Media · Reflections

Whose Lives Matter on Social Media?

It’s difficult not to think about social media all the time, but it’s been one of the few things on my mind for the past week with what’s happening at Mizzou and now the slew of global tragedies.


Mizzou: The Power & Threat of Social Media

On Monday, I was shocked (truly and pleasantly shocked) to hear that Tim Wolfe, President of the University of Missouri, had resigned. I was reading wave after wave of Facebook posts about Mizzou, about the power of students’ voices, about the necessity of finding allies and forming partnerships with other people in power who can forward your cause, about the symbolic victory of this resignation and how it might be a model for students at other universities who are calling for change.

I always talk—with my friends and with my students—about how the loudest voices (rather than the most careful voices) are often the ones that we hear most clearly. Of course, there’s been a lot of loud backlash, and social media is the perfect platform for sharing it: “Conservatives Lash Out at University of Missouri Students: ‘Mob,’ ‘Thugs,’ ‘Douchebags’” and “Mizzou Students Evacuating Campus Tonight Due to Death Threats” and “‘Grow up,’ Tweets Former Mizzou Star to Students Who Slammed ‘Hero’ Professor.”

First things first: if there’s a social media award for most vile platform, I’m sure Yik Yak will win for 2015. On my campus, we had our own run-in with an “anonymous” threat to the student population only a few days after the Umpqua shooting in early October. Different conservative media outlets began weighing in about how white privilege actually means being forced to give up your job. Donald Trump said something (tbh, I didn’t click the link). Instructors resigned after telling their black students not to give in to “bullies.” And whereas most of the actual organizing at Mizzou took place face-to-face (of course, there was the #ConcernedStudent1950 tag on Twitter, and that’s how many of us learned about Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike and student protests), the backlash mainly took place on social media. The Washington Post article linked above, if you can bear to read the whole thing, poses an interesting critique of social media. In discussing the instructors who have faced critique at Mizzou, the author writes,

Combined, their experiences reflect a harsh new reality for American professors: a combination of politics and technology has made it easier than ever for professors to become targets. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, trigger warnings and microaggressions, college professors can go from being educators to the accused in the blink of an eye.

Now, there’s enough in these two sentences for a dissertation (don’t even get me started on belittling trigger warnings and microaggressions or complaints about how smartphones are the demise of society as we know it). The author is positioning this as a negative thing, as did many of my students, but I would argue it’s positive.

Each time a “beloved” celebrity or athlete commits suicide or murders someone or makes a series of racist/transphobic/misogynist comments in an interview, we feel scandalized. How is that related? The author writes that “college professors can go from being educators to the accused in the blink of an eye,” but the problem here is not that they’re accused. The problem is that we position them as above being accused.

Professors are flawed humans—just like anyone else. And yet, we should hold them to a higher standard because they (intentionally or not) impart those values onto the students they educate.

It’s important to utilize the tools that we have to make visible inexcusable actions that have been invisible for so long. And there’s the balance. Against critiques of students being rude and belligerent, against the backdrop of (white) students arrested for making death threats against (black) students, there’s the show of solidarity. This past week, #BlackonCampus became an important hashtag on Twitter to share microaggressions and overt racism that students across campuses have experienced. Photos of students across the nation holding signs that read, “I stand in solidarity with Mizzou.” This Blavity article, “22 Campuses Who Protested and Spoke in Solidarity with Mizzou and Yale This Week #BlackonCampus,” says it best when describing the power of social media:

Our goal is to share the information relevant to our community, as they stand up and fight for what we have always deserved, but systemically been denied. Connect with each other. Build with each other.


Beirut & Paris: Hashtags, Safety Features, Underlying Values 

Last night while lying on my couch with the dog (my typical Friday night routine), I checked Twitter. Usually my list is a mix of news articles and commentary about disability and mental health. But all I saw were posts about Paris. When I went to the search tool to see what was happening, I was hit with a slew of #prayfor hashtags: #PrayforJapan, #PrayforBaghdad, #PrayforBeirut, #PrayforParis. (It may be a little early to read analyses of these hashtags, but this large-scale study from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and corresponding #prayforBoston tag is a fascinating discussion of how we react emotionally to terrorist acts.) Twitter is interesting this way because it’s easy to quickly disseminate information and you get a pretty unbiased look at what’s happening around the world (vs. what’s happening in your friend group). Yet when I switched to Facebook, I saw lots of posts about Paris and nothing else. Indeed, Facebook was doing quite a few things to direct people’s attentions (rightfully so) the bombings in Paris last night.

Most notably, we saw the safety check—a feature that allowed Parisians to verify their safety. I received a notification that someone I went to college with had checked in as “safe.” For all the stupid features of different social media, this one is truly impressive. And yet, something about it bothered me. Why was this the first time I had heard of such a feature? With the bombings in Beirut the night before, why were we seeing and hearing about this for the first time with Paris? I woke up this morning still feeling uneasy and unsure about what was bothering me and started scrolling through Twitter—reading post after post about Paris and fewer and fewer references to anything else.

Twitter reflections (from @ahhitt) on the Facebook safety feature: What does it mean that it rolled out for Paris & not for Beirut? Will the safety feature be available moving forward for the many attacks on civilians in non-European countries? It's a smart tool, but it isn't neutral. It communicates a message about whose lives matter.
Twitter reflections on the Facebook safety feature: What does it mean that it rolled out for Paris & not for Beirut? Will the safety feature be available moving forward for the many attacks on civilians in non-European countries? It’s a smart but non-neutral tool that communicates a message about whose lives matter.

Attacks on civilians occur so frequently, but where’s the outrage?

It’s not that we shouldn’t be outraged about what happened in Paris, but particularly with the bombing in Beirut happening not even 24 hours beforehand (and both areas targeted by the same group), it raises a lot of questions about what stories we receive and whose tragedies we deem more worthy of our attention.

It boils down to whose lives matter.

I was desperate to find articles on this this morning and have found a couple (and will be on the hunt for more as days pass and people put together their thoughts). This New Matilda article “Paris Attacks Highlight Western Vulnerability and Our Selective Grief and Outrage” succinctly articulates both my enthusiasm and reserve about the safety check. In the article, Chris Graham summarizes the cries of outrage by world leaders, then writes:

Meanwhile, in a brown part of the world, as the attacks began in Paris, Lebanon was just emerging from a National Day of Mourning, after 43 people were killed and 200 more were injured during a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Beirut.

Graham notes that both attacks are believed to be in response to the same common factor: Hezbollah’s decision to send troops to northern Syria. And yet, there are no check-ins for Beirut, no tweets from Obama, no suggestions to turn your Facebook profile into to the Lebanese flag.

Certainly, it must take a lot of time to develop a safety check feature, and yet, according to the TIME Magazine article “This Facebook Feature Kept People Connected During the Paris Attacks” the safety feature was rolled out in 2014, and my hopes for Facebook were dashed.

The feature was inspired by the 2011 Japanese tsunami that killed 16,000 people. And apparently, it’s been used for natural disasters in Afghanistan and in Nepal. The case of Paris, however, is the first use of the safety check to mark a terrorist attack, which again is interesting considering the number of terrorist attacks that happen throughout the world. Although it seems like a technical acknowledgement at the end of the article, this last paragraph is worth considering:

How Facebook makes the decision that a situation is serious enough to activate Safety Check remains unclear.

What message are we communicating when we draw attention to particular tragedies and not others? What we circulate on social media—whether it’s through the hashtags we use or even just the particular articles that we share and retweet—inevitably communicates messages about what we value.

And when the stories we share are about human lives—whether they are about students’ protesting, lives in danger, or lives lost—we inevitably communicate message about whose lives matter.


4 thoughts on “Whose Lives Matter on Social Media?

  1. It’s not that non-European’s lives don’t matter, it’s that it’s not feasible or particularly useful to utilize a tool like that in non-European countries since the percentage of civilians that have access to and use social media is incredibly low, especially in the Middle Eastern states. Access to social media sites and the internet at large is very restricted in these states, and Facebook is often banned and cut off entirely. Facebook AND Twitter are entirely banned in Iran and Egypt has a block on sites like Skype. These are just two examples out of a myriad of countries.

    The world is focusing it’s attention on Paris, yes, but only because a) it has the highest death toll out of all of the other things that happened, b) it was an ongoing terrorist attack that took over 4 hours to conclude, c) it was several coordinated attacks at once rather than a single bomb that went off at a funeral (Baghdad) and included both mass shootings and suicide bombers rather than just suicide bombers (Lebanon), and d) Westerners are far more likely to have family and friends in Paris than they are in Lebanon and Iraq at this point, and as such, it turns the focus of attention to figuring out if people they know and care for are alright. It’s sad, but true. People will care about those they know first before turning their attention to those they don’t.

    Not to mention that, unfortunately, a certain amount of violence in places like Lebanon in Iraq is EXPECTED (as they both lie in a war-torn area dealing with ISIL and other extremist groups on a day-to-day basis, whereas Paris does NOT. It’s still unbearably sad and upsetting, but hearing about a suicide bomber in Lebanon vs a massacre in Paris mean two very different things in the context of their day-to-day activities.

    Unless you are going to talk about the actual social and cultural reasons that having something like the Facebook ‘safe’ button might be in-feasible in non-European countries beyond a surface reading of ‘it’s all about race,’ I suggest you actually do some research. Is race a factor? Probably. Is it the only, or even most important factor? Hardly. Please do research before you write articles such as this one. I admire your efforts to bring attention to things, but you’re going about it the wrong way. It especially doesn’t help that you imply that people can only care or be angry about one thing at a time.

    1. I appreciate that you’re thinking about and engaging with these ideas that are so important. However, I feel like you’re not approaching her perspective thoughtfully. It’s important to note how access is a consideration, but just because people around the world don’t have the tools, infrastructure, or political means to access social media doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have a voice.

      And just because violent acts occur in cities like Lebanon doesn’t make those acts any less catastrophic and debilitating than one occurring in the so-called “first world”. Even though violent events do happen frequently in certain countries, they should never be rendered as invisible. There are so many more locations in the world that get no mainstream media coverage at all, yet face numerous challenges of violence and genocide everyday.

      I realize how simple it would be for Facebook to enable a feature like this for any event, and if the developers are choosing to exclude it from users, that is a totally unethical act. To me, the saddest part about this situation is that many people would never even realize how such a feature conceals a privilege to access and people willing to listen and care.

  2. Addition: it’s also worth noting that the Paris attacks have a LOT of broader social and political implications than the Lebanon and Iraq attacks do due to the precarious politics of the Syrian refugee crisis and how these attacks will affect Europe’s response to said crisis.

    1. Thank you for sharing and recapping the context of these events. I’m aware of these contexts, although the purpose of the post is not to map out every social and political implication but rather to raise questions and reflect on how those of us who are not directly affected by these events get involved through social media by sharing particular articles (that value particular perspectives) and using particular hashtags. I’m sorry that you read this as an argument that we can only care about one thing, which is the opposite of what I’m saying here. And while, of course, I’m familiar with different access to social media in different countries (aren’t we all?), you’ll also note that the safety feature has been used for natural disasters that have occurred in Afghanistan and Nepal. However, this is the first use for a terrorist act, which is interesting to consider.

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