Facebook commodifies selective sympathy

The social network's exclusive response to the terrorist attacks in Paris clearly displays whose lives it prioritises.

Read time 3min 20sec

Unfortunately, it is neither novel nor surprising that global news media are providing far more extensive coverage on Friday's terrorist attacks in France - a historic centrepin of European cultural power - than they have done on the several attacks of similar (or greater) magnitude that have happened this year in Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, to name but a few.

Nor is it new that celebrities, social media personalities and humble social network users in Europe and North America, as well as South Africa, are expressing far greater levels of collective sympathy for Paris than they have for Baga, Nigeria, for Garissa, Kenya or for Koban^i, Syria (again, to name but a few).

What is different this time, however, is Facebook's global institutionalisation of this selective sympathy through its French flag filter for profile pictures.

Much like the "Celebrate Pride" feature the social network sported in June to applaud the legalisation of same-sex marriage across the US, Facebook's French flag overlay allows users to superimpose a symbolic image onto their profile pictures in just two clicks.

Yet while Celebrate Pride was a US company's support of a US constitutional ruling, Facebook's French flag overlay, in the absence of this kind of formal acknowledgment for other countries that underwent similar atrocities in the intervening time, is nothing short of an overt political allegiance.

While the social network poses as a friend to "the developing world" by optimising its app for slow Internet connections and rolling out its free Internet(.org) service, its response to the attacks in France makes abundantly clear that the company values the deaths of people in Western Europe above those in the Middle East and Africa.

It has also faced reasonable criticism for activating its Safety Check feature in Paris and not in Beirut, where 43 people were killed in a suicide bombing the previous day. While Facebook executives have offered the explanation that the feature's functionality is designed for short-term disasters or attacks rather than ongoing conflicts in countries such as Lebanon, I struggle to believe tweaking this functionality is a major difficulty for the tech behemoth in question.

Facebook is abusing its power as the world's most popular social network to push sympathy - and trauma relief services - for some tragedies over others.

In short, Facebook is abusing its power as the world's most popular social network to push sympathy - and trauma relief services - for some tragedies over others. Worse still, by packaging its selective sympathy as an interactive feature, it is co-opting its millions of users into propagating it.

Of course, Facebook is not preventing users from overlaying their profile pictures with the flags of other victims of terrorist attacks, such as Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey - but it is making showing this kind of support for people in Paris significantly easier, and, crucially, accessible to those with no photo-editing software or skills.

Another troubling effect of this ease of use is peer pressure: many users will inevitably feel that not changing their profile pictures to support France will be more noticed and questioned than doing so, as the act requires so little effort.

Problematic usage aside, Facebook's profile picture overlay feature holds promise for giving users a simple but effective way to show solidarity for countries or causes. At the time of writing, the same feature allows users to overlay their profile pictures with the logos of their favourite NBA or NCAA sports teams.

But to expand the luxury of receiving solidarity in the face of terrorist attacks to countries besides France - in other words, to mitigate the spread of its Eurocentric cultural imperialism - Facebook should open this feature to developers in the "developing" countries it claims to support.

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