Facebook is so powerful and influential. It is so in many different ways, but today, I want to talk about Facebook’s political influence.
We’re all horrified by the Paris attacks that took place last night. We’re all deeply hurt by the loss of innocent lives and indignant about the merciless, inhumane killers. To respond to this universal sentiment, Facebook enabled a new feature as of this morning: we can put our Facebook profile pictures behind the French flag. If you use the new feature, you will see something like this.
This morning, one of my friends asked me what would be wrong with using this profile picture. A difficult question, but I want to do my best to answer it.
I want to start by comparing the profile behind the French flag with a similar profile picture change that Facebook launched in the past. Remember this profile picture for Planned Parenthood?
Yes, when Planned Parenthood was attacked by right wing thinkers and threatened with being defunded, Facebook enabled this change to allow its users to show solidarity with Planned Parenthood. Now, innocent Parisians were indiscriminately slaughtered by terrorists, and some Facebook users want to show solidarity with the victims. What’s wrong with that?
Well, I see a huge difference between the two profile pictures. With Planned Parenthood, there is a clear divide between the victims of patriarchal violence (Planned Parenthood) and the perpetrator of the violence. By standing with Planned Parenthood, you oppose patriarchal thinking, and these two are mutually exclusive. I am not sure if they are really mutually exclusive, but you can certainly think so, and I respect that view.
But with the French flag profile, things are not that simple. It is not 100% certain yet who orchestrated the terrorist attacks, but many think that ISIS did. If it did, the new Facebook profile suggests the following: ISIS attacked France. You may now think, “well, that’s a fact. Isn’t it? What’s the problem?” The problem is that we live in this world already fraught with Islamophobia. In that world, the ISIS, that extremist group, is taken erroneously as the representative of the diverse Muslim cultures and populations. To many, therefore, the new profile picture would mean “Muslims attacked France.” This is how right wing conservatives understand and even welcome the new profile change, I think. But here is a subtler but more profound problem. Is France, the whole nation, attacked by Muslims? The logic of the image that separates the victims and the perpetrator and expresses our sympathy for the victims – the logic reinforced by the Planned Parenthood precedent – would lead us to think so. Then, the new profile picture makes us think of France and Muslims as oppositional terms, as if Muslims are an external force to France and they are an enemy to each other.
I know that people who adopt a new profile simply feel bad about the victims and want to show support for the victims. But the way you express your support and sympathy matters. Your sentiment is honorable, but the vessel through which you express your sentiment distorts your intention. The new profile picture inadvertently but inevitably sends the message that France belongs to Christians and white (at least non-Arabic) populations. There is no room for Muslims in France. Let’s think first before we act.