A Global Response to Crisis

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.


  1. Because many of these social media platforms are pioneers, their business model and value proposition have not been previously tested on the scale that they are current operating at. This results in lots of trial and error as well as troubleshooting. Tech companies typically use agile methodology, which promotes a first launch typically is barely functional that results in many iterations. Professor Chang’s lecture highlighted a few of the crazy situations social media has created. While the good, the bad, and the ugly do exist, I think your final thoughts highlight one of the many positives of social media. The creation of communities in times of need are highly influential and powerful, regardless of the fact that there is misinformation floating around. This blog, Aidan’s blog on checking in for natural disasters, and Cynthia’s presentation on fundraising emphasize that the pervasive nature of social media can be used for the greater good of society.

  2. This blog post has really helped to round out my experience as I am always looking at social media from a negative perspective and the two examples you provided above were really great examples of positive usage of social media. And still, I think while I continue to be overly cautious with social media use, its reminders like this that will keep it in a positive light. I hope that social continues to grow and leave this world a better place than when we found it.

  3. kgcorrigan · ·

    I generally had a pretty negative view of social media coming into this class, but our discussions and various blog posts have reminded me that these platforms can be used for good, especially (as you pointed out) in terms of raising awareness and bringing communities together in times of need. However, it is disappointing to know that there are disproportionate reactions to tragic global events, and you raise some good questions about who should share in the responsibility of showing and balancing support. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I am happy to be more knowledgeable now about the power of social media, and I hope our society can find a way to continue using it for good.

  4. matturally · ·

    I love the fact that you went with a heavier topic for this post. While it’s amusing reading about Facebook offering a dating feature, this type of subject is what gets people to think critically about the nature of social media and the media in general. The discrepancy between the two examples is disheartening and it really just shows the bias that exists (i.e. rich people want to Notre Dame, not Flint). I don’t see the nature of the media changing anytime soon, but if more people were to make comparisons like this it’d be a step in the right direction.

  5. merrimju · ·

    This was a very full circle post as I believe in our first class we discussed the problematic trend of sharing live or recent footage of crimes and tragedies. When the fire broke out I immediately expected this to be a #C discussion in class so Im glad your writing about it now. Personally, I have to think the main differences between the two tragic events come down to cause and death toll with one being an attack killing many and another an accident.

  6. kateu19 · ·

    This is a really great post, and I love that you included the link to a counter-argument. This is something that I struggle with at times, especially since I probably spend too much time on Twitter, where you can see a lot of the reactions to this stuff. I don’t know that there is a good answer to this – while it is great that people are so willing to help restore Notre Dame, there are so many equally, if not more, deserving causes. But then that raises the question of whether or not we have the right to criticize what people choose to do with their money. It would be really interesting to see a break down of the people and organizations that pledged money to restore the cathedral – I wonder how many are families or companies with French roots, and therefore people who feel a strong connection to Paris and the cathedral.

    I also wonder if part of the outpouring of support is because, on some level, people view supporting the restoration of Notre Dame as an easier, almost prettier, cause to support than the victims in Sri Lanka, or the efforts to get clean water in Flint. Any sort of religious attacks are inherently “messy,” and providing fair and clean access to a public utility gets very political – those aspects might turn people off, however unfair that may be.

    All in all, great post, and it clearly gave me a lot to think about! Hopefully the article that you linked is accurate, and this is only the start of great charitable giving from some of these people!

  7. cynmzfigueroa · ·

    Fantastic post. I think the comparison in the response between the two events is critical and really highlights for me where social media can become a place of narcissism and shallowness. The response to the Notre Dame fire was great, don’t get me wrong, I want to be able to preserve such a historic landmark. But I saw many use this as an opportunity to reshare their Paris 2012 vacation to lend “support” for Notre Dame. It’s not surprising to me by any means that a historic cathedral, that acts as the picturesque backdrop of so many memories for people was much more appealing to post about than the Sri Lankan bombings. Our media tends to be very first-world and western-centric and I think it’s valid to critique the disparity in attention these two events received.

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