[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n light of the Beirut and Paris tragedies that occurred November 12, there has been, to say the least, a media frenzy. Millions of Facebook users have overlayed their profile picture with a French flag — an option that Facebook not only makes available, but automatically suggests when you log on. Facebook also implemented its “safety check” feature during and in the aftermath of the attacks, allowing users to ‘check in’ to let family and friends know they’re safe. While Facebook’s actions may have good intentions, they show value over the West than the East.
Firstly, not only was this the first time in history that the safety check has been implemented in a non-natural disaster scenario, but the check was only initiated after the Paris attack — not the Beirut bombings that happened 24 hours prior. Furthermore, the option for the flag is limited to the French flag. The Lebanese, or any other country’s flag, aren’t options.
Defenders of this choice to exclude the Lebanese flag argue that users can make a Lebanese flag version themselves, but this isn’t the point. Rather, the point is that Facebook doesn’t give users the option to add it automatically.
Firstly, with regards to the flag overlay, there are more French Facebook users than Lebanese; therefore, more people would be inclined to use the French flag. However, if the point is solidarity rather than shared experience (which it must be, considering only a minority of those with the French flag have ever been to Paris or have family or friends there), why should number of users matter? More importantly, why is the popularity of the flag even relevant? Shouldn’t those who want to express solidarity with victims of tragedy be given an easy way to do so?
When a nation with whom we identify with is attacked, it makes us feel more at risk as well.
Secondly, defenders of the safety check feature have explained that mobile connectivity is comparatively weaker in Lebanon, making the safety checks less useful. Formerly, safety checks were implemented during natural disasters (the 2011 tsunami in Japan, typhoons in the Philippines) where there were also major connectivity problems. The premise behind safety checks is to provide solace for families and friends during an emergency that poses danger to human life. Connectivity has never before been considered in these situations, so why now?
The question then becomes: why does Facebook value Western lives over others? I argue this is because Facebook is the product of an entire society that does this very thing constantly.
Western nations identify with France more so than with Lebanon for a variety of reasons, including similar racial distribution, religions, and government styles. Additionally, France is a strong ally of both the United States and Canada, and Paris is a common vacation spot for Western families. When a nation that we identify with is attacked, it makes us feel more at risk as well. We begin thinking: If it happened to them, it might happen to us.
Widespread Islamophobia only exacerbates this problem. This prejudice, curated in part by Western governments in an attempt to justify wars throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, has flourished in post-9/11 North America. This leads our society to be less sympathetic with Middle Eastern tragedies, such as Beirut, regardless of the context that surrounded the incident.
However, none of these are valid excuses for Facebook. As a billion-dollar enterprise, Facebook doesn’t need to wait until it becomes more socially acceptable to care about non-white lives. In fact, as such a popular social media site, Facebook has the opportunity to spur some amazing change. Facebook, take a first step: treat similar international emergencies in a similar fashion.