#HashtagActivism and Media Backlash

On Sunday, the anti-media chorus (targeting old and new platforms) sang out on Facebook and Twitter, decrying what was being called a myopic, biased world view by the mainstream media when it comes to the terror unleashed by ISIS last week.  The complaint : while the attacks in Paris got the full western media breaking news treatment, a suicide bombing in a neighbourhood in Beirut along with another bombing at a funeral in Baghdad “got no coverage.”

First up, let’s call bullshit on something. The Beirut and Baghdad stories did get coverage.  No, it wasn’t the rolling news, non-stop, commercial-free treatment like the Paris story had.  But they were covered – had any of the suddenly-globally-conscious cared to go looking for the story. It was covered in the same way that bombings and attacks are covered every day in these places, because – let’s be real – violence has (sadly) become synonymous with these locales.

In the world of editorial decision making, the Paris story ticks all the boxes for being breaking news – notably that it was an event taking place in a location where such a scene would be highly unusual. While it’s a sad commentary on the world in the 21st century, the reality is that there are places that know this kind of violence all too well.  Paris is not one of those places.

The initial cries of dissent toward the coverage of the Paris story started with an ill-researched meme, which included not only the bombings in Beirut and Baghdad, but also a magnitude 7.0 earthquake which happened (far) off the coast of Japan. “#PrayForJapan” became lumped in to pump up the body count for a while, until someone bothered to research and realized that a 30cm (1ft) tsunami wave crested following the quake on a nearby island.  Not only were there no injuries, there was no damage, and here in Tokyo, nobody felt a thing. But, #PrayForJapan, because… well… it’s trendy.

Then, there’s the issue of Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature, which was enabled during the traumatic events in Paris, but not during the horror of the explosion in Beirut.  Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg explained the logic for enabling Safety Check in the following way :

Many people have rightfully asked why we turned on Safety Check for Paris but not for bombings in Beirut and other places.

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.

While I don’t seek to create a defence for Facebook on how it implements “Safety Check,” I would say that the company – despite being “worldwide” as was argued to me in one elongated Facebook comment thread – doesn’t carry on operations in the Middle East.  If you wanted to be generous, they could be given an out for not using the system in a place where they don’t have a bricks-and-mortar presence – or one in proximity to the multitude of free trading nations like those in the European Union, NAFTA or ASEAN.  While Facebook might be available in Beirut, they’re not really truly doing business there.

The social media titan has also been criticized for giving users a way to show solidarity with victims of the Parisian attacks, but not the Beirut or Baghdad violence. There’s been no official response on the matter.

Frankly, fashionable is the best word to describe the way people treat outrage toward the media – traditional or social.  An emotionally-wrought mob mentality is the only logical explanation. And I get it – you’re pissed off. About all the atrocities in the world. And that’s good – I think we should want to live in a peaceful world. But before taking aim at the people telling the story, think for a moment why it’s told the way it is.

Why don’t we – as media, and media consumers – spend more time thinking about world issues? Why don’t we spend more time on international storylines in nightly newscasts and on radio talk shows, rather than the trivialities of the donut that will help you lose weight or the celebutant who has said something outrageous on InstaSnapMessengerBook? Because, Virginia, you’ve said loud and clear that the donut and the famous person is what you really care about.

If everyone decrying the coverage of Paris, Baghdad and Beirut was really, truly consuming news and current affairs coverage of international issues on a routine basis, explain the following numbers for me.

One of the top-performing programs dealing in international affairs on domestic US cable news is CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. It airs Sunday mornings in the midst of all the other political programs in that time slot. GPS won its demo (P25-54) in its time slot with 165,000 viewers, and had 592,000 total viewers. (Data from June 2, 2015) By comparison, E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians March season premiere netted over 2.5 million total viewers (1.5 million in its core demo, P18-49).

Don’t pee on my shoe and tell me it’s raining.  If as many of your Facebook friends were as truly concerned about world issues as they purport to be right now, network news budgets would be adjusted so less was spent on “Dateline” style investigations (Dateline, pulled down 4.2 million viewers in the demo in recent weeks), and that cash would be used to set up news bureaus in far-flung regions.  Al Jazeera and BBC World would have more subscribers than “fluff” channels.  PBS wouldn’t know what to do with all the donations they’d be getting in response to high quality documentaries on international issues.

Alas, and uncomfortably, we all know this is not the world we live in.  And saying that makes us feel ashamed about our own international news consumption (yours truly, included).  And so, the media becomes the target, because they’re not giving us what we need!  (It’s mom’s fault we didn’t eat our vegetables!)

Yes, let’s be outraged about what happened in Paris. Let’s be outraged about the seemingly entrenched environment of violence in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. And let’s all do better to pay closer attention to what’s going on in the world.  But before you tap those thumbs on your smartphone calling out media outlets for not serving up what you’ve – until now – told them is the content equivalent of brussels sprouts, pump the brakes. Nobody likes a poser.

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