Reacting digitally to tragedy

Staff Editorial

Less than a year after the “Charlie Hebdo” shootings, Paris was again struck with tragedy. Six simultaneous bombings. Several hundred dead and wounded. Borders closed.

The horror of these attacks reached nearly every inhabitable part of Earth, and the response everywhere was the same: solidarity. Nations from Australia to Brazil to Belgium to the United States made statements about the attacks and lit iconic buildings with the blue, white and red of the French flag.

These reactions spread into our digital world online as hashtags and posts. Facebook created a filter that imitates the French flag on your profile picture. A modified peace symbol with the Eiffel Tower at the center traveled rapidly through Instagram feeds, especially among celebrity accounts.

While these posts may come from a good place, is social media the best place to show solidarity in the face of tragedy?

With Paris, that answer is yes—if that yes comes with a real-life commitment.

Parisians reached out to strangers, offering up shelter for those in Paris without refuge the night of the attacks, making the hashtag #PorteOuverte, or #Open­Door, a trending topic.

In one instance, Rohan Singh Kalsi tweeted Nov. 13, “Anybody who’s stranded in Paris and needs shelter and somewhere safe, any Sikh Gurdwara (temple) will be happy to accommodate #PorteOuverte.” The tweet has been retweeted over 15,000 times.

But a lot of these hashtags didn’t lead to real open doors. Al Jazeera reported some of those cases. Another visitor at a restaurant feared returning to his hotel, located near the theater where 100 were killed. He said he was not short of retweets and responses offering to ask friends to house him, but not one became a reality.

After the state of emergency was declared the night of the attacks, however, the restaurant let the visitor and all the other patrons stay, turned on the lights and opened bottles of wine for them.

An English grad student told Al Jazeera he and four other friends ran into a courtyard after the attack and were spotted by a woman, who asked the student and his friends if they needed a place to stay. Then, she offered them champagne and snacks. They stayed up late into the night, watching a movie, waiting for the night to end.

Social media is a tool to help us show our support to those we may otherwise never reach, but we need to remember it is just a tool. The true support comes from the ones opening their doors.