by Uygar Baspehlivan, a second-year BA International Relations student at King’s College London.
13th of November, 2015 saw the realisation of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks to a Western state after 9/11 by the increasingly threatening terrorist group Islamic State, whose polarising and violent means of action created a novel sort of division among the people of the world; those who support Islamic State and those who are threatened by it. However, failing to unite under the flag of ‘people who are threatened by IS’, Paris attacks generated a polarised response from the social media instead of becoming a beacon of solidarity and mutual understanding. A significant portion of social media users, instead of sympathising and understanding the importance of these attacks in the general global political context, accused those who filled their profiles with French flags, articles, videos and caricatures; of being hypocrites for being interested in Paris attacks more than other recent humanitarian atrocities, naming Beirut, Ankara etc.
It is beyond dispute that in terms of humanitarian concerns, the attacks are all of equal importance and matter, no life is more important than the other; not Ankara, not Paris, not Beirut. But what people are failing to see when criticising the response to Paris is that the social media response to the attacks was not driven by a ‘humanitarian’ concern, it was about meanings. It was about what Paris means in popular culture and within the global political context and how it inadvertently and naturally generates a specific kind of reaction than other humanitarian atrocities. The moral quality of this ‘selective interest’ is always open to debate, but nonetheless, it is at least understandable for people to give a different meaning to these attacks than others. Accusing people of hypocrisy is unwarranted; when considering the cultural and political context of the attacks. We can propose two factors that would help us understand why the social media and political reaction to Paris had had more coverage than others; 1) the proximity of the attack 2) the cultural and discursive meaning of Paris as a city.
As I said, people’s increased response to the attacks don’t have to be driven primarily by humanitarian concerns; framing of the attacks were not based on the deaths of innocent civilians but rather, on the growing sense of ‘this can happen to us as well’ mentality. The response to the drowned Syrian kid in the shores of Bodrum was a humanitarian response, the reaction to Paris attacks, on the other hand, can be argued as of an individual security concern, (nonetheless it of course had a huge humanitarian element, but security brought a new dimension to the reactions); and social media merely reflected that concern. This proximity is not only of spatio-temporal context, it’s not only about the geopolitics of Paris, but what Paris represents. Paris represents the idea of a civilised world (whether or not it is civilised is always open to discussion), and the attacks surged the idea that the war of ISIS is no longer confined to war-weary third world countries who face attacks like these in a regular basis, but can be a threat to a country that is supposed to be secure and civilised and ‘epitome of liberal triumph’. It is, as I remarked, is the realisation that ‘this can happen to us’; ‘us’ being the middle to high class educated people raised by Western hegemonic discourse that dominate the social media… and the general political decision-making.
Besides them being a security concern, Paris attacks also represented the destruction of a cultural icon that influenced popular movies, songs and paintings. What Paris connotes is different than other cities. When you grow up seeing painting of Paris, watching movies like ‘From Paris with Love’, ‘Hugo’, ‘Ratatouille’, or listening to iconic songs like ‘Champs-Elysees’ or ‘April in Paris’, seeing it this vulnerable, this insecure, this sad… it instinctively affects people. A massacre in an iconic city is the way to spread fear, and IS was successful. What should be done; in response, is to show solidarity; not in the name of Paris, but using the momentum that Paris brought. It is not the time to point fingers and accuse. The interest given to the attacks in the social/popular media, is understandable considering its proximity to the social base of forums like Facebook, Twitter and the cultural importance of Paris. Rather than disuniting on an issue of media coverage, the resurgent interest should be used to accelerate global action against IS…for Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Syria, Iraq and all others who were devastated by these atrocities.