Tricolour Facebook profiles do little to help anyone

KONY 2012. Pride 2015. The French flag overlay for Paris. I’ve felt uncomfortable about this Facebook trend for years. It’s not that I think it’s a harmful gesture, but what does it mean? I believe social media can bring our global community closer, can facilitate activism and journalism. However, if I’d applied the tricolour to my profile picture, my reasons would have been relatively superficial.

At best, you show support for your French peers. The attacks did not need exposure, but if they did one could share news articles. Mostly, what a Frenchified profile does is chime in to support a very acceptable cause, gain a few likes and do little else. Some argue it consoles our French counterparts, and brings us closer in a time of great uncertainty. If it’s done without thought, or for self-serving reasons, I believe that sours the act.

After a tragedy like those that France, Nigeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Mali have experienced this month, those who need social media to reconnect with loved ones are acting on an entirely different plane than those whose priorities are changing their profile picture or sharing news and  inspiring quotes. If you know people in the area affected, you can reach out and ask about their wellbeing rather than making a status.

Social media helps us in such crises, with ways to communicate and access news immediately. But it also shapes our reaction and which incidents we care about. Facebook’s profile picture and Safety Check functions were only enabled for the Paris attacks. In a statement Facebook’s Alex Schultz wrote, “There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.”

Beirut was lumped in with regions where violence is commonplace and he said, “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.’” Schultz and CEO Zuckerberg made several comments about caring about people equally and wanting to help as many people as possible, but anyone can produce a sympathetic sound bite.

I doubt any Parisians out there saw an un-Frenchified profile picture and became offended. This feels like a grandstanding gesture and if I were Parisian it might be nice to see, but there are plenty of more active or meaningful ways to react. Attending a vigil, contacting loved ones or expressing yourself creatively, perhaps. Solidarity and awareness transcend apathy and ignorance, but to me jumping on the bandwagon does no justice to our individual agency or to our international neighbours.

Sometimes all you can do is ensure your loved ones are alright and mourn everyone who is injured or dead. But we should be conscious of what thought goes into social media decisions like this. To me it reads as a choice of Paris over places including Beirut and Baghdad. It reads as an easy way to make yourself look sympathetic and part of a bigger picture without digging deeper. It also reads as a flaunting of privilege, because in the wake of an emergency – or in a wartorn region or in a time of flux – a lot of people affected won’t have the luxury of logging onto Facebook and changing their profile photo.

We must consider the implications of having Facebook decide what we care about, of putting an expiration date on that support and limiting our self-expression to recommended pathways. The meaning of one’s actions depends on the individual, but it cannot hurt to reflect on the bigger picture next time the ‘Try It’ button pops up on your news feed.

Image credit: Steve Terrill

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