What's Wrong with Your Profile Picture

Scott Bandy

Geopolitical Hipsterism and the Paris Attacks

 “Where’s the Lebanese flag filter for my profile picture?” This question was posed to me, tongue in cheek, during a conversation in the wake of the attacks on Paris this past week. This question raises a very interesting discussion concerning the focus of Western media outlets as they cover world events, as well as drawing attention to how the news is perceived by the general public.

  The series of coordinated attacks on France’s capital occurred on November 13, killed 129 people, and left many injured and even more gripped with fear for their country. The government of France quickly put the state on lockdown, declaring a state of emergency. Other Western nations responded quickly to the attacks, pledging solidarity with France and continuing to offer their support for the grieving country. Similarly, many people took to social media in order to express their disbelief at this tragedy and offer their love and support for the people of France.

However, in retaliation to people changing their Facebook profile pictures to depict the French flag, certain individuals expressed frustration at the notion that specific tragedies elsewhere in the world might be overlooked due to the scale and shock of the attacks in France. Specifically, many people expressed dismay that the media seemed to be selectively presenting their news stories, slighting events occurring in other areas of the world in order to present news updates on Paris.

In addition to the attacks on Paris, suicide bombings by ISIS in Beirut killed 43 people in one of the city’s popular shopping centers. ISIS declared that this was an attack on the Shiite group Hezbollah, who have been engaged in the fight against ISIS and support the current Syrian government. The attack ended the relative peace of recent months in Lebanon’s capital city, which has been a site of violence for much of its modern history. Similarly, continued violence in Baghdad also claimed causalities this past week; there have been several attacks in Iraq’s capital, leaving the country increasingly torn and unstable.

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In light of these attacks, — not to mention the other humanitarian crises that have arisen due to natural disasters in Japan and Mexico — the issue raised by many was the question of whether or not news sources were too selective in their presentation of specific stories.

Contrary to these complaints, what is important to realize, is the fact that the media actually has been covering these stories. Most major newspapers and online forums continue to offer coverage of the violence and other tragic events occurring in many different regions of the world. A 20 second Google search will reveal a huge wealth of articles, commentaries and details concerning these events.

So what is the criticism really about? At its core, the protest that the media isn’t doing a good enough job is actually a criticism of the “attention deficit” that Westerners tend to have concerning world events. Instead of demonstrating the inefficiency of news sources, this convergence of tragedies instead displays the difficulty that the media faces in changing the focus of a population that is barraged with news stories concerning everything from Justin Bieber’s change of heart and Trudeau’s hair to ISIS, Anonymous and the G20.  Selective sympathy to tragedies in the world cannot simply be changed by the amount of news that is taken in on a daily basis.

So what can we do about the issue? Well, short of changing the filter of your profile picture (nice work everyone), it seems that the best solution to the issue of selective sympathy and a general failure to engage with ideas in the world is to actually seek out information. Stop condemning news sources for failing to adequately inform you. Take initiative yourself by looking deeper than hashtags on your favorite social media site. Pick up a newspaper and — here’s the important part — actually read it. Engage in conversations with people. In essence, do more than post a #prayforparis tweet with a picture of the Eiffel Tower and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

I’m not saying that social media is necessarily a bad way to engage with world issues. In many cases, sites like Facebook and Twitter can be excellent gateways to accessing information on specific events. If you follow the right people on Twitter, you’ll only have to click one link and you’ll get more than you wanted on the status of certain world concerns. My point is that when activism starts and ends with a status, tweet or post, the disconnection between a person and adequate engagement with world events actually grows wider.

This can be an important message for those of us living in the West to hear. Learning to tune our ears to the pain that is occurring all over the world instead of only focusing on the places that are the most relatable is essential. However, there are certain pitfalls that need to be avoided. Journalist Jamiles Lartey recently drew attention to one such danger, referring to it as “attention hijacking”. This can by stylized as a certain kind of geopolitical hipsterism, in which basic knowledge of events happening in the world becomes a matter of pride for oneself. Of course, engaging with political ideas and spreading awareness among one’s friends can be beneficial and informative. However, when it becomes a contest of who is the most informed on tragedies occurring in the world, a definite value reappraisal is in order.

There are many issues in the world that warrant our attention and prayers, and it is easy to be burdened by the weight of tragedies. Let us be continually engaged in conversation concerning world events, drawing strength and support from others, and end the passivity that has precluded much of our responses to tragedies in the world.