When I woke up on Saturday morning in the wake of the Islamic State attacks in Paris, I opened Facebook hoping to see numerous articles, live updates, and first-response opinion pieces about the events of the night before. I was instead bombarded with a never-ending stream of profile pictures updated with a French flag filter, the enthusiastic suggestion that I do the same emblazoned beneath each one. Under normal circumstances, changing your profile picture is not a political statement. Regardless of whether you are seeking the ‘virtual hugs’ of likes and comments, or because you simply like the photo, uploading a new profile picture it is an inherently narcissistic act. Under normal circumstances, I fully embrace this. You look great, go ahead and post it. But in the wake of a tragedy, is your face really the most important thing to share with the world?
If you are one of the thousands of people who applied the Tricolore filter, you probably did so to show your support for a nation in the initial throes of trauma, to tell the world that you were shocked, grieving, or #prayingforparis. You probably had nothing but good intentions and you are probably rolling your eyes at those who have objected to this feature – just because you show your support for Paris does not mean you do not support the victims of IS in the Middle East whose flags are not turned into filters. Or does it? Can something as harmless as a profile picture be a political statement even if you did not intend it to be?
I fully support taking to social media in times of global crisis. Accusations that our generation would live-tweet the apocalypse are not as insulting as baby-boomers intend them to be. We now have access to information in real time and we can find out, just by opening our Facebook homepage, if our loved ones have tagged themselves as ‘safe.’ No one should be criticised for using social media to share articles, express opinions, or even send messages of love and prayer. The danger of this click-to-share environment, however, is that misinformation can be spread as quickly as fact and people jump on the latest bandwagons without pausing to think about what it really means.
One of the most-read articles over the weekend was about an attack which occurred in Kenya in April. It was mostly shared with well-meaning statements of outrage that the media was not covering this tragedy as they were covering Paris. Aside from the irony of making this statement while sharing a BBC News article, highlighting the lack of national outrage is still a valid point to make, but it was misplaced. The number of people who jumped at the opportunity to preach online before properly reading what they were sharing is alarming. Just as some people seem to think a night out didn’t happen unless several pictures are posted on Facebook, others behave as if their thoughts and feelings don’t count until they are shared with all their friends and followers.
Changing your profile picture might not make you a corporate white supremacist, as one Independent journalist suggested, but it does mean that you are now inadvertently waving a flag of support for the country currently responsible for the deaths of innocent Syrians as they target IS stronghold, Raqqa. It does mean that you have chosen to honour the French victims in a way you cannot honour the victims of IS attacks in the Middle East every day. It does mean that you have embraced a social media fad that does nothing but bring your face up on the timelines of your five hundred Facebook friends.
I do not believe that most of my well-educated, well-meaning friends and acquaintances who have changed their profile pictures have done so believing that they are in any way supporting Eurocentrism or meant for their show of support to be prioritized on my timeline above the news itself. I do, however, wonder how many of them embraced this Facebook feature because they felt obligated to. It seems that it is no longer enough to privately keep victims in our thoughts or our prayers – we have to yell it from the virtual rooftops. The desire to pay your respects to the victims of any tragedy is honourable, but expressing your support through the self-promoting act of changing your profile picture does not accomplish anything beyond advertising your social awareness to others. Facebook, like most social media sites, actively encourages the narcissistic nature of our share-happy culture and we are all still learning how to navigate the etiquette of our online interactions. Stand up for what you believe in, but think before you share.
A slighter shorter version of this article originally appeared in Impact magazine