In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, people and organisations sought to consul and pay tribute to the 130 people murdered in the attacks.
Municipal buildings were lit with the colours of the tricolour and celebrities paid tribute. None, however proved as divisive (except maybe John Rentoul’s) as Facebooks French Flag policy.
Ally Mutnick of NPR perhaps summed up events best: ‘a symbol that was meant to be a universal representation of grief,’ she said ‘instead became divisive.’ Many loved it, millions (the number was never confirmed) adopted it. But it failed to think globally, nor be the symbol of peace that many thought it was.
The attack was an atrocity carried out under the name of ISIS. But it was carried out French (and Belgian) nationals in response to French airstrikes in Syria; its hardly projecting a wish for peace when your showing solidarity with a belligerent in a war.
Mutnick goes on to quote a Kenyan woman who complained that ‘Facebook never once offered the Kenyan flag filter after the Westgate and Garissa attacks. I actually found the French flag filter offensive because it symbolizes selective empathy and dehumanization of others.’ This point has been echoed in respect to Dalori, Bacha Khan University, Istanbul, Jakarta and countless others.
Writing for Wired, Molly McHugh (who explains this problem better than I could) states bluntly why Facebooks policy would never be right: ‘there is too much tragedy in the world for Facebook—or any network—to effectively quantify.’ And it’s unfair for us to judge Facebook any more than the mass of News Reports, opportunistic world leaders and tunnel-vision orientated famous people. But how should an organisation work towards peace if it sincerely wants to?
Facebook’s naive response to the Paris attacks demonstrated a naïvity about promoting peace in the world. Their failure was not just a failure to think globally, nor any importance of protecting its organisation’s neutrality; Facebook failed to think sustainably about peace. The guidance suggested by UN’s Sustainable Development Goals could prove crucial for future organisations wanting to make a difference.
Goal 16, to ‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development’ and some of the clauses, like ‘16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels’ and ‘16.8 Broaden and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance’ offer a fantastic framework for an organisation like Facebook to follow. Imagine if the algorithms that controlled Facebook’s newsfeed were truly democratic and capable of connecting people from across the world? If people from around the world could see each-other, perhaps wars would be less inevitable.
Either way, organisations need to learn that measures to increase peace are not the absence of aggression or ‘solidarity’ but measures to end any kind of denial of people’s basic needs; a real participation of all those involved in a society’s institutions would stop the next terrorist attack long before it was even planned.
I’m not suggesting that organisations in any way take a position on a terror attack for the sake of it, probably the opposite, but perhaps it is time for companies to take a stance on a political issue that promotes a sustainable peace in the world rather than simply siding with its larger, richer, more online audiences.
This article was originally written for World Merit in April, 2016.