Internet users have been split by a choice to adapt their Facebook profile pictures with an image of the French flag in the wake of the IS attacks on Paris last Friday. People offended by the parade of tricolours argue it was a Western-centric reaction to war.
They claim nobody was bothered about the 22 people killed when the US military bombed the Kunduz Hospital in Afghanistan last month. And that Westerners ignored the 147 people left dead in a terrorist attack on Kenya’s Garissa University last April. Indeed, there is an abundance of violent acts of war each week that are entirely overlooked on social media.
Others blame Facebook for peddling this biasedness because it has never allowed users to post flags from non-Western countries struck by similar tragedies. The first time this functionality appeared on Facebook was when the US Supreme Court ordered same-sex marriage to be legalized across the states. At that time, offence was taken because some felt social media butterflies were jumping on the bandwagon.
While it is abhorrent to champion murder, brutality and retribution, public displays of solidarity should not be confused with racism, ignorance or the advocacy of violent revenge. The French flag is associated with freedom, equality and fraternity.
It was these very qualities that were demonstrated by the French during vigils for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack last January. People from all ethnicities and religions came together to stand against hatred, and to prevent it from causing greater division between East and West. That message is evermore important as xenophobes turn to the Paris attacks to justify closing European borders to Syrian refugees – the very people most at risk from IS terrorism.
The discussion has highlighted disparity in the way the Western world reacts to tragedy. And while discussion is healthy, judgment is not. Nor is branding the act with a single explanation. There are many reasons why people wanted to fly the French flag in the most public way they could. But let’s not trivialise the political situation in the Middle East by defining it in terms of a gesture made on Facebook.
For most, it was an act of goodwill made in accordance with the principles of freedom, equality and fraternity for all. And those are the very ideals that will unite the people of the world.
Related: Writing in NewStatesman, Camilla Hodgson asks ‘What is the point of changing your Facebook profile to a picture of a French flag?’