Selective Sympathy for Terrorism
As Paris was mourning for its victims of terrorism last November, people rushed to add tags such as “Je Suis Charlie” and “Pray for Paris.” Various social media outlets provided updates about the devastating damage to the romantic city. Facebook even provided temporary filters to add the colors of French flag to people’s profile pictures. Shortly after, thousands hurriedly posted their picture with the Eiffel Tower and the filter applied to express their sympathy.
On March 22nd, Belgium faced the horrendous act of terrorism as three bombings occurred in Brussel killing at least 35 innocent victims and wounded hundreds. Once again, social media users across the world adopted the hashtag “Je Suis Bruxelles” and lit global landmarks in the colors of Belgium flag.
In comparison, when Ankara, Turkey suffered from an explosion by terrorists on March 13th; there were no filters, no hashtags that became adopted by the majority of Western nations, and no sense of shock at the unlikely attack taking place in the capital city. Although the Turkish government restricts the use of social media, there was significantly decreased amount of emphasis on the assault on media sources of other countries. Despite the continued conflicts with PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the recent escalation of violence in the country had been a notable change.
Last and the most recent example of terrorism for comparison, occurred in a park in Pakistan where more than usual amount of population had gathered to celebrate the Easter holiday. Most of the victims were women and children as they unexpectedly met their death while enjoying
their Sunday with family at the park. It would seem that the atrocity of the act alone would be enough to gather international sympathy equalling the amount of attention spent on Paris or Brussel. However, inadequate amount of global focus of news has been seen so far.
There have been many more cases of terrorism that did not receive the same amount of consideration as the incidents in France or Belgium did. Countries including the ones in Ivory Coast, Iraq, Lebanon, and so much more tragedies have been overlooked in its calamities even though they occurred recently, and the onlookers outside the regions remain largely ignorant of the horrible incidents that took place.
The disparity of media attention is apparent for those who recognize that all incidents of violence are same in its cause for pain for the victims and their families. The question arises: Why is there such difference in reporting and in the use of social media when the terror from these incidents is the same?
Many speculations exist as to why terrorism in some countries have received more warmth and compassion from other nations than others. Among them is that the media’s attention being mainly focused on the presidential election in America. Since the beginning of 2016 every domestic and foreign news outlet has managed to cover Donald Trump, but couldn’t afford more space to report about the death of innocent civilians in other countries.
Professor Matthew Ehrlich of College of Media at the University of Illinois says, “U.S. news coverage tends to be ethnocentricthat is, it tends to focus more on Americans or on people who are felt to be similar to Americans, like Western Europeans. So Paris or Brussels (which Americans will be familiar with and may have visited as tourists) will get more media attention compared with countries in Asia or Africa that a majority of Americans would be less familiar with and perhaps feel less identification with.”
Also, it has been suggested that the generic hierarchy of caring can be used to reason why nations tend to stress domestic news more than other nations’ problems. According to the explanation, it would be natural that Western countries care about stories about them first and then save little attention for the news about other nations with few or no similarities. It is easy to provoke emotion for those who have visited Paris during their summer vacation or have aspired to live in the romantic city. As for Brussels, the city is wellknown for its beer and museums amongst tourists. For media, news about countries such as Syria, Pakistan, and Turkey are simply not relatable enough for the majority to deem them as profitable or relevant.
Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, gave a statement to the Europe 1 radio network about why different attacks attract varying levels of attention: “There are attacks regularly around the world, and we honor the victims in different ways. The attacks in Brussels have a special resonance because we have an exceptional link with Brussels.” Since Paris has recently experienced the devastation from terrorism, it would be thought that the city would be more empathetic in expressing its condolences. However, the Eiffel tower has failed to be lit in any other shade than European nations to console those sacrificed in international terrorism.
Another account is that selective media coverage is due to Western favoritism and notion that white lives matter more than the lives of other races. It is a known fact that media plays favoritism in its choice of topics for reporting. For terrorism, Charlie Hebdo captured the role perfectly as an unexpecting victim put in danger through the oppression of freedom. There is even a cartoon tribute by “The Simpsons” for the Charlie Hebdo incident. It portrays a helpless child resembling an infusion of characters from Les Misérables and “Liberty Leading the People”, a famous painting by Eugène Delacroix, to evoke compassion. While condolences paid for those who suffered through the ordeal was beautiful, the image became tainted as it became evident that nonEuropean Union nations wouldn’t receive the same treatment when in jeopardy.
While the media praised the wounds of Paris, eurocentrism prevented people from tending to the pain of people other than theirs. Because people don’t tend to think a bomb can go off while leisurely sipping coffee at a cafe in Paris, it struck as more shocking and shook the belief of European nations’ safety and invincibility. However, since suicide bombs and car explosions don’t seem uncharacteristic for countries such as Iraq, people brush off the events with ease. It seems people don’t realize that even though a nation may have had more experience with terrorism, it doesn’t mean that it grows immune to the pain.
The recent events in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey, has raised the criticisms of unequal empathy for the nation’s sorrow. Quotes from James Taylor, a citizen of the city of Ankara, such as “We are Paris, We are Ankara” and “You were Charlie, you were Paris, Will you be Ankara?” has surfaced. But such voices were too small to be heard when terrorism in Belgium occurred. Without upholding the criticisms, when Pakistan faced yet another terrorist attack on March
27th; the same phenomenon of selectivity in support for the victims was shown.
Aisha Malik, a Sophomore studying Agricultural and Biological Engineering, says, “Pakistan is often viewed as a barbaric Muslim country, and it doesn’t receive as much sympathy as it deserves. People of other nations believe that Pakistani people are hateful people trying to hurt each other when the reality is not.”
Given the reasons behind selective sympathy orchestrated by impartial media coverage, should there be hashtags and picture filters immediately created to validate the suffering of Turkey, Syria, and so much more to compensate for the tragedies? It is my opinion that the answer should be “No”. Although Facebook and other social media’s intention was good in its attempt to gather people for a common cause of mourning for the lost ones, it contradicted its purpose when the discrimination in degrees of tragedies occurred.
Unless the Facebook user is friends with the victim of the families of the victims, the profile pictures can only be seen by those who are unaffected by the incident. In truth, the changes made to a profile picture only demonstrate sympathy for the user’s friends to see. The user of social media may be participating in a trend of slacktivism which is a belief that minimum effort displayed on social media is all that is required to relieve the pain of those who are suffering.
So I ask, where was all the attention and dedication for helping when terrorists attacked nonEuropean nations in the past or during the recent months in lesser known countries? By changing the pictures, the users are being conscious of the society’s attention forwarded to a particular social problem without actively seeking out a way to tackle in the issue in a longterm.
Thus, I believe that one shouldn’t rush to change their Facebook profile picture, adopt quotes such as “Je Suis Charlie” only to fall short of continuing to express the same for similar incidents, and to settle for the least amount of work to be actively involved in the cause. As a college student, I feel that millennials are capable of using social media to their advantage to make bigger differences.
There are more efficient ways to utilize media for the purposes such as redirecting resources for those who lost possessions in the bombing and alerting authorities for where the help is needed the most. With the convenience and immediacy of social media, fastchanging exchange of resources and support for one another can be arranged in the desperate times. This excellent emergency broadcast system can be used for the victims of international terrorism as it did for incidents such as the earthquake in Haiti and the Boston Marathon bombings. However, hypocritical use of social media where it is ineffective as it is unfair for some nations is unwelcome for it further aggravates the issue.
The victims of the terrorist attacks had been average civilians with variations in demographics. Their involuntary sacrifices in the midst of terrorism should be acknowledged because they were human beings and not because they were of particular nationality, race, or religion. The phrase “Je Suis ______” should be left blank for anyone impacted by an act of violence or hatred.
Terrorist attacks and deaths have proved to be unrestricted to national boundaries or its victims. Therefore, those fighting terrorism cannot be prejudiced in the distribution of the amount of sympathy and who is left alone to whimper in pain.The purpose of international terrorism is seen as to cause panic, desperation, and fear for everyone. Selective sympathy only demonstrates that the rest of the world cannot unite for the common enemy.
Although political violence may persist, the world cannot be in a state of frenzy only because the Western world is experiencing the pain that other nations have had numerous experiences with. If terrorists seek dramatic chaos from providing unpredictable and sudden external cause of death, the rest of the world can’t respond by showing bias and categorizing the tragedies. There must be adequate attention paid to every act of terror without favoring a particular incident in order to recognize the realistic solutions to the issues.
*The views expressed in this report are the authors’ alone and are not necessarily shared by the “Hear My Voice…” organization or publications or the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
By Da Yeon Eom