Why I Can’t Update My Facebook Profile Picture with the French Flag

Why I Can’t Update My Facebook Profile Picture with the French Flag


This past Friday I was out with friends, celebrating the much-needed end of a long and hellish month. We were shut inside the dark sparkle of our karaoke room, unaware that everything was not right with the world and I wouldn’t discover anything to the contrary until the next day. Logging on to Facebook, I saw the tons of French flag-overlayed profile pictures and sympathy status updates. I Googled “france” and waited for the News section to populate.

That’s when I read the news of the attacks in Paris and the subsequent articles criticizing the response to “support the victims” by modifying Facebook profile pictures with an overlay of the French flag. I was shocked that this could happen in Paris, yes. Extremely so. But when I thought about modifying my profile picture to “show support” for France, a wave of what I can only describe as self-reflective hypocrisy stopped me.

2015 has been a difficult year for the world, especially when it comes to terrorism. The meteoric rise of ISIS in the Middle East being a prime example of the amount of violence that has taken stage in global politics. Surely Paris couldn’t have been the deadliest attack this year has seen?

Nikita and I went to Wikipedia and searched for a list of terrorist attacks in 2015 (sad that you can do such a thing), and counted the attacks. We were shocked to see that a “massacre” in Nigeria has left over 2,000 people unaccounted for, with the majority of them feared dead. The Philippines and Pakistan reached 2nd and 3rd on the list for number of casualties.

Then we reached the word February. We didn’t realize we had just been looking at the list of terrorist attacks in January 2015. We still had 10 months to go.

The results of our survey showed us what a deadly year this has been for Nigeria. Personally, I feel ashamed for being so ignorant to the extent of brutality committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors. Last year almost 11,000 people were killed. 2015 isn’t even over yet, and there are already at least 1,500 known fatalities due to Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks.

The next most violent regions are what you would expect if you have kept up with even a small amount of international news in the past year. Violence in Syria and Iraq, and Afghanistan and Pakistan is consistent, with Egypt and Kenya suffering particularly deadly single attacks.

But just one month before the attacks in Paris, suicide bombers in Ankara, the second largest city in Turkey, killed 102 people and injured over 500 more. That is a devastating attack, and Turkey is usually not privy to the violence and jihadism of its neighbors. On the contrary, Turkey is significantly developed, still bargaining to become part of the EU, and sustains a large tourism industry.

There was never an option for a Turkish flag overlay, or a Nigerian flag or a Lebanese flag or even a Syrian flag, which has seen millions die from both civil war and the rise of ISIS in the past few years. Yes, the same ISIS that is taking responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris.

A picture overlay with the flags of Nigeria, the Philippines, Egypt, Lebanon, Ukraine, Turkey, Cameroon, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and France. Even with this many represented, we're still leaving out nations experiencing fatal violence due to terrorism.
A picture overlay with the flags of Nigeria, the Philippines, Egypt, Lebanon, Ukraine, Turkey, Cameroon, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and France. Even with this many represented, we’re still leaving out nations experiencing fatal violence due to terrorism.

When Facebook users switch their profile picture to the “French flag,” it’s impossible to do so and still claim to support victims of terror in nations like Nigeria, Turkey, Kenya, all of which have experienced incredibly violent and deadly terrorist attacks within the past year, and with a greater number of casualties than in Paris.

This is not to say that clicking a button to “support France” is helping anyone in anyway whatsoever. Because it’s not. It’s an empty gesture propelled by implicit peer pressure and the desire to appear a certain way, as we have seen so often on social media. But it also reeks of the way we blindly exclude people of the developing world not just from safety and a better life, but exclude them from simple solidarity and sympathy.

Victims of attacks in Kenya, Nigeria, Turkey and Lebanon faced the same fear, pain and terror that the Parisians did the night of the attack. Why? Because they are human too. They simply are unfortunate enough to live in a part of the world where no one cares much about their safety or quality of life.

Other commentators on this phenomenon (and there have been many since the attacks) have pointed out that it’s because people assume Muslim victims of Islamic terrorism somehow brought the violence on themselves by failing to effectively eradicate terrorism where they live. Many others have labelled the response the systemic superiority of affluent white lives over poorer brown ones- racism, in other words.

I don’t think we will ever be able to clearly state why, but it is undeniable that we have become apathetic when it comes to the violence in Africa and the Middle East. Even though our daily lives are inundated with news of fatal suicide bombings, shootings or worse in these regions, the outpouring of emotion for European victims of ISIS’ attacks is the exemplification of our indifference to the presence of terrorism outside the developed world. Disappointingly, Facebook has assumed a position at the helm of the effort, by helping people appear to care for the victims of these attacks more than others.

In no way do I mean to downplay the brutality suffered and the lives lost in the Paris attacks. As I wrote this post, I found out what a thin, shaky tight rope I was walking, attempting to accuse others of minimizing similar attacks this year in the developing world, without seeming to minimize the attacks in Paris. I can understand why so many people want to show they are “standing with Paris” in the aftermath of the tragedy, but I still stand by what I have said.

We know that even while rocked by the attacks, Paris, and France, will emerge strong. Hearts are broken, security has tightened, but ultimately, people will unite in the face of tragedy and a common enemy, knowing that the rest of the world hears them and the rest of the world cares.

Iraq? Syria? They’ve both suffered thousands of deaths at the hands of the same group of attackers who committed the terrorism in Paris and if the media is to be believed, ISIS is only growing in power.

Kenya? Nigeria? Pakistan? They will continue to face violence, bloodshed, political instability and unspeakable brutality. Can the victims help it? That’s the question we should all be asking, and the simple answer is, no more than each of us can choose where we were born.

4 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Update My Facebook Profile Picture with the French Flag”

  1. Thank you for writing this excellent post; it is good to see someone speak frankly call attention to the even greater sufferings that have occurred this year from terrorism. Your posts have been entertaining over the months, but I am grateful that you found boldness to write this one.

    • Thanks Kaye! The world is a complex place and we try to find the balance between travel writing that entertains but also speaks the truth. Thanks again for your comment,

  2. Excellent post! Terrorism and what is left in its wake is so emotionally overwhelming I am frequently reminded of the privilege I have as an American to just stop “reading” about it (let alone “experience” it). Thank you for highlighting the issue of where our sympathies lie and where our attentions are focused when it comes to the acts of terrorism. Again – an excellent post!

    • Hi Jacque! Thanks for your comment! You make a good point about the privilege to look away, and I think it’s just one of the many ways people in the developed world take our quality of life for granted.

Leave a Comment