Facebook’s Flag Overlay- Moral Dilemma?


There was a level of startling predictability in the way we assembled on social media to draw ‘battle lines’ following the Paris attacks. The monstrous acts carried out on the 13th of November this year prompted the need for in depth, searching questions regarding the West’s past and future in the Middle East. Presented with this opportunity for growth, we did our utmost to neglect it.

Social media, for the most part, did not question further Western intervention in the Middle East and whether or not it was a proportionate response to the perceived danger of the region, or the effectiveness of fighting propaganda-stoked-fire with drone strikes. Nor did we seek to question our entangled, abusive, sugar-daddy-esque relationship with the Sheiks of our favourite energy resource. The irony of the following article is that I too have indulged in this distraction.

Facebook’s French flag profile

So here comes the test of your social media savviness. You’ve got a profile picture somewhere in the annals of your Facebook page looking simply darling wearing a beret you picked up the day before in front of the Eiffel tower; it certainly smacks of relevance but frankly you look too good. It’s not a question of arrogance; it’s just that it’s the cliched Eiffel tower picture, and you wanted to look your best for it at the time. But now the intention of  wanting to show sympathy is being tinged by the idea that you’re showing off. Somehow, you fear, you’re appearing to market your grief. The human brain is only capable of so much worry and so to the appropriately respectful, and convenient, Facebook overlay you now turn.

A dreadfully unwise decision apparently. If you’ve thought about it, and used it regardless, then according to certain sections of the media bubble, you have delusions of grandeur; whilst simultaneously declaring yourself sub servant to your corporate overlords. If you haven’t thought about it then you are, at best, chronically naive and, at worst, assisting the sort of imperialism that gave rise to ISIS- at least according to The Independent.

The concern from the dissenters seems to be that the profile picture represents a sort of competitive display of grief, a one-upmanship for empathy. How ignorant for the people not to recognise the atrocities committed elsewhere in the world on a level playing field? ‘Where were their flags? Where were their profile pictures?’. In these questions there is no doubt that the one-upmanship has continued, but the battle lines have shifted and have taken on a new indie flavour. Your Facebook friends have effectively taken your Coldplay and raised you a Norwegian band called ‘Elephant Dream Funk’, to make the inner turmoil you feel at ‘Yellow’ a mere reflection of your vacuous self.

That being said I believe I understand the arguments at play here and, because of that, I did not use the flag overlay. I’m rarely the sort of person that goes for social media displays in general and I dislike the idea of my private grief/love/affection being surmised by a corporation for an inflated price- greeting/condolence cards are often out of the question. However, that night I found myself madly scanning the internet for any meagre items of news as I sat in my girlfriend’s apartment in London knowing that it could so easily have been our friends and our families that evening. After watching images of a pregnant woman dangling out of a third floor window, holding on in terror as those inside were massacred I found myself wanting to know that others were engaging in this in the same way. Not to show solidarity to the French people, as my Facebook is hardly cosmopolitan, but to those I knew who I hoped were reading and watching what I was and feeling the same way. Intentions, in action as in language, are vital.

By the time I had realised I could not use the overlay via my phone, and would have to use my laptop, the doubts had set in and all pure intention had been curtailed with the very arguments I’m now arguing against. However, I don’t doubt that many of the people who are not studying these very issues continued on and did so with pure intentions. I am also just as sure that somewhere there is someone who primarily saw that evening as a opportunity to display themselves looking handsome on the Champs-Elysees. Why on earth we would wish to clearly say that one or the other is incorrect becomes infuriatingly binary and the sort of simplistic surmising that causes much, if not all, the man-made misery in the world. No, it wont necessarily help the people of Paris and there are indeed more effective alternatives, but if we were to judge every moral action in terms of opportunity cost then everyone would doubt themselves into paralyses. The point is that we care at all.

The issues of why we didn’t react the same way to other tragedies occurring at the time is as simple to answer as it is important that we overcome. As already mentioned, the human mind can only take so much worry. Children in Need is a prime demonstration of this effect, where clips of suffering are interspersed with amusing sketches so as not to force the audience to engage fully with the horrors they are witnessing. Our feeble minds, constructed for small tribes of fifty similar looking, similar sounding second cousins on the African plains, are not necessarily built for global news. The constant bombardment of the Middle East and horrors of disease and famine in the African continent have numbed us to these tragedies. We are right to be concerned by this but we should not mock or undermine people for even local concerns. To shoot them down for having eurocentric grief is to make them feel yet more isolated and more out of touch with global events. And how else will they engage more broadly in time?


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