wearing the ribbon or badge. They may have lost a child or a parent to the disease in question. You have no right to tell them what to feel sad about or how to express that sadness.
You ask about numbers of deaths, I assume, because disasters and atrocities in other parts of the world have claimed more lives. Yes, racism plays a part in deciding which tragedies are covered in depth by the mainstream media. Do you think your post will do anything to draw attention to this injustice?
Did other people influence your choice of changing your profile picture (ie. friends and family who had done so)?
I suspect some of my friends did decide to change their pictures because they saw that others had done so. They saw an opportunity to express their horror and they acted on it.
Do you feel pressured to do it?
If so, what do you think would happen if you decided not to change it whilst many of your friends and family had changed it?
Nothing happened. Nobody commented on it.
And I do not believe, incidentally, that anybody changed their picture out of fear of opprobium.
Do you believe showing ‘solidarity’ on Facebook through the practice of changing profile pictures should achieve anything? If so, what should it achieve?
Do you think it will?
It will not raise the dead. It will not stop those crazed by ideology from killing again. It may, however, help some people to find comfort in fellow feeling at a time of great trouble and fear. And it does not prevent concerned people from taking real world action (going on demonstrations, donating to relevant charities, talking to those close to them about the issues, etc.) Indeed, it may act, in a small way, as a catalyst for activism
Incidentally, I do not think that questions meant to steer respondents to your own way of thinking can be classed as an ‘Exercise in Critical Thinking’. By all means, do your best to expose the bias and racism of the mainstream media. But do not pour scorn on people who are trying to respond, in their own way, to the enormity of recent events.