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Kenyon GS: Facebook and the hypocrisy behind the filter

The series of terrorist attacks that gripped Paris — and the world — in shock on Friday night will not go without its deeper effects on our increasingly globalized world. From all corners of the globe, displays of solidarity, empathy and love have risen in the face of what appears to be a long conflict in the waiting between radical Islamic terrorism and Western culture.


For those of us on Facebook, this has become readily apparent in the option to filter our profile pictures with a semi-transparent French flag. But I take deep issue with Facebook’s management for creating the French flag filter while disregarding other atrocities worldwide.


This isn’t a new phenomenon. The offering — perhaps more commonplace on Snapchat or Instagram — is clearly becoming the option de jour (or de l’annee) on Facebook, as 2015 brought users the choice to filter their photos in a rainbow flag following the Supreme Court’s declaration that same-sex marriage is a nationwide right.


Planned Parenthood picked up on the trend with its #PinkOut campaign, seeking support from across the country as Congress examined defunding the organization after the release of a series of undercover videos indicating that the organization may have engaged in questionable behaviors surrounding the use of aborted fetuses. No doubt the private sector will begin to capitalize upon this new (and customer-tailored) means of advertising and communicating.


In the wake of Friday’s attacks, Facebook offers us the ability to drape ourselves in the French flag — but what about the other tragic events that have taken place around the globe, both this weekend and in the weeks and months prior? France is our nation’s oldest ally, but for a nation and a social network that connects hundreds of millions of people around the globe, is Facebook’s selective offering of whom to stand with in solidarity not absolutely hypocritical?


Facebook’s mission statement clearly states that it aims “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world and to share and express what matters to them.” If users are supposed to decide “what matters to them,” is it not contradictory that Facebook delivers the option of expressing only what may or may not matter to us as dictated purely through the lens of those in Menlo Park, California?


It is devastating that 2015 has brought us so many horrific events, but why has Facebook not provided the greater Facebook community with preset options to display solidarity as we see fit? Recall the thousands of victims killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Recall the suicide bombings that have plagued Afghanistan and Iraq. Recall the Oct. 10 explosions that targeted a peaceful demonstration in Ankara, Turkey, by the Islamic State. Recall the suicide bombers who killed 43 people and injured 240 in Lebanon on Thursday. Recall the continued attacks on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian border that terrorize the lives of those in the region every day.


Even domestically, think of the events we do not give greater acknowledgement — whether it is recognizing the tragic effects of a mass shooting, the effect of the Black Lives Matter movement on our larger political discourse or the men, women and canines who serve and protect our nation overseas and at home. Where was the option to emblazon our profile photos with an American flag filter on Veterans’ Day in a show of respect at a time when our veterans have become a political volleyball in terms of how to care for those most in need?


For my fellow Brunonians or students at any campus across this country, where is Facebook’s offering of a show of unity behind Black Lives Matter or the cry of students at the University of Missouri?


That’s right, there isn’t.


Facebook will have to refine its role as a global moderator of communication and expression. While we are presented with limited options of pre-made expression, we can always go and construct our own. But I believe Facebook must reflect the true diversity of individuals it serves.


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a global job. He can be seen doing anything from socializing with President Obama to asking Chinese President Xi Jinping to name his child. Zuckerberg should not only talk the talk; he must also walk the walk on promoting the global inclusion of his brand.


It is not my intent to smear Facebook or its support to Parisians, but rather to point out a crucial flaw I see in the company’s practices to date. I strongly believe in the success of private enterprise and the private sector leading the way in driving our economic and social future. But when a company indicates in its mission statement that it strives to connect users with the world, it is hypocritical for its management to drive the community narrative through the eyes of Menlo Park. Facebook’s board of directors may want to reexamine its inclusive global practices as the company moves forward. Perhaps someday we will no longer shake our heads with displeasure when we see “trending” news stories that juxtapose terrorist attacks with Chrissy Teigen and her bold sartorial choices.


Let’s join together in standing not only with Paris but also with Lebanon, Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and everyone affected in our global community. It is bittersweet to see so many of my Facebook friends from all corners of the globe coming together and accepting Facebook’s offer of the flag filter. Let us expand on its potential. Let us engage in this larger, continued discussion and recognition of the chronic tragedies that touch our world far too often. Will Facebook lead the way?


Facebook, the choice is yours.


Ian Kenyon GS is a master’s of public affairs candidate with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. He can be reached at ian_kenyon@brown.edu, and he anticipates some negative commentary for questioning the flag filter.



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