In the days after the Paris attacks, digital media has seen an intense conversation erupt amongst scholars, pundits and regular citizens. Many turn to social media to express their emotion, ranging from empathy to outrage over the terrorist attacks that occurred last Friday night in one of the most romanticized cities in the world.
Facebook has allowed its users to temporarily change their profile picture, encouraging users to “support France and the people of Paris”. The user’s default picture changes to be shaded with the colors of the French flag, institutionalizing what seemed like a spurious online movement where users changed their profile pictures to have rainbow-colored backgrounds after the legalization of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.
This is a type of social activism that has only recently began to pick up in popularity. Traditionally, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been an opportunity for users to share their frustrations. Some might even feel that these social media sites allow users to come to terms with and validate troubling thoughts about the political world.
However, the sharing of these thoughts often brings pushback. This type of activism is usually accompanied by a discussion of how online political speech can be viewed as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. As Facebook updates us whenever someone’s profile picture changes, these political posts can overwhelm our news feeds. In turn, some lambast the outpouring of emotion, accusing their friends of “following the herd”, ignoring other recent attacks such as those in Lebanon and Kenya. These ‘slacktivists’ may be ignorant of the larger picture, and ultimately, fail to act in a meaningful way since they have decided to respond by merely clicking a link on their Facebook page to change their profile picture.
Some participants may even feel guilty for not doing the ‘right’ type of activism. All of this discussion is not only misplaced, it’s a complete waste of energy and time. The Internet has changed the way we communicate with each other. Social media allows us to communicate with each other in a potentially limitless, open and efficient manner. There’s a fair amount of judgment and misguided frustration in the hype surrounding the French Facebook profile photos. Although there are larger issues to address and action is sorely needed, complaining about these profile pictures does nothing but add to the existing culture of conflict, discord and dissent. As citizens in today’s political climate, we not only can and should do better, but we also deserve better.