Scenes of political protest look the same wherever everywhere in the world. On one side are the protesters chanting and waving their placards and on the other are the police with their shields, helmets and batons, to keep the protesters in check. There are also those standing on the side-lines who just happen to be passing-by. The social media space is no different. When a story breaks, from Caitlyn Jenner to xenophobic attacks, you know who of your friends and followers is going to be a protester, police or passer-by .
When Garissa, Beirut, #BringBackOurGirls went viral, people positioned themselves accordingly. Hashtags, links and videos compelled them to get involved. People felt the urge to click, share, and comment critique.
I first heard about the Paris attack on the Saturday morning news. My first reaction was to check Twitter. Just fifteen minutes after the news first broke there was already heavy speculation and intense discussion happening.
Once the shock wore off, you could see people trying to figure out where to stand on the issue. Navigating the social media space is a lot like musical chairs. While the music plays, all of us go about our lives as normal. But when the music stops everyone suddenly scrambles to find a chair to sit on. Toes are stepped on, there is lots of shouting,“Hey, you pushed me off my chair!” When the music starts again, we all go back to normal. The Paris attacks stopped the music and we began to look for spots to stand on.
Clearly Facebook stood in solidarity with the French, it created a security check soon after the incident. As a result, they have been criticised for their preferential treatment in rolling out a safety check for Paris but not for Beirut where 43 people were killed on 12 November. The accusation levelled against Facebook has been that they care more about Europe than the Middle East.
Mark Zuckerberg’s response was, “We care about all people equally”, and even though the Facebook CEO was probably not deliberately trying to mislead people, he did. No one can care about everyone equally. We care more about people we have been taught to care about. We worry more about the sick cousin in hospital than the patient in the room next door because we have an attachment to the former than the latter. We care about those we feel we have a connection with. Facebook’s reaction to the Paris attacks could be a testimony of how they felt about the French attacks and there is nothing wrong with that feeling.
However social media received Facebook’s reaction with mixed feelings. My friend Lucille also weighed in on the debate:
“People are selective in their empathy. The issue is that we should have been praying for Syria, Burundi, Palestine, Israel as well as Paris. The issue is that a white life that is lost is more important than a black life that is lost.”
The point made here is clear – white suffering seems to have the power to invoke feelings of compassion in some people, black suffering cannot do. Is this observation true? Does it apply to all of us on social media or just traditional media outlets?
Eurocentric thinking and our desensitisation to black death
I will never forget the first time that I saw a corpse. My uncle lay in a wooden coffin, the face was his but it was like he was not there anymore. I want to forget the sight of his face behind that glass but I cannot. I want to look away quickly before the reality of death hits me. But I stare indifferently at the screen as health workers in white suits tip the bodies of Ebola patients into holes.
I may half-listen as this nameless boy from Aleppo describes how he was playing outside with his friends when they heard a sound like a very loud whistle and the whole world went black. His leg has been cut off below the knee and is now a stump wrapped in blood-stained bandages. But later the image of Madeleine McCann who went missing eight years ago may bring tears to my eyes.
Objectively speaking,we know that the Aleppo boy’s life and Madeleine’s are of equal value. Subjectively, we may feel more compassion for the white girl than the Arab boy for different reasons. The fact that we know Madeleine’s name and know the boy just by his geographical location may contribute to how we feel about the two children. That is why we may remember the white girl’s face and not the Arab boy’s. But why does the Arab boy not have a name, is it that no source was willing to reveal it?
Why are some issues in Asia, the Middle East and Africa treated differently from those in Europe? Are media organisations still Eurocentric or Western? I will use those two terms synonymously. For example, I know my selective empathy towards the people of Paris and my indifference towards Beirut can be traced back to my Western education. I have been studying the French language and culture since I was thirteen. This is in spite of the fact that Arabic is the second most widely spoken language in Africa, after English.
Unfortunately, I was not learning about French speaking countries like Congo,Cote d’Ivoire or Lebanon. Instead I was memorising the words to the Marseille and watching French films. I can give you a timeline of the French Revolution from 1789 but I cannot tell you the difference between DR. Congo and Congo Brazzaville is. Is there a difference?
Similarly , African media can be Western. We were fed more stories about the economic crisis in Greece than the multiple crises in African countries. The most influential entertainment channels broadcast mostly Western music, tell Western stories and speak in Western languages.
Selective empathy has always existed. It can be seen in the decisions that governments make about where to intervene and what the United Nations chooses to put on its agenda. Institutions are a reflection of what is going on at the human level and people influence the direction of the organisations they run. This is probably why Facebook had a French flag filter first and not a Lebanese one. Selective empathy seems more obvious now because we are so much more connected through the Internet.
Social activism and social capital
As noble as the social media protesters seem and as morally upright as the social media police appear, it’s possible that neither have pure motives. Both the protestors and the police have their egos heavily invested. We have built up social media images that need to be fed with opinions and controversies. It is less about bringing actual change and more about keeping up appearances. In her article, ‘The Big Problems with Facebook Activism’, Rebecca Teich puts it this way,
“Social media platforms transform social issues into cultural capital: issues become labels of political alignment and lend an appearance of social awareness attached to a digitally curated self. They become a means to the end of social gain, rather than of social change.”
What this means is that the one filtering their profile picture and the one giving the criticism are in the same boat – you probably care more about yourself and your social media image. Even the most altruistic amongst us is to some extent motivated by the desire to be correct. We all have blind spots, we are all selective in our empathy and we are trying to figure out our place in this political space. That fact should never cause us to retreat to the side-lines.
Main Image taken from www.tuko.co.ke