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Editor’s Letter: Social Media’s Helping Hand

This week has undoubtedly been a difficult and scary one for a lot of people around the world. The Paris attacks were a real awakening of the frighteningly increasing levels of terrorism that we are facing today. We have had a range of respectful and informative articles on the website this week in response to the events on the 13th of November. Bethan’s column gave an insight into just one of the many victims of the attacks, indicating how it’s difficult to get caught up in statistics when it comes to deaths. Her evocative article portrayed the absolute horror that was brought on so many innocent victims like Mimi. Mabel’s piece was an extremely interesting take on recent events, highlighting just how important multiculturalism is in the UK and that we should continue to endorse and celebrate it. In light of the Paris attacks, much has been said about the the fact that outside of the Western World, this kind of violence is not uncommon and that media attention is extremely “eurocentric” in this sense. Annabel discussed this issue in her article, reminding us of places like Beirut and Baghdad which have faced extremely violent terrorist attacks last week as well as Paris. Her article was a somewhat unnerving reminder that terrorism is in fact transnational.

In light of the events, and the articles this week, I want to discuss the role that social media has played. With France being our neighbour, when the news broke, waves of fear were spread around the UK.  Most of us know someone who is living in Paris at the moment, like a friend from university on their year abroad for example, so naturally everyone was desperate to know if their friends and loved ones were safe. This is where Facebook came in. Facebook is arguably the biggest social media outlet today, with its users spanning many ages. Naturally, as the news about Paris spread, we all logged into our Facebook accounts to find out what was going on. What we found was that Facebook had initiated an option for those in Paris to “mark yourself as safe”. All the friends of that person would receive a notification to confirm that this person was safe in the disaster. Within seconds, it immediately reassured thousands of people that their loved ones were okay – a remarkable occurrence.

Facebook is often criticised for promoting shallowness when it comes to friendships. A lot of my friends often remark that they think Facebook can be a poor excuse for keeping up with people because it can make people lazy about directly speaking to a friend when they can be updated on their life simply through sifting through photos and statuses. While this is certainly true in many ways, for this particular evening, Facebook’s ability to send out an indirect message en masse was crucial. Thinking back to the world wars where women, mothers and children were at home in England, often with very little idea of whether their loved ones were safe, or indeed alive, we are extremely lucky now to have something which can immediately remove this uncertainty in disasters. 

(Photo Credit: Facebook)

Not only was it Facebook that got on board after the attacks but Twitter did too. Twitter was home to the “PorteOuverte” hashtag which allowed stranded Parisians to find shelter and support during the attacks. Again, the power of social media to send a message out to the masses in a matter of seconds was unbelievable. Even for those far away from where the attacks were happening, to be able to see through a social media website that people were getting the care and help they needed, was a real comfort.

Another slightly more controversial move by social media was the introduction of the filters of the French flag on people’s Facebook profile pictures. An arguably less effective mechanism, the filter has come under a lot of scrutiny in the media this week. An article on the New Statesman summarised this cynicism:

“If none of your Facebook friends were personally affected by the attacks, then the only people who will see your new profile picture and so-called declaration of support are those who do not need supporting. By changing a photo of yourself for a week, you are doing nothing for the victims; instead, you are making the issue about yourself, by making your public, online persona appear more sympathetic. These arbitrary changes mean nothing in real terms, and they belittle the seriousness of the situation in Paris by the fact that they are in the company of videos of dancing dogs or memes of Kylie Jenner. Thus, some people view these acts of “support” as insensitive and indicative only of the depressing idea that people love to be part of a crisis.”

It’s a convincing argument and one which I do agree with, in part. The argument in favour of the filters is similar to what I have already said about social media’s part in this crisis: the filters become widespread and therefore awareness travels far and quickly. However, I do not think that a Facebook filter is by any means an appropriate outlet to raise awareness of these horrific attacks. The media, that is television, radio and news (both online and in print) is our best and most effective method of raising awareness. It provides up to date information for people of everything that is going on around the world. On Friday night, everyone found out through the media about what was going on in Paris. I find it very hard to believe that people were made aware of the crisis through a Facebook filter. Now obviously, another major argument in favour of the filters is to show support. By no means am I against this, for I do believe that with such a strong and wide network of people in tow, social media does have the power to portray the support and united front of millions of people. However, I have to admit that I do find it slightly jarring to see the filter over a picture of a girl in a crop top sipping on a cocktail in Malia – something to me just doesn’t feel right about that.

What I am trying to say is that in comparison to the other two social media interventions – the marking yourself safe button and the effective “PorteOuverte” hashtag – the Facebook filter really does not hold up. The first two interventions provide real and effective aid for victims and families whilst the filter might be used by someone who actually has little idea of what is going on, therefore begging the question, what is the point? Instead of filters, let’s show our support through articles, direct messages to loved ones, donations to aid teams and other actions which require more attention than adding a filter to our pictures – something that is an everyday occurrence for many people. A lot of my friends have the filters and I totally respect their choice to use it, but I personally don’t see how a filter on someone’s profile picture (which, more often than not, is bound up with vanity and popularity) can really make a difference. Social media has the potential to do incredible things in times of crisis, but I do not think Facebook filters are the best option.

Of course it must be remembered that the real care and support actually comes from the people who open their houses, the people who send messages of good wishes. But, the social media outlets which allow this to happen, Twitter and Facebook, must not be discredited. Regardless of mine and many other people’s opinions of the filter in particular, it has to be said that in the midst of a crisis, social media played its vital part in providing aid and reassurance to millions of people and that is something which cannot be ignored.

Alex is one of the two CC's for Her Campus Bristol. She is passionate about creating an online magazine which is both funny and accessible but also political and controversial. Alex wants to encourage all writers to write the unwritten and not be afraid to voice all their opinions. She is a keen feminist and enjoys having Her Campus as a space for young women in Bristol to express their freedom on and off campus. xoxo
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