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Facebook, the French flag and equality

What I have learned since last Friday’s (13/11/15) atrocities in Paris, France and Facebook’s response – a French flag meme to enable people to express their condolences to the act, is that I have actually been underestimating the depth of influence of the social media to people’s lives.

The response of some Africans to Facebook’s decision to create a French flag meme to help its subscribers express their sadness, solidarity and convey their fears after the terror attacks is testimony to our magnified perception of the role of social media platforms.

My African brothers and sisters have been particularly appalled by the perceived empathy gap and Facebook’s perceived bias against non-white communities’ life experiences. Examples of Facebook’s perceived bias have included its less than enthusiastic response to such atrocities as one in Beirut, Lebanon that occurred on the same week as France’s and some historical events such as in Mombasa, Kenya in April 2015 in which at least 142 university students were killed by Al Shabaab and the abduction of at least 200 girls at a Nigerian boarding school.

While I acknowledge the differences in response to the atrocities, I remain less convinced that it is Facebook’s duty to set parameters for our emotional expression and intelligence. I believe such attitudes are a sociopolitical manifestation that goes beyond mere technological invention.

Yes, some of it maybe a result of colonial attitudes that internalised a sense of white superiority while reinforcing a black inferiority complex. This has built an unhelpful sense of entitlement to Western assistance among Africans. We have failed to grow out of this intellectually damaging self-imposed prison of dependence and its associated perception of the West as the big brother. India was once a colony yet according to recent economic projections, India will be the third largest economy by 2030!

We should perceive not Facebook as the determinant of the degree of human emotional expression. Technology has changed the way human beings conduct their business but it has yet to replace humans, let us seek not to replace human feelings with technology, we cannot reduce complex human feelings to apps. Facebook is a private business always looking for opportunities to expand its reach and will use anything and any situation to achieve that.

Facebook is a great tool and platform providing humans with an alternative field to express their creativity, if not what we already own, to a wider audience. Instead of being quick to point at what Facebook is not doing let us look at how we can use Facebook to our advantage. As Africans let us focus on where our responsibilities lie in crises situations. How was the Nigerian government’s reaction to the abduction of 200 school girls by Boko Haram? Pathetic, I will argue that President Goodluck Jonathan was pushed into a response more by media pressure than the atrocity itself.

I do not subscribe to the idea that the recent French flag meme translates to French lives being better than anyone else’s; Facebook does not determine the depth of grief, grief is personal no meme can ever reflect that. With or without the flag, the loss of human beings is felt the same. I even question the extent to which memes make a difference. Remember the hashtag ‘bringbackourgirls’? I remain unconvinced of the impact it had on the ground.

Facebook’s French flag meme cannot be objectively used as a measure of Western attitudes towards none Westerners. Facebook apps cannot be expected to and do not replace complex human emotions. The fact that a Western inclined piece of technology has been used to help Westerners express their emotional solidarity with a Western nation should not surprise anyone. Facebook does not owe us anything; if Africans think such technology is essential for reflecting our experiences, we should be designing ours.


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