This past Friday night, while waiting for some friends to arrive at my place for a casual dinner, I was on Madonna’s Instagram casually looking at pictures from her latest tour when I stumbled on a comment by a fan that went along the lines of “Paris needs you now.” Thinking it had something to do with nationalist politics I wasn’t aware of, I moved along, not particularly eager to start reading about French politics while waiting for company to arrive. But the more pictures I saw, the more I saw variations of these comments, so I moved over to Facebook to check the Trending topics, and that’s where I first read about the devastating ISIS attacks in Paris. Immediately I went over to Twitter, determined the right hashtags to follow the story, and began reading as much as I could: Individual on-the-scene tweets, various international media organizations releasing statements, politicians reaching out to constituents, news reports from the Associated Press, and so on. It didn’t occur to me then how much things have changed in a relatively short amount of time but over the next few days I began remembering the events of September 11, 2001 and how different the media is now.
I was 18 in 2001 when the two planes hit the towers. I was in my last year of high school, in a French media class wherein we had just been appointed new laptops during this particular class so we could learn how to use emerging technologies within an educational context as most of us were headed into University the following semester. News that the United States was under a terrorist attack were reported to us by a fellow classmate, who had seen a breaking news report on CNN. So we all did what we thought was best: We went online and tried to find as much information as we could but the Internet was clogged and nobody got much more than we already knew, which was that no one knew much. We relied heavily on radio broadcasts, tuning into CBC Radio and hearing unconfirmed reports that the twin towers had fallen, that the Pentagon no longer existed, that the Washington Mall was ablaze, and that there were reports of planes headed for the Canadian Parliament. Of course we know now that, other than the two towers falling, none of these reports were accurate, instead borne of fear, conjecture and confusion. We sat in the class, frozen still, listening to how modern North American society was falling all around us.
I was reminded of the paralyzing fear I felt in those moments on Friday night, not so much because I felt the same was happening again but instead about how much social media has changed the way news are reported and digested. Reading through the various tweets and articles on Friday night, I was aware of the magnitude of the attacks, could watch videos of the streets of Paris and local news reports being shared over Twitter – in short, I had a better sense of the scope of the events occurring, and was able to keep up with the Canadian response to the still-developing tragedy and contextualize the events. I thought many things all at once but one thing kept creeping back in my mind: What if we’d had social media back in 2001? How differently would people have reacted if they had access to news being released in real-time on their phones? Would it have made any difference at all? After all, in moments of panic, people are more apt to believe any information that is being fed to them, because nothing seems inconceivable when the inconceivable is already happening.
The next day, I did what millions around the world did and adopted the French flag color scheme on my Facebook profile. I knew it wasn’t likely to do anything particularly productive but I felt a need to show empathy and solidarity with the people of France. A few hours later I began to read that there was some controversy over Facebook’s opt-in French color scheme initiative, specifically over similar attacks in Lebanon on Thursday and Kenya on Saturday that had gone almost unnoticed in the mainstream press. I didn’t remove the French scheme off my profile picture, because in just twenty-four hours I had already seen a different use for it: Its very existence was the spark for an outpouring of support for the Lebanon and Kenya attacks as well, which I had somehow completely missed. Had the Facebook profile picture backlash not occurred, I wouldn’t have heard of either attack, so in that sense it had a practical benefit: the lack of a similar fla option for either country itself became a news item drawing attention to those specific events. I was then more informed thanks to a social media initiative that had an almost immediate backlash.
It’s in moments like these that I feel there’s a tangible value to social media, beyond Madonna concert photos and memes about Game of Thrones: When used properly and with immediate purpose, it can mobilize a population, inform the world in real-time of events as they unfold, and lead to an international outpouring of solidarity and support. Indeed my Facebook feed remains populated with pictures of the French flag colors being used around the world on various national monuments with messages of hope attached to inspire confidence and unity. I for one had never been more grateful for the benefits of social media – warts and all – as I was this past weekend.
What about you? Did social media play a part in informing you of the events in Paris on Friday November 13, 2015?