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Safety checks, flag photos, and hashtags benefitted Americans more than Parisians

Elliott Fox
By Elliott Fox

Amid the horror and sadness of last week’s terror attacks in Paris, something curious happened: for the first time in my life, I felt like I needed social media. Facebook and Twitter were not the usual commitment-free, drip-fed addiction to everything and nothing, ISIL and cats. On the day and afterward, I wanted them to become useful and good. And they failed.

I am from Paris, and my family still lives there. Sitting in a London pub on Friday night, a friend texted me a link to a tweet with those early reports of explosions and gunshots. By the time I got back to my flat I was dumbstruck, flitting between my TV and my phone. Call, check news, check Twitter, check Facebook; repeat. This hypnosis lasted hours.

As a Parisian expatriate, Twitter was useless

My reflex was to flit between Twitter and news live blogs. Invariably these were not live enough. Hence the need to compulsively refresh the unreconstructed torrent of guff Twitter became on the night.

Any relevant hashtag was hijacked by trite solidarity or glib shock. The rest was just politics, worthy or cynical, in both cases unsuited to the needs of someone looking for quick news.

The one potentially useful innovation — a hashtag, #PorteOuverte, designed to pair up people stranded in Paris with locals needing a place to sleep — was completely overrun with fawning messages which, while well-intentioned, added confusion to a crisis situation.

Paradoxically, my abiding feeling following Twitter was that I wanted less of the usual (normally perfectly comforting) echo chamber and posturing and more news-led curation. More wires and maps. Less half-baked thought leadership.

I know that’s in part a reflection of who you follow. My conclusion was that I wanted Twitter to hold my hand and help me discover what I was looking for. Twitter could have stepped in to keep the #PorteOuverte hashtag clean and actually useful as well.

Facebook’s ‘safety check’ felt like a relief when it kicked in. But what is it for when hundreds of your friends are using it?

Presumably the tool is driven by the expectation of one-to-one checks. People will always contact their family and closest friends first. With that in mind — in a scenario like this — what does it do that a phone call does not?

I have a couple of friends in Kathmandu. The feature was of obvious benefit in telling me within minutes, from the other side of the planet, that they were alright after the Nepal earthquake. I just wonder what it offers local populations.

As a French citizen, the automated ‘French flag on your profile’ option gave me mixed feelings

Much has been written already about a perceived double-standard in Facebook’s reaction to an attack in Beirut and one in Paris. I agree.

I’m more troubled, though, by the expectation that Facebook should try to ‘editorialize’ a crisis situation in the first place.

For one, the choice of the French flag as a symbol was troublesome: in France, it usually falls to the extreme right to deploy the flag in such an overt, ostentatious way, in anti-immigration gestures. In the context of French leaders deeming the attacks an ‘act of war’, I found it all the more troubling.

Another friend wondered what the flag meant: did it express solidarity for France the country (and y’know, wine & cheese) or the values you might think underpin ‘a certain idea of France’ abroad— democracy, human rights, liberté, égalité, etc?

In both cases — or any number of other possible readings — this choice of symbol cannot be right. A symbol should be strong because it is clear. In this case it was too confused and easily politicized to convey simple solidarity.

Unlike Twitter, Facebook needs less curation in a crisis

Facebook’s reaction played into terrorist logic. The flag shambles gave so-minded people a chance to ask why a bunch of people in the US took the trouble of creating an easy way to mourn loss of life in France but never those lost on Sunni soil — why flags automatically unfurl to stand up to ISIS but not Syrian barrel bombs.

Given what we know about social networks’ role in enabling radicalization, this should prompt the website to think carefully.

Personally, I’d rather it tried to remain as content-neutral as possible: Let users themselves drown hate with intelligence and love without the help of new, automatic buttons.

Facebook faces massive public diplomacy challenges

Facebook has a 1.6bn worldwide user base. It facilitates a staggering amount of human interaction. It needs to be less Western.

I’ve just returned from a month in Myanmar (Burma) — where Facebook is the internet and, even more than that, acts as a fully-fledged public space in a much more embedded and coded way than anything else I’ve seen. During the aftermath of its historic general elections last week, all the key players — Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein and the country’s powerful Commander In Chief, Min Aung Hlaing — communicated on Facebook first and foremost.

The Paris terror attacks should prompt Facebook to think deep and hard about how it can avoid taking decisions that leave people thinking, in Beirut and beyond, “what about us?”

For better and for worse, Facebook is becoming a real, living, breathing place that people invest with meaning. It has a real stake in making the whole world feel at home — especially in troubled times like ours.

This post originally appeared on Medium. Follow the author @ejlfox.