In this digital age, some news stories can trigger a flood of empathy while other events are misunderstood, causing attacks on people for small mistakes. Social media is a double-edged sword; it has allowed global humanitarian efforts to unfold but has also decreased tolerance for small mistakes, changing empathy in unprecedented ways. The quest to invoke empathy is a race where sound bites and clickbait are tools of social media platforms to grab people’s interests instead of prioritizing accurate headlines and news stories. These devices are responsible for both the most ridiculous online stories but also the best examples of empathy and humanity. One instance is the responses to the attacks on Paris last year. When news of the bombings reached the rest of the world, people took to social media to send their prayers and regards to the families who lost loved ones and to all Parisians. Status updates like the one below were common following the attacks on Paris:
In a show of empathy for Paris, Facebook allowed users to put a tricolor filter of France’s flag over their profile picture, also allowing a check-in feature for Facebook users in Paris to notify friends and family that they were safe, an option normally reserved for natural disasters (Barnard). These were some of the social media efforts to comfort and mourn with Paris. But unfortunately, the same treatment was not given to Beirut, where similar ISIS bombings took place a day before the bombings in Paris.
In David Graham’s article, The Empathy Gap Between Paris and Beirut, Graham details the international response to the attacks on Paris in 2015, and notes the stark difference in the empathy between Paris and Beirut. Between the two relatively similar events, Graham investigates the reasons for the uneven distribution of the media’s empathy. While Paris had a higher death count, Graham’s analysis states that there is more to the difference in empathy. The gap is owed to three things: cultural familiarity, resources, and economics. As Graham explains, Paris is more culturally relatable and accessible to us than Beirut. Paris is an iconic city and vacation destination. The idea that such a stable city was attacked was perplexing and terrifying — because to many Americans, Paris could represent their hometown or a major city. Beirut on the other hand had been associated with war even though the attack was the deadliest one in decades. News outlets sent more reporters to Paris than Beirut to cover the respective tragedies and inevitably stirred up empathy for Paris.
(The difference in how news companies cover the attacks on Paris and Beirut is apparent in these videos, starting with titles of the videos.)
In fact, Graham argues, that even if there was equal media coverage of both events, empathy for Paris would have still won out because of our tendency to focus on the unexpected tragedies of “Western” society. These tendencies explained why media platforms like Facebook activated the check-in feature for Paris but not for Beirut — Paris had more Facebook users, attracting a larger global audience. For these reasons, Graham writes that Paris’ tragedy elicited more empathy because of the preconceived notions about each city worked against getting any empathy for Beirut. Graham closes with the statement that the biases implanted and reinforced by the media are harmful because it prioritizes the empathy for certain groups over others and ignores people in need— separating us when we should be uniting in such devastating times.
I agree with Graham’s statement because the gap in empathy is entirely unfair; it reduces the otherwise equal suffering for the sake of making users feel comfortable. The unfortunate reality is that stories with the greatest emotional response get the most views and generate more profit. As a result, not all empathy is portioned fairly online because social media decides who we empathize with before we can make that decision for ourselves by framing stories in ways that inhibit or elicit empathy. But it is dangerous to ignore people in need because they are harder to empathize with. It neglects the larger issue of suffering and introduces bias instead of help. As Elizabeth Tenety writes in her article, The Digital World Is Warmer than You Think, “Knowledge that disturbs you can also empower you to reach out and act in support, thus giving your own life a little bit more purpose and meaning” (Tenety). During face-to-face interaction, people are predisposed to empathizing with those similar to them and social media is one of the best ways to look past differences and expand empathy (Wayne). Social media is heralded as a tool for breaking barriers, but it is biased in choosing which barriers to break and with whom to share empathy. When social media and news companies decide what headlines to place in front of users, it prevents empathy from being transmitted. The problem is not with how social media is used per se, rather it lies with companies deciding what we like best in order to gain profit.
Between the attacks on Paris and Beirut, headlines about Paris were more abundant, using heart-wrenching words like: “‘massacre,’” “‘carnage,’” and “‘Terror Strikes in Paris’” (Ajaka). Meanwhile, Beirut was repeatedly referred to as a “Hezbollah Stronghold,” minimizing the emotional impact of the deaths and how viewers received it, as if this were to expected and less tragic (Ajaka). This ends up making social media users complacent when the benefits of social media are to inform and change perspectives. This flawed use of social media entraps users in a world that is no different from how they normally interact and limits their ability to empathize with others. In the case of the attacks on Beirut and Paris, it makes the deaths of one city more deserving of empathy than the other.
This is the kind of power the media holds over empathy. Based on the amount of coverage given and the words used to describe a story, social media can regulate outpourings of empathy as easily as one can regulate the water flow of a faucet.
Ajaka, Nadine. “Paris, Beirut, and the Language Used to Describe Terrorism.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Barnard, Anne. “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten.” New York Times. New York Times, 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Deadly Beirut Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold – BBC News. YouTube. BBC News, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
Graham, David A. “The Empathy Gap Between Paris and Beirut.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Little Boy Reacts to Paris Attacks. YouTube. CBC News, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Tenety, Elizabeth. “The Digital World Is Warmer than You Think. Here’s How Social Media Builds Empathy.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Wayne, Teddy. “Found on Facebook: Empathy.” New York Times. New York Times, 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.