Did you hear Paris was attacked?
Yeah, me, too. We're not just talking about Paris today, though.
Yesterday I posted this on the Facebooks:
It was obviously inflammatory, and purposefully so. I had a point I wanted to make. But there was a mild amount of controversy when some other people started reposting it, so I am taking a second to clarify.
The most surprising thing to me about that Facebook post was not those who took it personally and defended why they put the France flag on top of their profile picture, but rather it was the number of people who said something to this effect: "We would have supported those things too, had we heard about them." I honestly didn't expect that.
And here's the deal: that is a legitimate point. Western media sure seems to be choosy about the stories they cover, right? I mean, look at this tweet from Jack Jones! Look at all of the retweets it got!
Man. Where would we be without his news sleuthing? Sure seems to be a story we should have heard about, right? Is it an example of whitewashing? Of cover-ups? Of conspiracy?
Well, not exactly.
In an article on Medium.com this morning, Martin Belam addressed this photo more than I will, so you should read his article about it. His point was this: News media IS talking about non-European attacks. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over. I saw a page-and-a-half spread about the Lebanon bombings the day after it happened in the New York Times, for crying out loud. I had a conversation with someone who was headed over there. The issue is not that it isn't getting reported; it's that the reports aren't getting read.
I think that there are two reasons why the types of articles Jack says aren't being written actually are being written and are simply not getting as widely circulated as the Paris attacks. And no, it's probably not racism.
One. Perhaps it doesn't matter to us whether or not we are that informed about things like this. We're fine just accepting what we see on the trending topics and what we see other people posting on our various social media walls and pages and feeds and whatnot.
Two. Perhaps it really does matter to us that we are informed. We genuinely care about the goings on in the world around us, both the good and the bad, but we don't take the time to seek it out for ourselves; we return to the ol' trusty Fox/CNN/MSNBC/what-have-you because we don't know where else to go and we just absorb everything that is thrown at us from the myriad voices yelling their little hearts out on Facebook.
I honestly think that most people fall into that second category. See information, absorb information, react to information, repeat. Let's see an example of what sorts of things happen when we resort to such a system.
Do you remember the Kony fiasco in 2012? When the Invisible Children people made the documentary about Joseph Kony, who was actively kidnapping children and conscripting them into his army? They put together a sleek package, a video with VIRALITY stamped just all over it (it reached 100,000,000 views in six days--it's been called the most viral video of all time), and assembled a nationwide tour to promote the film and drum up support for their cause.
And they sold t-shirts. And bracelets to prove you were informed about the plight of the poor Ugandan children at the hands of a cruel tyrant. And the Joseph Kony action kit.
But some stuff started happening that quickly shut down the movement (heard much from them lately?). It was things like this statement from Michael Wilkerson, a journalist who spent a significant amount of time working in and writing about Uganda, shortly after the video surfaced:
It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years. But let’s get two things straight:
1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years;
2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.
But it was too late; millions of people were changing their profile pictures. They were buying the merch. They were hooked and sunk already. Joseph Kony was old news in Uganda, but we "developed" people were too busy tweeting about stopping him to realize that we were, as Wilkerson said, well-meaning but misinformed.
The support was widespread. The bandwagon was broad. But all of our "support" did nothing to help capture or kill Joseph Kony. Frankly, we're not exactly clear about what even happened to Kony; we just know that what we thought was our support turned out to be pocket padding. It was, essentially, empty. Dr. Beatrice Mpora, one of the local physicians in the area, actually insinuated that they didn't particularly care for all of the attention. "What that video says is totally wrong, and it can cause us more problems than help us."
It is with this background that I instinctively approach any kind of super-quick, "spread the word" type of message. That perhaps the gut-support approach isn't the wisest.
Do. Not. Misread. This: The France attacks and Joseph Kony are not even remotely related. I merely mention this because the same viral "togetherness" hype surrounded the unbelievably rapid onset of my Facebook feed's turning into a Parisian cafe.
Again: my issue was not that people were rallying together to show France that they were supportive; it was that they were only now decrying a group that has been at this stuff for a very long time, and in many cases with even more devastation than was exhibited in France. My thought was that perhaps impulsive Francophilia wasn't the appropriate response to what is, in essence, global catastrophe.
So I Hate France?
What I was absolutely not saying was to not support France. BY ALL MEANS support France. It is part of our privilege as people who have to be able to help those in need and who have not, particularly when they're in the wake of disaster.
But let's get some definition of "support" straight. I have this strange feeling that if Facebook required a credit card transaction, asked the user to write a letter to the family of a victim, or generally do anything besides publicly announce "Poor France!" in order to change your profile picture, my Facebook feed would be significantly less blue-white-red.
Sure, that's cynical, I know. But frankly I'm afraid this culture of "Internet" has made us so disconnected from the real world that supporting no longer means what it used to. Want to support them on the Internet? Sweet. Use your platform to seek out stranded French tourists trapped in the states following the attacks. I mean, Parisians are tweeting #PorteOuverte (Open door) to tell now-homeless families they have a place to stay. Can't find a Parisian to help out? You could donate to Doctors Without Borders. Or to restaurants in du Coeur that are helping out homeless families with food for a day, a week, a month, through the winter. Or to the French Red Cross. I'm just spitballing here; the point is that these are examples of helping. Of using the Internet to support. You can even humblebrag about it on your Instagram if you want, so long as more people help because of it.
I see the point of putting the French flag everywhere and I admit that it is neat to see people united for a city--I've seen this myself, in my own city following violent attacks--but I also know what it feels like to see that support be a five-minute fad that goes away as soon as the Twitter feed refreshes, after the bullet holes are patched up. By all means, change those pictures. Just understand that changing your profile picture is not altruism.
The (Social) Media
Wrapping back around to the beginning of this thing, the most prominent problem (besides the people getting killed; that is obviously the biggest problem) that this whole post intends to highlight is what I mentioned in the first section: we don't care about it if we don't see it.
This is a nuanced problem, because of how our brains work and how social media works, also.
See, Facebook ranks things that they think are of interest to you based on your past viewing history, your likes, the things that are popular in your area, stuff that's getting shared a lot, and the items that are pertinent to what you've posted before. It's how the entire post-Google Internet works, actually. The system allows for ideas to get hooked inside a community, shared with the regeneration of bacteria on a petri dish, and almost instantly skyrocket from nothing to seemingly Worldwide Web-wide fame.
But this is both a blessing and a curse. Suddenly, those things that are getting shared to oblivion are all that we can see, and we start to miss the beach for the sand. We see that ISIS is in France doing terrible stuff and immediately we forget that ISIS is doing the very same things in Syria--every single day. I mean, they've made a veritable hell out of the Syrian stronghold of Raqqa for all who live there. But that, while it is reported on all the time, is not what gets virally shared on our pages.
And if it's not in front of our faces, taunting us with its clickbait headline and the promise of easily digestible information, we don't go looking for it. Or we Google it and go with the first headline from a site that props up our political agenda. We're the Fingertip Generation: the whole of the collective online consciousness of humanity sits in our hands and waits for us to call up at a whim the minutest detail of whatever-it-is and have it delivered on a shiny, blue-lit platter. We have become so intellectually and mentally fat that the first hint of something promising to be juicy long enough for us to chew it leaves us overwhelmed with the desire to pass it along to the next person--either for them to partake in the joy we've so graciously found for them or for them to praise us for our uncanny ability of digging through the dredges of the Internet to scrounge up such a succulent morsel (when we probably just saw someone else post it in the first place).
THAT is my issue here. The fact is that this France attack business means something. It is important. It is so different from the rest of the inanity with which we stuff our social medias that we feel as though we must do everything we can to be as associated with it as we are able. We go from tweeting puppy vines to #PrayForParis. We take a thing that is real and personal and genuinely terrifying--something that has actual substance and actual weight and actual value--and we lump it with the rest of the banal, nutrition-less, meaningless drivel we engage with while refreshing all of our pages for eight hours a day.
I said that we have become disconnected with the analog world as we lose ourselves into the amorphous blob of the digital one, and this is the proof. The things going on in the real world--Raqqa becoming a haven for extremists, Lebanon getting firebombed, the Israeli conflict growing more complex than it ever has, the Japanese economy is collapsing for the fourth time in what seems like as many years, the fact that there is a massive South Korean anti-government protest currently claiming lives--are not as "real" to us as the things on the digital world--the Facebook sugar-carrots dangled in front of our eager and starving faces.
My plea is this: for the love of whatever it is you love, get off of your phone. Question everything that you see, and realize that this world is too big, too wonderful, too complex, too scary, too unexpectedly lovely, and too dark to be contained by your Facebook trending topics. Live your life in the world where there is a Lebanon, a Raqqa, an Israel (beyond just "That-Nation-In-Conflict-With-Palestine-And-Run-By-Netanyahu"). Where there are people in all of those places. Where those people are hurting and you can, at the very least (though this is a cowardly act, too; you don't see me volunteering for Greenpeace or enlisting) call attention it and start a conversation that matters.