Social Media's Complicated Relationship with the Paris Attacks
Over the weekend, the world was shocked by Friday night's terrorist attacks in Paris, France. The attacks, carried out by ISIS, killed over 130 people and wounded well over 300. Social media and technology played a hand on both sides of the attack.
Social media is known to be one of the main tools for ISIS in recruiting people to their cause. Twitter is often cited as a way the terrorist organization is able to reach out to the lonely and the disenfranchised and radicalize them. Over 20,000 foreigners have flocked to ISIS, about 3,400 of them coming from Western countries. So in one way, social media helped create the attacks in Paris.
A lot of misinformation tends to spread over social media in the wake of disasters, either natural ones or those perpetrated by people. Back in 2001, following the September 11 attacks in New York, there was a lot of speculation or misinformation that was temporarily reported as fact. Now, since everyone with a smart phone has a platform, it's easy for any tidbit to get picked up and go viral.
There were many things reported on social media that were false, but fortunately they tended to be minor, such as pictures that were taken at other times and attributed to recent events. There was a picture of the Empire State Building lit up in red, white and blue, but that was a few day earlier for Labor Day. There were images of citizens marching in Paris and Germany, but both of these followed the Charlie Hebdo attacks and an immigration protest, respectively. The Eiffel Tower didn't go dark as a "moment of silence" and the selfie of the Sikh guy in his bathroom was not one of the terrorists that attacked Paris. Shockingly, Donald Trump's tweet was a prayer for the victims, not an admonition on gun laws. (The one about having guns was following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.) Uber did not surge their prices.
On that matter though, social media has shown its usefulness in the face of disaster as well. Uber specifically did not hike their prices and in fact many Uber drivers offered free rides over the weekend in light of all the confusion. Facebook allowed people to let their friends know they are okay with their Safety Check feature. AirBnB and Twitter helped people find places to stay. Google, Skype, Sprint and Verizon all let people make calls to Paris for free. And of course millions of people took to social media all across the world to express their concern for the attacks and show solidarity with France.
As you can see, from being somewhat complicit in helping create the source of the violence to helping people in the aftermath, social media has a very complex relationship with disasters like the Paris Attacks.