For a moment my fingers lingered in mid air while my cursor hovered over a button that, if clicked, would add a colored filter to my Facebook profile picture. Earlier that day, I had been moved by the hues of blue, white, and red littering my Facebook newsfeed, but as I examined the photo of myself — veiled in the colors of France — something stopped me from going through with it.
Following a flicker of curiosity, I searched to see if there was a similar overlay of the Lebanese flag. But, other than a few scattered links redirecting users to custom overlay websites, I found nothing. Shutting my computer off, I stared blankly ahead; stunned, but somehow not surprised.
As many of us already know, a series of attacks in Paris on Friday left over 120 people dead and several hundred wounded. The attacks catalyzed an immediate emotional reaction from people around the world — including myself. In addition to the millions of Facebook users who have adopted the French flag overlay, countless celebrities and politicians have flooded Twitter and other social media sites with words of support for the people of France.
Days later, the world is still in mourning.
On Thursday — less than 24 hours before the Paris attacks — the city of Beirut was shaken by a similar tragedy, an event that many of us altogether missed. The attacks in Beirut claimed the lives of 43 people, and left hundreds more injured. However, media coverage of these events has been scarce.
Compared to the frantic coverage of France, the tragedy in Beirut has failed to incite the same feelings of rage and compassion, and has been largely ignored on Western social media. This was made glaringly obvious on Facebook, where Lebanon’s flag is missing from the choice of available overlays.
Most Westerners empathize more naturally with the struggles of other Western nations, and to feel compassion for France is not a bad thing. Yet, the contrasting reactions to these two, very similar attacks should be cause for concern or, at the very least, some reflective thought.
Though Facebook overlays may seem a trivial topic, they are based on extensive analytics and embody the reality that Western society routinely ignores the struggles experienced in certain parts of the world. And although we may not necessarily need a Facebook overlay for every atrocity occurring internationally, we ought to take a closer look at which tragedies have the power to send our societies into an empathetic frenzy, and which simply get overlooked.
Despite being surrounded by the colors of French patriotism, I decided to leave my profile picture untouched. Looking forward, I hope social media users will pay closer attention when tragedies occur in countries that contrast from their own. We are all capable of widening the scope of our compassion if we start taking a more critical look at which stories make it onto our news feeds, which overlays make it onto our profile pictures, and never stop asking ourselves why.