Facebook accused of ‘selectively sympathizing’ with Paris over Beirut

Facebook allowed users worldwide to show solidarity with Paris attacks victims by adding a watermark of the French flag on their profile pictures

Ismaeel Naar
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Facebook's decision to implement a "safety check" feature and French flag watermark for profile pictures in response to the Paris attacks, but not after bomb blasts hit the Lebanese capital Beirut a day earlier, has prompted fierce debate online on what many are calling “selective sympathy.”

Soon after the series of deadly attacks hit Paris and claimed at least 129 lives late on Friday, Facebook launched the safety check notification feature whereby Parisians and those in the city at the time could "check-in" and let friends and family members know that they were safe amid the violence.


The social media giant had only previously implemented the use of the feature after natural disasters, recently during an earthquake which hit Pakistan and the subcontinent.


A day later, Facebook also allowed users worldwide to show their solidarity with victims of the Paris attacks by adding a watermark of the French flag on their profile pictures.

“The reactions concerning the activation of the security check for Paris and not Beirut are seen through a long history of disregard for stories about people in the Middle East North Africa region,” Joe Khalil, an associate communications professor in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar, told Al Arabiya News.

“With this disparate treatment, social media seems to repeat how Western film and television limited access to Arab stories by Arabs,” he added.

A scathing Facebook post by Lebanese blogger Joey Ayoub, who was also one of the youth organizers of the “You Stink” protests that hit Beirut during in recent months, read: “Seems clear to me that to the world, my people’s deaths in Beirut do not matter as much as my other people’s deaths in Paris.”

Ayoub describes himself as “privileged Francophone community in Lebanon” and considers Paris his second home.


In response to the criticisms, Al Arabiya News contacted Facebook’s Middle East’s office in Dubai who re-directed us to public statements made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and VP of Growth Alex Schultz.

“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,” Zuckerberg wrote in a comment underneath his profile picture watermarked by the French flag.

“Thank you to everyone who has reached out with questions and concerns about this. You are right that there are many other important conflicts in the world,” he added.

Facebook’s head of Direct Response Advertising MENA Narain Jashanmal told Al Arabiya News that the public statements “for now, cover everything we've got to say. I expect that there'll be further communication soon.”

Unintended reasons?

There was another dimension behind Facebook’s decision to launch the features, says communications professor Khalil. “I see the ‘change profile watermark’ just like the ‘security check’ as a way for Facebook to remain relevant to an eroding user base.”

“By providing these tools, Facebook aims to remain relevant at least for those users that still depend on Facebook for social connection. However, the unevenness of the access may just get those users to rely on alternative means,” he told Al Arabiya News.

Abu Dhabi-based Internet policy expert Rafid Fatani excuses Facebook’s recent policy, which many on social media have been attributing with the term “selective sympathy,” simply on staffing and resource issues.

“While the differentiation between Beirut and Paris might not have been a deliberative stance from Facebook, it is a resource allocation issue. Facebook has very little public policy resources in the MENA region (a handful of policy employees at best), especially compared to other regions.”

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