Social Media as Social Commentary
Since the events of Wednesday 7th January 2015 the world’s eyes have focused on France, as terrorist attacks, national manhunts and millions-strong marches have swept across the country and centred on its capital Paris. Among the mourning of 17 civilian victims have come debates surrounding the concepts of liberté, egalité, fraternité, the rights of free speech and the task of combating social divisions within Europe in the near future. Civilians and world leaders alike have stood in a show of solidarity with their fellow citizens from around the world, with the events capturing the interest of people on an international scale.
The role of social media in the scale of solidarity expressed this past week has been integral. From the availability of rolling news reels in the form of official news agency Twitter feeds to citizen journalists posting photos of events almost instantaneously to their social media platforms, this week has seen the phenomenal reach available when news turns viral. The establishment of what can only be described as a global social movement in the week since initial events took place, has been created and fuelled by the popularity of the #JeSuisCharlie, #JeSuisFlic, #JeSuisJuif hashtags, which have come to symbolise the solidarity and togetherness of everyone involved. It is estimated that as of 10th January, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was used 3.7million times, with estimates undoubtedly increased in the days since.
Likewise the effects of social media have also sparked debate around the divisions present in modern society, as sideline movements such as #JeSuisAhmed and xenophobic social media reactions such as #KillAllMuslims began to spring up across social media. The complex relationship between nationality, religion and identity has become entwined in the catastrophic events of this week, with social media providing an important platform for open debate and rebuttal against intolerance and prejudice.
Paris is not alone in its popularity as the centre of social media journalism, as similar movements arose only several months ago in the wake of the hostage crisis in Sydney in mid-December. After a lone gunman took 18 people hostage in a downtown café, the #I’llridewithyou movement achieved over 40,000 tweets in just two hours as Australians showed their support for civilians and a desire to avert a social backlash against minorities.
The rise of these movements and their facilitation by social media, particularly Twitter, has shown the power and popularity of these alternative platforms as an integral element of receiving and participating in news events as they unfold. Although it is true that some have chosen to use this opportunity to incite further hatred and intolerance, the overwhelming response in support of the victims of last week’s attacks has shown the importance of social media as a force for raising awareness and promoting tolerance. In an event with the debate about freedom of speech and expression at its heart, it is perhaps fitting that social media should provide the platform for open discussion.