After the terror attack in Paris, my Facebook page exploded. To my relief, my Parisian classmates were marked “safe” with Facebook’s unusually active feature, Safety Check. Meanwhile, my other “friends” filtered their profile photos with the French tricolored flag, shared Jean Jullien’s “Peace for Paris” painting, and tagged their statuses #PrayForParis. Through these expressions, they extended their solidarity to France.
With these widespread reactions to the Paris attack, a Time magazine article, “Why the world cries more for the City of Light,” stated that “social media (has) allowed people to participate and sympathize in ways, however small, with those who may be thousands of miles away.”
Indeed, social media provides us the opportunity to connect beyond our borders. But, as much as it provides us this unbounded opportunity, we use it to confine and constrict our connections to the Western world.
The day before the Paris attack, Beirut suffered a double suicide bombing that killed 43 civilians. Although this was the deadliest attack since 1990 in Beirut, Facebook’s Safety Check was not activated during this Islamic State act of terrorism. Lebanese flag filter features, unavailable. Hashtags, hushed. The social media world, silent.
Despite the disgust some FB friends expressed for this bias in social media coverage, our silence for Beirut should not shock us. Rather, our reactions – or lack thereof – reveal the selective sympathy we practiced before social media existed. Before Facebook, Martha Nussbaum recognized our selective sympathy in her 2003 essay “Compassion and Terror.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, Nussbaum compared our different reactions to the 9/11 attacks with other international atrocities, including the genocide in Rwanda. Pointing out that this mass slaughter of an ethnic group failed to evoke enough emotion for intervention, she noted that we reserved our compassion for “concerns close to home.”
More than a decade later, Nussbaum’s argument still rings true. While social media have granted us greater access to the globe, our social mentality remains regional. Trending social media stories continue to focus on western countries; while an ISIS rampage in a Tunisian museum killed 22 in March, it did not receive the same social media coverage as the Charlie Hebdo attack. Despite expanded access to the world, we continue to confine our social media sympathy to the West.
Such selective sympathy contributes to our own suffering. It makes us insensitive to issues that warrant our attention. Our lack of sympathy for Beirut reflects our misunderstandings of this city – our perception is one of war when this metropolis has been an exciting, effervescent cultural destination – and for the region’s relevance to our lives.
For years, voices from Lebanon and its neighboring countries pleaded for our aid to address the tensions in Syria. These voices warned that the problem would grow and eventually impact the world.
Yet, we couldn’t conceive that their problem would eventually become our problem. Our limited attention gave the Islamic State fertile ground to root itself as a regional threat. As it attacked Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the news did not register on our social media radar.
Ultimately, it wasn’t until the Paris attack, and now the attack in San Bernardino, that we seriously felt threatened by the Islamic State.
If we want to understand how a group like this evolved, we need to look beyond the western world. Our mentality is outdated; we can’t navigate this interconnected world when we’re solely focused on own country. While we may perceive issues in non-Western regions as peripheral, they inevitably ripple and eventually impact us.
The solution is not as simple as lighting world monuments and profile pictures with the French tricolor; rather, the solution is to shed light on the bigger, global picture.
Allison Claire Yamamoto, a graduate of C.K. McClatchy High School’s Humanities and International Studies Program, is a junior in Columbia University’s dual-degree program with Sciences Po-Paris.