Paris Under Attack: Digital Culture in Times of Crisis
The Paris Attacks demonstrate the influence and impact of digital tools during a time of crisis and identify clear ways that technology is changing our responses, reactions, and behaviors.
Over the years, I have identified five stages of digital culture that take place during a crisis as a part of my broader research on how we can use technology to improve our responses during these tragic events.
This post will outline each of the five stages and explore how different stakeholders (Government, Citizens, Media, and Technology Companies) act during each phase.
1) First Awareness: “Is something going on in Paris?”
The first phase in the digital crisis curve is the shortest, it represents the initial realization that something out of the ordinary is taking place.
The hyper-fluidity of information is reflected in a rapidly evolving set of hashtags that capture our attempts to piece together an understanding of the situation from a diverse set of sources.
On the evening of Friday the 13th, the hashtag #parisshootings was one of the original tags that originated and was quickly replaced by #parisattacks as more details about scope of the attack emerged.
For citizens using digital media tools, this early phase is characterized by information-seeking posts of a questioning nature. (“I’m hearing sirens around République, does anyone know what’s up?”) By now, media outlets have been alerted to an active situation and will dispatch reporters to the scene and set up event live blogs.
The significance of this phase lies in our behavior as information consumers to turn to social media as a first point of interaction with the crisis. In many cases, tweets are the digital first responders, and the platform becomes the source of raw, real-time information. We are drawn to the drama, and are willing to trade unverified information in exchange for up to the minute updates.
The role of hashtags also highlight our appetite for broad, real-time coverage. Searching for trending terms allow us to easily go beyond our feed to follow the conversation wherever it might be happening. Twitter is built on the notion of content curation from a trusted network, and hashtags enable us to temporarily break free from these social constraints and find people based on their relationship to the relevant information. It’s an agile type of temporary informational connectivity that becomes incredibly useful during a crisis. Twitter’s moments feature also demonstrated a good way to filter information.
2) Informational Maelstrom : “There is something happening in Paris!”
Critical mass of awareness of the event is reached when hashtags become trending on popular sites, social media posts begin to go viral, and an the mainstream media begins coverage. We are in full blown crisis mode.
This phase tends to be the most intense and chaotic, as it’s characterized by an abundance of information (sometimes conflicting, often unverified) as people scramble to understand and share information.
In many cases, this phase happens as the crisis is still occurring, and the sharing of facts and figures that can change in an instant creates confusion, panic, and fear. The hashtags for the event are well defined and used by the majority of individuals, media outlets and governments (#parisattacks, #attentatsparis). We also see a surge of new information as the focus of covering the crisis expands to include logistics and personal appeals.
Once the locations of the attacks in Paris became public, people from around the world scrambled to track down family members and friends. On Twitter, #rechercheParis was widely used by those seeking the whereabouts of loved ones.
As the city went on full alert, public transportation closures and venue evacuations left many people in the affected areas stranded and unable to get home. #portesouvertes emerged as a quick, citizen-led response to connect those with apartments nearby to those who needed shelter. At it’s peak the tag was mentioned in nearly 7,000 tweets per second.
Airbnb sent out an email to all of their French members saying it would waive hosting fees and launched a disaster response page to help people in urgent need of accommodation, and Parisians kindly offered strangers their hospitality.
Content showing some of the first eye-witness accounts of photos and video clips (such as this viral video showing victims as they ran to escape from the Bataclan) gained wide traction and traditional media coverage, including a high volume of retweets and shares.
One of the biggest wins for technology during the attacks was Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature. Originally intended as a response for natural disasters, the feature enabled those who were in the affected area (determined by geolocation or current city setting) to quickly mark themselves as safe. It was like a digital attendance-taking, much to the relief of family and friends. In the first 24 hours of activation, 4.1 million Facebook users marked themselves as safe, reaching over 360 million people.
The effectiveness of this widely praised technology is a reflection of our extensive and digitally connected social circles, especially those nuanced weaker connections. My immediate family and close friends reached out to me via Facetime, SMS, phone or instant messaging apps. Extended family and friends, colleagues, and those hard to define acquaintances that cover the spectrum from people I went to grade 3 with and that guy I met at a conference once- all reached out via Facebook making the safety feature the perfect way to share the most relevant piece of information at that time: I am ok. I am safe.
It was a great relief to me to see those little green checkmarks as well. Living close to the affected area, I immediately started my own round of outreach and being able to see who was already marked as safe was a great comfort during a period of anxious uncertainty.
At this point in time, media coverage becomes short, frequently updated posts that serve as a frontline for verifying and confirming information amidst the chaos, an essential task that leverages an institutions credibility to create a narrative to make sense of what’s going on. Before the ease of digital publishing we would have had to wait for the next day’s newspaper, but thanks to a constant news coverage, we were able get a clearer picture of the events as they unfolded.
During the Paris attacks we knew there were several different sites that were hit, an emerging hostage situation and that many people had been killed. Information is still changing as journalists have to contend with changing facts, for example the death toll fluctuated between 40 and 200 people over the course of Friday night.
Further highlighting the influence of digital media during times of crisis, government and police stepped in quickly to ask the public to refrain from live-sharing the movements of police forces, especially during on-going operations as it could not only alert suspects but could jeopardize the safety of hostages and the general public. Users on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit were instructed to not post or share this type of information, a reflection of our connected information ecosystem and the instantaneous nature of social networks.
Governments also turned to social media to circulate important information such as the numbers for embassies in Paris for tourists, airport shutdowns, public transportation disruptions, border closures, and the declaration of a state of emergency by President Hollande. The French Government also introduced a website where people could give tips about suspects.
3) The Narrative Peak — “The Paris Attacks have killed 132 People. Responsibility was claimed by Da’esh.”
The Narrative Peak occurs once the event has maximum digital exposure and the active crisis has passed.
By Saturday morning, the main facts of the attacks were widely known including officially confirmed details such as the number of attackers, number of victims, etc. Media coverage shifts from breaking news to analysis and in-depth coverage.
4) Digital Solidarity and Shared Grief — “This is how I feel about what happened.”
The Narrative Peak is followed by shows of solidarity and emotional reactions to the events that have transpired. On Twitter, #prayforparis quickly became a leading term for sending condolences from around the world across a variety of mediums. Other tags included #memepaspeur (not even scared) and #jesuisparis (I am Paris.)
Nuanced representations by several communities evolved as well, adding their own unique commentaries. #Iammuslim was a popular tag where members of the Muslim community condemned the attacks and distanced themselves from the radical extremists, revealing the unease and fear in the potential blowback and retaliation for these events (like this. Or this.) Interestingly, #jesuisjuif also emerged from the Jewish community to draw parallels between the Paris attacks and similar attacks in Israel. Finally, many people adding #beirut to tweets about the attacks, making the point that they felt the recent attacks in Beirut (Over 4o people killed) did not receive the same type of media attention and global outpouring of support.
One image of the Eiffel Tower as a part of a peace sign by French artist, Jean Jullien become one of the most recognized symbols of the Paris Attacks and has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
User-generated media such as this video of French Exchange students singing their country’s National Anthem in New York, show a deeply personal and intimate view of how different people paid their respects. These elements create socially connected movements devoid of proximity, and show the unity of a global digital population. The twitter account @parisvictims , shares information about each of the victims. It’s a powerful way to forge a connection about the people who have died, beyond just the numbers.
Media stories now reflect personal accounts and human interest pieces (you can listen to my story on CBC’s MetroMorning here.)
The images and videos provide a powerful show of support without words: famous monuments lit up in France’s colors, snapshots of vigils from around the world, tweets and posts as people share their own memories — all unite people through technology in their grief.
The hacker collective Anonymous, have also declared war on Daesh, in retaliation for the attacks and has already taken down the accounts of 5,500 twitter handles with links to the extremist group.
Technology companies also showed their support. The Uber app showed all available cars with the colors of the French Flag. Google showed a black ribbon on their home page, and offered free calls to France from Hangouts. Facebook provided another nifty feature to show solidarity by enabling users to add a French Flag overlay to their profile picture, complete with expiry date.
Cynics might sneer at the seemingly superficial gesture of changing a profile picture or adding a hashtag to a tweet, but as someone who is still reeling with shock, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the images of support from around the world.
5) Ramp Down. “Let’s move forward.”
The ramp down hasn’t fully happened yet. It normally takes place after the first official ceremonial acknowledgement of the event that has taken place. In Paris, it will most likely be later this week as people gather in public spaces to mourn and grieve for the victims.
This phase signifies a shift from mourning to moving forward. Profile pictures return to normal, hashtags no longer trending, and people’s posts turn to the next media story. This will depend on the location, as in France one can expect this phase to last a lot longer than in other countries.
In Paris, #openbistro has been one of the earliest tags to pop up encouraging people to support local businesses despite the feelings of fear and uncertainty that linger. The media will cover more stories about the victims and longer-form essays will be published to look at the broader implications of this attack on politics, policy, and general sentiment.
Together We Stand
This last week in Paris has been horrible. I am devastated by the loss of life and am struggling to emotionally make sense of it all — though I doubt I’ll ever understand what drives a person to such a level of hatred. I am also saddened by the anti-refugee rhetoric that I’ve seen pop up on social media.
Let’s all remember that these people are fleeing the evils of Daesh too. Syrians have been experiencing this level of atrocity for the past four years. If you don’t believe me, check out this recent report from the WHO that estimates there are over 25,000 newly injured Syrians EACH MONTH. It breaks my heart to think of the horrors one must face before risking their lives and leaving everything they’ve known becomes the better alternative.
Technology has connected us to each other at an unprecedented scale. My research focuses on the emergence of the first Global Digital Culture and how we are experiencing events collectively within this new connected ecosystem.
Yes, there are some who will use this technology to spread hate and lies, but it’s brought me tremendous comfort to know that there are others like me who are out there — who want to use these tools to help and support each other.
Every time I find myself feeling sad about what happened, I turn to the Internet and know that somewhere out there someone is sending us love and hope. For now, that’s enough.