Facebook had a proper, full blown, all out Orwellian moment the weekend of the Paris attacks, didn’t it? Remember that bit in 1984 where all citizens have a ‘2-minute hate’ - a moment of state-enforced emotion, directed towards a particular country - THAT.
The attacks in France were horrific, awful, heartbreaking. When things like this happen, it’s difficult to know what to say. And knowing this, Facebook decided to help us all out by doing its best impression of that annoying little paperclip from Microsoft Office circa 1999 - ‘You seem to be posting about terrorism. Would you like help with that?’
The help Facebook provided was a semi opaque flag we could put on our faces to show we care about France. All we had to do was choose a photo and stick it on the top. Easy. We didn’t even have to worry about that awkward bit where you need to decide when to take it down - Facebook took care of that, too.
Just like the CVs churned out by that irritating paperclip, the end result wasn’t particularly successful. It was a formulaic, unimaginative and repetitive series of identical posts that made it impossible to tell one person’s personality from the next.
What Facebook failed to realise was that people react differently in times of disaster. Some rally round and find something useful to do. Others think deeply about the causes, dwelling on what could have been, or should have been. There’s anger, disbelief, thankfulness.
And if you look carefully through your timelines from this weekend, you’ll see all those things - people who have shared thoughtful articles, messages of hope, pictures of support— but they’re hard to find because they’re buried underneath a blue, white and red social media grief experiment.
So far, so annoying, but now we come to the scary Orwellian bit. The bit where sh*t gets real. The bit where no amount of using analogies about 1990s word processing will soften the blow.
This weekend, we were told who we should care about. We were asked to single out one nation’s grief over another’s (fyi Nigeria lose almost 300 people to terrorism every week of the year). And when a social media network gets involved in suggesting how we should react to world events, it doesn’t get more 1984 than that.
Facebook chose to reinforce the slightly blinkered view we have of the world already (our 'unconscious bias') and narrow our view even further. And a narrow view of the world leads to division - a feeling that there’s a ‘them’ and a ‘us’. And if there’s a ‘them’ and a ‘us’ then we’re picking sides. And if we’re picking sides, we're on opposing teams. And if we’re on opposing teams, then it’s game on. Blow that whistle, let’s see who scores more points.
In other words, Facebook could start a war. (They won’t of course - that Mark Zuckerberg seems like a nice chap, and they’re all about being friendly, right… right?!)
If Facebook really wanted to unite the world in peace, then they could have used their ENORMOUS global network to show us what the rest of the world are saying about terrorism - not just in Paris, but across the world. Rather than a French flag, they could have offered us a non-political symbol of peace so that we could show our support for Paris, Nigeria, Syria, or the 99.9% of Muslims who feel they’ve been tarnished with the most terrifying of brushes.
But they didn’t - they made our filter bubble even smaller, told us who we should grieve for and gave us an easy way of doing it.
It’s a good job Facebook are on ‘our’ side, eh?