How social media shaped our understanding of the Paris attacks

Leighton Walter Killé/TCF, CC BY-ND

As with so many disasters and tragedies that strike in the 21st century, social media – an area of open expression online, free of the mediation of journalists – were at the heart of the wave of attacks in Paris.

As events unfolded, witnesses reflexively got out their cellphones and shot live coverage of what was happening before their eyes. These amateur images were then relayed by media both online and on TV. Thus the first images of the Bataclan attack, filmed from an apartment a few hundred meters away, were quickly posted on YouTube and relayed by other networks. Depending how you count, they had more than 2.1 million views in less than 20 hours. The same process took place on January 7, when an amateur in a nearby apartment building filmed the Kouachi brothers shouting victoriously after their attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Friday night a man named Steven Costa had the same instinct after arriving at the scene of a café massacre, and even interviewed witnesses. Another citizen did the same at the scene of the bombings at the Stade de France.

As was the case in January, the habits of everyday people continue to influence professional journalists: the apartment of a Le Monde editor, Daniel Psenny, overlooks the emergency exit of the Bataclan, and it was he who shot the vidéo seen more than 12 million times in a few hours.

Social networking, social solidarity

The public space that these digital networks create allows citizens to build mutual support networks on a self-organising model. On Twitter, hashtags and their associated news feeds rise up, allowing users to cooperate and exchange information.

During the night of November 13 and 14, two exemplary cases stand out. The hashtag #porteOuverte, proposed by the independent journalist and online activist Sylvain Lapoix, became one of the most prominent on Twitter that evening. It means “open door”, and allowed Parisians to both express their support for those living in neighbourhoods affected by the attacks and help those who might be prevented from returning to their homes. Similarly, #rechercheParis became the means by which residents tried to find traces of loved ones from whom they hadn’t heard.


 
 

Facebook too played its part. In October 2014 the social network launched a feature called Safety Check that helps users contact their friends during natural disasters. The company chose to activate it for the Paris attacks – those who’d identified themselves as being in the city were asked if they were safe and encouraged to let their friends know. All users had to do was click and a reassuring message was automatically displayed.

The application was well received, but also resulted in criticism because Facebook hadn’t made the same decision after the Beirut bombing the day before. In response, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says it will activate the feature for other “human disasters” going forward.

Emotional expression on the networks

One of the keys to social networks’ success lies in the ways the public can engage with them emotionally, to use them to share their feelings – indignation, anger, sadness, illnesses. In truly dramatic circumstances, their emotional power is fully engaged, allowing users to share their grief with victims and show empathy in response to the situation.

Graphic design is one of the most popular tools on social networks, allowing the sharing with just a few words – or wordlessly – of one’s feelings, especially after the stunning impact of violence that was as blind as it was repugnant.

Visual messages quickly became popular, like so many expressions of empathy deposited on the digital altars that our accounts have become. We change the image on our Facebook profiles, Twitter or Tumblr. We customise our Pinterest or Instagram account to show images that move or touch us the most and that best sum up our mood. A single tear is enough to symbolise all our emotions.

During the night we discovered the influence of Joachim Roncin’s famous “Je suis Charlie” logo, quickly reworked as “Je suis Paris”, “Je suis France” and even “Je suis en terrasse” – people showing defiance by posting self-portraits outside cafés.

Graphic artist Jean Jullien’s inventiveness was highlighted when he visually associated the Eiffel Tower with a message of peace to honor the victims and survivors.


 
 

The hashtag #PrayforParis also became a global message, with more than 7 million tweets is several hours. Exploring even a small range of how so many people expressed their resilience is to find meaning in a world that seems absurd, incomprehensible, uncontrollable.

Images and symbols highlighting positive initiatives also circulated, to show there’s still humanity in this absurd and brutal chaos. The images demonstrate the rest of the world standing with us, cultural initiatives, meditative moments, slogans that allow us to show our determination to stand up to the threat.

Social media as the vehicle of all the rumours

Unfortunately, social networks have also allowed many false rumours to spread. In these cases, sharing is done without control and without restraint.

A photo of the rock group Eagles of Death Metal circulating on Twitter and Facebook claimed to show the band in concert in the Bataclan on the evening of drama. In fact, it was taken earlier in their tour, at a venue in Ireland.

During the night of November 13 and 14, false reports of new shootings were everywhere: Gunshots and bombs were reportedly heard at Beaubourg, Les Halles, Trocadero and more. In the panic, users relayed these unfounded claims, probably thinking they were saving others from danger.

But there was no shooting in Bagnolet, and the shocking image of an alleged victim was taken in Brazil. A prophecy supposedly posted November 5 to an online forum, jeuxvideo.com, turned out to have been completely fabricated in an attempt to make it appear that the attacks were foretold.

These are just a few examples of the magnitude that human stupidity can take on social networks, between ill-informed but well-intentioned panic to outright malevolence with false messages and reused images, to say nothing of conspiracy theories (and often xenophobic ones) that are already showing up (but which we refuse to publicise by describing them here).


Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published in French