By EMILY HARDIN
Last week the world seemed to implode. At home, thousands of college students mobilized against the institutional racism of our higher education system — and received death threats in the process. Across the world, terrorist attacks took hundreds of innocent lives. The sensationalist media presence only increases our sense of helplessness as observers. In times like these, it often seems much easier to turn off the news.
For those fortunate to be far enough removed from these zones of crisis, responses to the news in the social media age can have a distancing effect. We change our profile pictures, repost a Facebook status, share a hashtag and temporarily absolve ourselves of the guilt of acknowledging privilege in an inherently unjust world. Social media provides an accessible platform for collective action that can have a real effect in inciting social change. It helped facilitate the Arab Spring, when activists took to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to plan demonstrations and broadcast events to the rest of the world. This summer, millions of people added a rainbow filter to their Facebook profile photos to show support for the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize marriage equality. Last week, Facebook and Twitter users shared the hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950 in response to racist death threats at the University of Missouri.
On an individual level, showing support on social media can be a powerful method of reclaiming agency when faced with the heartbreaking reality of the world. It’s a way to temporarily subdue feelings of helplessness and inaction. Because of the frequency with which we come into contact with social media, exposure to these stories, events and movements becomes unavoidable. Facebook and Twitter can be useful platforms for facilitating dialogue and inciting change. Seeing our friends share articles, repost hashtags and change their profile pictures can legitimize feelings we might otherwise not share on a public forum.
While the ubiquity of social media might appear to trivialize these actions, it is vital that we recognize both the impact of these trends as well as the potential social risks of publicly aligning with social movements. Hashtags create international awareness. Twitter and YouTube allow us to see the unspeakable realities that often don’t receive international media coverage. There can be certain bravery in changing a profile picture or reposting an article.
The visibility of social media solidarity also works to highlight its limitations. In response to the massive display of solidarity for Paris, many on social media have used this tragedy to address the unequal news coverage on an international level. A day before the Paris attacks, a double suicide attack in Beirut killed over 40 people. There were suicide attacks in Baghdad and earthquakes in Japan and Mexico. The list goes on. Facebook offers us no options for profile picture solidarity with these countries.
We can’t filter our profile pictures with the flags of every country in which tragedy strikes. Not every atrocity will be accompanied by trending hashtags. For every catastrophe in a white European city there are many more across the world we will never hear about. While the cities of the world are lit up with the colors of the French flag, the silent suffering of millions will never receive the media attention it deserves.
That being said, we cannot compare any one tragedy to another. Human atrocity is not quantifiable. Crucial to this is the understanding that what happened in Paris is no less tragic because of what happened in the rest of the world. What happened in the rest of the world is no less tragic because of what happened in Paris.
Solidarity is an action, not an identity. Authentic solidarity does not require a single witness. Social media is important, but our support can’t end there. Our responsibility as individuals must take many forms. We must listen to and learn from oppressed groups and understand how we can help. Empathy is necessary, but we must go beyond the internalization of tragedy; this is about much more than ourselves as individuals coming to terms with the horrors humankind is capable of. Viral support runs its course, profile pictures change back and hashtags fade. The aftershocks of tragedy do not dissolve quite as easily.
I have no solutions to offer, only a heart heavy with the knowledge that we have done this to ourselves. The blood that runs in Paris, Beirut, Afghanistan, Niger and across the world is a weight we all must bear. There is no peace to be found in the chaos, no logic that could explain the evils of humanity. Social media affords us perspective and objective distance, but there can there be no “us and them” mentality. It is our responsibility to be informed and empathetic, but above all we must always be active global citizens — especially when these actions are not trending.
Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free Lunch appears alternate Mondays this semester.