Terrorism and Facebook’s Temporary Profile Pictures

On social media’s recent (lack of) responses to terrorism

Why This Matters | Brett Finkelstein | March 29, 2016

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When the infamous Paris attacks happened back in November, my Facebook, with all of the temporary profile pictures of the flag, transformed into a sea of the tricolore, red, white and blue. But just a few days ago, my morning alarm went off before class and I began my ritual of checking all my notifications, messages and other updates that I missed while I was asleep. This always includes reading The Skimm, an email newsletter that delivers the biggest worldwide stories in an easy-to-read format. That morning, the terrorist attacks in Brussels were featured as the first news story.

When I later logged onto Facebook, I saw a only a few news articles on the matter scattered among my normal newsfeed. The posts responding to the terror were few and far between. Even worse, I have not seen a single Facebook post or Skimm headline – among many other news sources – covering the attacks in Turkey or Baghdad earlier this month, or Libya back in January… the list of those that don’t make our known list of national news goes on and on.

“Today, when everyone has access to social networks, we cannot remain passive in thinking that only the major news publications and networks are deciding what’s ‘newsworthy’.”

Unfortunately, the Brussels bombings last week follow a series of international terrorist attacks that have shocked the world and captured national attention. They are also part of a larger series of international attacks that have continued since then, most of which lack coverage even remotely close to that of the Paris attacks. The bombings and killings every day since Brussels are showing that this transcends just one event, and it’s a huge problem characteristic of our world today. It’s impossible to speak of this problem without noting the difference in coverage for Western targeted terrorism and terrorism throughout the rest of the world. But even then, there’s something a little bit different about this recent attack in Belgium that has captured my attention. Hey Facebook, where’s the temporary profile picture filter for the Belgium flag?

What is it that makes some events – like the Paris attacks – fully infiltrate both news media and social media, and others – like the bombings in Brussels – receive little to no attention at all? By no means did I expect Facebook to re-format the profile picture for every terrorist attack. At that point, the entire purpose of the temporary profile picture would become redundant. Instead, I’m looking at the people’s responses to the matter as they are mediated on social networks, rather than just the action of the social networking site itself.

“Our media world is terribly complex and over saturated. It takes something extra special to break through such a crowded space to capture people’s attention, and especially people’s attention from all across the world at one time.”

The media landscape operating behind all of this is so complex. It’s more than just social media, national news, or headlines. And they don’t function in isolation either. On one hand, what’s on the news gets circulated into social media, and what’s on social media gains new attention, so some stories are incessantly repeated and inescapable. You have to know that they happened. On the other hand, social media reflects what we care about, so if our social media activity is affecting the news, then we are partially responsible for what does and doesn’t get covered. Behind all media there are human actions, and with that comes a level of responsibility. Today, when everyone has access to social networks, we cannot remain passive in thinking that only the major news publications and networks are deciding what’s “newsworthy”.

As a result, we hyper-focus on the events that get that privileged level of attention. What’s on the news shows up on my newsfeed and back again. What’s left out, like so many of these recent attacks, come to be events that might as well have not happened for the majority who are unaware. That’s pretty scary. According to my media feed, the Paris attacks were seen everywhere, Brussels was seen somewhere, and so many more were nowhere at all.

It seems that the capability for a collective action with the profile pictures motivated my Facebook friends to speak up, but it also required these very people to even know what was happening in the first place. Our media world is terribly complex and over saturated. It takes something extra special to break through such a crowded space to capture people’s attention, and especially people’s attention from all across the world at one time.

Still, I want to know, why does there seem to be such a dramatically different response for this attack among so many others? When the Paris attacks took place and my Facebook newsfeed was transformed, people took part in a conversation. But this time, my newsfeed is without any real conversation on the matter. There seems to be a clear split between events that get a heightened level of attention, and continue to popularize as they circulate, and those that never even break through the surface.

Really, I hope to never see another Facebook profile picture filtered as a flag. But I do hope to see people step up on their own to take part in recognizing the news as it happens and the state of our world today. This may bring people to finally then recognize the power that social media can have in transforming it.

We may all start to be de-sensitized to the headlines, images and stories, but we shouldn’t act any less sensitively. And the news systems themselves shouldn’t become any less likely to highlight what’s happening everywhere when it comes to the fight against terrorism, which concerns all of us equally.

We should never let the unfortunate fact that we have become accustomed to these happenings and their repetition change the way we respond emotionally and collectively for each individual disaster.