In the moments following the Paris attacks, the hashtag #PorteOuverte (‘Open Door’ in English) started circulating on Twitter. It offered shelter and protection for many affected individuals in nearby apartments. A few hours later, Facebook activated its ‘Safety Check’ feature, allowing 5.4 million Parisians to communicate to their friends, family and loved ones that they were well and safe.
The bulk of the response to the attacks relied on the efficiency of professional emergency structures like the police, the army, fire departments, and hospitals. But in the digital age, social media and tech companies have an increasingly large role to play as well. They can help affected populations react to the events as they unfold, and they can help shape society’s long-term response in their aftermath.
Some of these responses have been portrayed as cynical. The Guardian columnist Jessica Reed, for example, argues that Amazon displaying a French flag on its homepage after the attacks represents vested corporate interest in an attempt to “capitalise on grief”. In a sense she is right and, furthermore, corporations should not advertise political stances if there is a potential conflict of interest. Yet it is also crucial to remember that corporations are made up of people, and Amazon has many French employees. An equally valid alternative is that they were genuinely expressing grief.
There are many debates like this over the tech world’s reactions to the attacks in France. Perhaps the most sensitive one concerns Facebook’s decision to activate SafetyCheck for Paris when it did not for the bombings in Beirut the day before. As with Amazon, this can be viewed cynically or naively, but it should not take priority over the call for global solidarity against the common threat of terrorism. However, it is encouraging to see that Facebook has learnt the lesson and has since enabled SafetyCheck for Boko Haram attacks in Lagos, Nigeria.
Where social networks can provide vital information for ensuring safety, it can also later act as a medium for recovery. The #TousauBistrot (‘Everyone to the bar’) hashtag going round on Twitter in France has been a vital reaction to the killings in Parisian cafés and restaurants; it is a way of saying that life needs to go on.
Unfortunately, social networks can also be breeding grounds for misinformation and violence. Countless false alarms, hoaxes, and distorted information circulated feverishly after the attacks. The internet can facilitate the spread of graphic content, often filmed by amateurs, that can be morbidly fascinating for viewers and social networks can be used by terrorists to recruit new members or propogate indoctrination. All of this can be disturbing psychologically.
Technology is bringing us closer to terrifying events, but it can also impose a strange distance on them. It can help deal with horror, but it can foster desensitisation and oversimplification.
In the digital era, where things move extremely fast, we need to bear in mind that while social networks can help, they cannot solve everything. For one, Facebook’s option to overlay your profile picture with the colours of the French flag is one way to express support, but it is only a start. Defeating Isis’ global culture of fear will take much more than that.
Image: Rob Potvin