Social media on Paris terrorist attacks: A help or a hindrance

Two men paint a mural reads: "Pray for Paris" in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks, in Paris, Saturday Nov. 14, 2015. French President Francois Hollande vowed to attack Islamic State without mercy as the jihadist group admitted responsibility Saturday for orchestrating the deadliest attacks inflicted on France since World War II. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Two men paint a mural reads: “Pray for Paris” in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks, in Paris, Saturday Nov. 14, 2015. (Associated Press)

Breaking news is around the world within an instant, thanks to social media. However, the need for speed sometimes takes away the requirement of accuracy.

The terrorist attacks in Paris left at least 129 people dead and hundreds more injured. There was a total 430 million interactions (posts, likes and comments) and 10.7 million tweets coming from more than 200 countries in the first 24 hours after the attacks according to Topsy.

Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were flooded with updates on the coordinated attack, but not all of that information was correct.

Some of the false information circulating on social media included:

  • False: This was the first time the Eiffel Tower went dark, to honor the victims of the attack.

  • True: The lights of the Eiffel Tower shut off every night at 1 a.m. So the lights did turn off in honor of the victims, but this wasn’t the first time the lights were ever turned off.
  • False: The Empire State Building lit up with the colors of the French flag after the terrorist attacks.

  • True: The picture circulating the internet now with the Empire State building in red, white and blue was taken after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in January.
  • False: Uber Paris surged prices.

  • True: Uber did not surge prices. Uber services had been overloaded with requests and cautioned Parisians not to travel unless absolutely necessary. Some Uber drivers even drove the Parisians for free.

Although social media was caught circulating falsehoods, the interconnected network also helped to instantly connect to and check up on people that may have been affected.

Facebook turned on its “Safety Check” for its first-ever human disaster.

Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook comment, “Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters. We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters going forward as well.”

Many people were thankful for the social media website’s new feature.

“I served my mission in France, so I was just really happy to get on Facebook and see all these people that I love check that they were safe,” BYU recreational management student Lizzy Richards said.”It made me very grateful for Facebook.”

Richards was able to also immediately message friends in France about their whereabouts and ask if they were alright.

Facebook also made it easy for users to customize their profile pictures by overlaying the colors of the French flag on their profile pictures, which was a graphical representation of people’s support for Paris.

Twitter turned into a message board on Friday night with information to help people in Paris get to safety. The hashtag #PorteOuverte – “open door” – publicize locations that Parisians could go for shelter. Twitter spokesman Christopher Abboud tweeted that there were one million tweets with the hashtag in 10 hours.

Popular hashtags such as #prayforparis and #peaceforparis also connected people to other supporters. Jean Juilen’s “Peace for Paris” logo went viral as a symbol of support for Paris, especially after Instagram shared the drawing on its official account.

Although the Paris received a lot of visual support on social media, the digital interactions left some people wondering if a post and a tweet is really doing any good.

“I feel like most people don’t have any stake in the well-being of the French and have only made posts or profile picture changes to not feel left out,” said BYU electrical engineering student Spencer Carter. “I ditched my Facebook awhile ago but from what hear Facebook has been used to spread confusion, not truth.”

Others disagree.

“I know that it’s not physically helping them, but it is nice to show moral support and just to see that the world is standing with you,” BYU geography student Lindsay Hall said. “I think the people in Paris could feel the love from all around the world because of social media.”

For a person that has to deal with the backlash and implications of social media on a daily basis, BYU communications social media manager, Joe Hadifield, agreed that social media plays a part in social causes.

“We know that the ‘Like button’ alone cannot save the world,” Hadfield said. “But even though there wasn’t a clear effect in Paris from social media, those symbols helped a lot of people in the scary world by showing support and opening up discussion. Social media has the power to make a significant personal impact on people.”

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