Despite its flaws, one of the beauties of social media is its ability to foster community in times of need. There have been countless instances over the past few years: natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and national tragedies such as the Parkland shooting that have sparked millions of dollars worth of charitable donations and impactful social movements. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and GoFundMe, along with numerous others, have created networks to generate these reactions, resulting in unsurmountable support that was never before possible.
In the past week, the world has experienced two such events: the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral and the attacks in Sri Lanka. The burning of Notre Dame was emotional to watch, indeed. The cathedral’s renowned architecture and significant in the Catholic religion has made it one of the most prominent religious symbols in the world since its construction nearly eight-hundred and fifty years ago. Within 48 hours, global supporters, including billionaires such as the Bettencourts, the family behind L’Oreal cosmetics, raised a staggering 1 billion US dollars to support Notre Dame’s rebuilding. Thousands flocked to the streets to film the horrific event, posting videos to various social media platforms captioned with phrases such as “soul crushing” and “heartbreaking”. Responses include statements from President Macron stating “Like all our compatriots, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn”. On April 15th, the day of fire, the term “Notre Dame” reached a 100 interest rating on Google Trends, meaning the term reached maximum popularity in terms of web searches on this day. This space for both monetary support and emotional grieving is what makes social media so special, but also what gives rise to a problematic dichotomy that has been ravaging social platforms since the burning of Notre-Dame and especially since the Sri Lanka attacks.
On April 21st, Easter Sunday, nine suspected suicide bombers detonated explosives in hotels and churches in the cities of Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa killing approximately 253 people. As a result, Sri Lanka has instituted a social media blackout in order to prevent misinformation and hate speech that would invoke further violence. More information on this can be seen in a classmate’s blog post found here. While the religious sentiment behind the Sri Lanka attacks carries similar weight to the Notre Dame fire, the global response lacked such intensity. While billions of dollars have been raised for the rebuilding of Notre-Dame, Sri Lanka’s economy has suffered 1.5 billion US dollar loss due to tourist cancellations in light of national security concerns, instilling uncertainty in the nation’s numerous tourist workers. President Trump’s misinformed tweet stating “138 million people have been killed in Sri Lanka, with more than 600 badly injured” even furthered people’s frustration with the administrative response of various nations. Social media coverage of Sri Lanka has been unfathomably disproportionate. A comparative analysis of the term “Sri Lanka”’s social media impressions revealed that, while the term did reach its peak popularity with an interest value of 100, when compared to “Notre Dame”, it only reached a score of 31 relative to Notre Dame’s score of 100, indicating a disproportionate number of interest in web searches.
Ironically, the social media outcry in response to this disproportionate coverage was also staggering. Some users posted frustrated tweets criticizing the Vatican’s willingness to support Colombo, shortly after they promised to assist Notre Dame, others made statements ridiculing President Trump for pledging United States support, without funding critical issues in home cities. For example, Mari Copeny, a young girl from Flint City, Michigan has been a notable activist for the Flint City water crisis that has been ongoing since 2014. Her tweet, stating, “April 24th marks the five year mark of the #FlintWaterCrisis Flint is a city in AMERICA.”, quoted a post from The Hill announcing the White House’s support. This is also not the first time people have taken to social media to address their frustration over lacking coverage and disproportionate monetary support. For example, many studies have been conducted to suggest that Muslim terror attacks get 357 percent more media coverage than those by other groups (Newsweek).
This raises an interesting question about the nature of tragedy responses on social media and whether the government, and society, have an obligation to be aware of the ways in which they disproportionately consume and show support for global events. It is clear that these variations occur due to cultural, racial, and geographical biases; however, does this make them acceptable, or merely justifiable? Should we feel personally accountable to be less biased about our social responses to global tragedies, or is this only something that governments should be working towards amending? One of the value propositions of social media is the ease in which information can be shared, but this ease also comes with a responsibility. A tweet can be drafted within 30 seconds containing up to 240 characters. When it’s this easy to share streams of thought (which in the case of the government are often more like pre-approved statements), should we be working towards a more proportionate streamline, and how will this impact global bias as a whole? While only time will tell if coverage becomes more proportionate, social media’s ability to raise the topic of conversation is definitely a step in the right direction. If you’re looking for a well positioned argument opposing this viewpoint, I found a pretty good one here.