In the hours after the deadly terrorist attack in Paris, social media was filled with signs of solidarity. A photo of a cousin in front of the Eiffel tower. Your aunt saying she’s praying. You scrolled through profile picture after profile picture, overlaid with the red, white and blue of the French flag.
And then, a story about another terrorist attack, this time in Kenya.
“Man, what’s happening with the world right now?” one Facebook user wrote.
“147 dead in terrorist attack on Kenya college,” actress Bex Taylor-Klaus tweeted. “Hate consumes and destroys.”
One BBC article on the attack was linked over and over again. The date on the story? April 3, 2015.
It’s impossible to tell how this article started making the rounds of the Internet seven months after it was published. The story within is as horrifying as the tragedy in Paris: 148 people were killed by al-Shabab militants who stormed the dormitories of Garissa University College in a siege that lasted 15 hours. For those whose eyes skimmed past the date, it seemed like another international tragedy ripe for outrage.
It was posted so many times that “Kenya” began to trend on popularity-tracking Web sites like Alexa.com.
The eventual awareness that the story was published in April triggered a more somber realization: There was no grand social media reaction for that terrorist attack.
In fact, this old article was clearly the first time many people were hearing about it.
Comparing levels of outrage in response to tragic news is nothing new. It’s happening right now in reference to the ISIS attack in Beirut that happened the day before Paris’s. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought attention to the disproportionate amount of media coverage given to some deaths over others. The same has been said for years surrounding missing persons cases, where young white women seem to receive the most attention. Or why did everyone freak about one dead lion, when [insert serious social issue here] is happening all the time?
Discussions about what gets covered and why fill entire college courses and doctoral theses, but here’s what seems clear: People are more likely to care about the tragedies they feel close to, and more likely to show their concern if everyone else is doing the same.
Just think about any time a friend on Facebook passed away, said Boston College’s Kelly Rossetto, who studies the intersection of grief and social media. Mourners write on the person’s wall, change their profile pictures to old photos of them together, fill their statuses with “RIP” and “praying for you.” The more posts you see, the more pressure there is to post your own.
“Watching the waves of everyone else grieving can make you feel guilty,” Rossetto said. “If you’re not changing your profile picture, if you’re not posting a message — you start to question your own grief response.”
Just as with a friend’s death, Americans have personal attachments to the city of Paris. Even those who have never set foot in France have traveled there through books, TV shows and movies.
The same chain reaction begins: Profile pictures changed to those Eiffel Tower selfies, statuses posted, a “peace for Paris” symbol gone viral. Others see those pictures and statuses, then are asked by Facebook to “Change your profile picture to support France and the people of Paris.” Soon, a widespread and heartfelt reaction to a horrible event is visible for all to see.
And everyone knows that.
So what can they do in an instant to feel retroactively empathetic? Share a link, even if it’s seven months old.