Is Facebook's Tricolour Filter a Sign of Solidarity or Just Lazy Slacktivism?

For those of us fortunate enough to learn that our friends and acquaintances in Paris were safe, there seemed little to be done on Friday night except read the updates in horror and helplessness.

In the face of such incomprehensible devastation, words failed many of us. Yet the desire to connect and to reinforce our sense of community in times of crisis is a powerful one. This played out on social media, as millions united under the hashtag #prayforparis. Users quoted the words of everyone from Nelson Mandela to Albus Dumbledore; others provided information about which charities to donate to. Lost for words, I shared the video of pianist Davide Martello, who performed Lennon’s Imagine outside the Bataclan Theatre.

Early Saturday morning, Facebook offered its users another option. The temporary profile picture feature had been activated, allowing users to superimpose the Tricolour on their photos. The last time this feature had been activated was on June 26th of this year, with the rainbow flag to celebrate the US Supreme Court’s momentous marriage equality ruling.

the entire premise of Facebook’s temporary profile pictures has also been criticised as self-aggrandizement

The feature is controversial, however. The choice of the French flag has been criticised as thoughtlessly Eurocentric in light of the concurrent attacks in Beirut and Baghdad. In a viral post, Delhi-based blogger Karuna Ezara Parikh wrote, “I understand Paris is a beloved and familiar space for a lot of people, but it troubled me that ‪Beirut, a city my father grew up in, had received so little attention after the horrific bombings two days earlier. It also troubled me that ‪Baghdad, a place I have absolutely no connection with, received even less attention after the senseless bombing that took place there last week.” Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t yet addressed this, but Vietnam-based designer Hugh Southall has taken matters into his own hands. He has launched the Facebook Filter Void project, offering to superimpose other countries’ flags to anyone who sends him their profile picture. “I have a few connections from Lebanon, having lived in Dubai. I wanted to show them I cared, but as it has become more popular my objective has changed. I want it to be the catalyst for Facebook to change.”

However, the entire premise of Facebook’s temporary profile pictures has also been criticised as lazy slacktivism, with critics viewing the gesture as an act of self-aggrandizement. When twenty-six million Facebook users superimposed the rainbow flag onto their profile pictures in June, writer Peter Moskowitz felt that it cheapened the struggle for marriage equality. He cited a 2014 study suggesting “that people who make these token displays of support often do it simply to boost their own public images without making any real sacrifice to benefit the cause.” Others have argued that acts of social-media solidarity have an unproven effect toward political change, and may even siphon energy away from more direct action. The same debates are gaining traction once more: on my social networks, friends are debating whether adopting the Tricolour is a shallow bandwagon-jump or a symbolic act of solidarity.

Perhaps it would be cynical for Facebook to capitalise on our speechlessness in the face of violence

There’s a great solution, though: Facebook should monetise the temporary profile pictures.

If Facebook had asked each user to donate just £1 to charity for the privilege of applying the rainbow flag filter, an amazing £26 million would have been raised. Americans may have won access to same-sex marriage, but nearly 40% of homeless youth in America are LGBT. Raising millions of pounds for The Human Rights Campaign or regional organisations that support homeless LGBT teenagers, like The Ruth Ellis Centre and Larkin Street Youth, would have been even more beautiful than seeing a rainbow-hued news feed for a few days.

Following the tragedies on Thursday and Friday, Facebook could have offered the temporary filter in exchange for donations to International Federation of the Red Cross. The organisation’s French chapter quickly mobilised hundreds of volunteers in Paris on Friday night, and it also has chapters in Lebanon and Iraq. Alternatively, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières delivers medical aid during emergencies across the world.

Perhaps it would be cynical for Facebook to capitalise on our speechlessness in the face of violence, and our desire to feel more connected with our social networks during a crisis. Others might argue that they support charities at their own discretion, and applying the temporary filter on Facebook is an unadulterated act of symbolism. This would be forgetting that it’s possible to Google an image of a flag and upload it ourselves. What Facebook would be offering in exchange for each donation is the convenience and trendiness of their photo filters. If it transpires that users aren’t keen – well, then it was just slacktivism. If it takes off, however, applying temporary filters would be a powerful act of symbolism and pragmatism.


More about the author

About the author

Rhiannon Starr studies History & Philosophy of Art at the University of Kent. She has written for The Guardian and Culture24 and is working on the forthcoming arts magazine The Cusp.

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