We saw it after France. We saw it after Brussels. And now we're seeing it after Orlando.
Today, it has been three days since Omar Mateen entered Pulse, an LGBT+ nightclub, and proceeded to murder 49 LGBT+ individuals and wound many others. For the families of these victims, everything had changed. For many Facebook users, very little had aside from their statuses and, most notoriously, their profile photos.
As many Facebook users know, over the past year, Facebook has offered a variety of filters that its users can add to their profile photos. When marriage equality was finally made a reality in the United States, I and thousands of other Facebook users proudly switched our profile pictures to feature rainbow flags. Similarly, following mass tragedies, Facebook often features filters in an attempt to show support for the bereaved. After the November terrorist attack in Paris, Facebook users had the option of overlaying their profile photos with a transparent French flag in a silent show of solidarity with the victims and their families. The hashtag #prayforparis began trending. Facebook even enabled a feature that is unknown to most of its users, which allowed "safety checks" for people in and near Paris to check in with friends and family members. Both safety checks and temporary profile pictures erupted across the site.
And then the weekend passed.
Mark Zuckerburg, who had sported the French flag filter for the weekend, released a statement in response to outrage that people were experiencing regarding the filters. What about the 43-person death toll due to suicide bombings in Beirut that had happened earlier that same week? What about the lesser known tragedies that occur worldwide every day? Do they not deserve our prayers? Do they not deserve to be supported through shows of solidarity such as profile photo filters? These questions and more were raised, which Zuckerburg skirted completely.
One woman, a Paris native, posted a status on the issue that went viral:
However, we are not discussing France. We are discussing Orlando.
I, myself, am a queer individual, identifying as nonbinary and pansexual. When I heard the news, my heart broke, and I immediately texted all of my friends, particularly my queer brothers and sisters. We exchanged I love yous and gratitude that we were still alive. We grieved for the brothers and sisters we had lost. We mourned. And yet not one of us has changed our profile pictures to the iconic "We Are Orlando" filter that Facebook has introduced.
There is nothing wrong with a Facebook filter showing support for a cause that you are passionate about. The issue is particularly thorny because it relies so heavily on the subjectivity of morals. How can one criticize a movement meant to show support for such a devastating tragedy? Perhaps the issue lies in the fact that many individuals on my own news feed who have expressed homophobic views in the past are now changing their photos to include this filter, posting statuses that reflect a united front against terrorism. Which is...fine, I suppose, but terrorism is not the central issue here. Omar Mateen was born and raised in the United States, and according to family members was never particularly religious. This was not an act of terrorism, or of radical Islam; it was an act of homophobia. By hiding behind Facebook filters and buzzwords like jihad and ISIS, homophobic individuals are able to ignore one particularly chilling fact: by being homophobic, they have something in common with a mass murderer.
Perhaps the issue actually lies in the determinants of what and what does not merit a Facebook filter. Orlando, Paris, Belgium, and other "filter-worthy" events all have one thing in common, and it is not the death toll. The Nepal earthquake in April 2015 injured over 23,000 people and killed at least 9,000, with no perceptible response from Facebook; the Paris attack had a death toll of 129. Clearly, then, it is not the magnitude of a tragedy that determines Facebook's response. These figures suggest that it is very, very possible that Facebook bases its responses on how much Internet attention and mentions a tragedy receives. As seen below, "Orlando" is a much more topical search term than, say, "Damascus," which just days ago experienced a bombing directly after being offered the first humanitarian aid it has received since 2012.
Perhaps the biggest issue of all is this: we are not Orlando. We were not in that club that night. As much as my heart breaks for Eddie Justice, who spent his last moments texting his mother, for Amanda Alvear, who captured the last moments of her life on Snapchat, and for the many other brothers and sisters we lost that night, my suffering could never measure up to the mothers, fathers, and dear friends of the victims. We are not Orlando. We are the aftermath. And it is up to us what we do with it.
Whatever moral issues may emerge with the usage of Facebook filters following tragedies, I would urge Facebook users to instead (or in addition) consider donating to the fund that has been set up for victims and families impacted by the Orlando massacre, or reading more about how you can help them. Facebook has an estimated 1.23 billion users. If each user donated just one dollar, the impact would be amazing. Donate here: GoFundMe.com
Lead Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons | Exile on Ontario St.