The terrorist attack in Pakistan has sparked anger on social media – not all of it aimed at the attackers. For many, the relative lack of attention paid on Twitter and Facebook illustrates Western double standards.
Two major terrorist attacks in less than a week. But for some, only one of those attacks received the attention it deserved on social media.
When multiple bomb blasts rocked the Belgian capital on March 22, killing at least 35 people and injuring hundreds, Internet users were quick to respond. The hashtags #JeSuisBruxelles (or, alternately, #JeSuisBrussels) and #PrayersForBrussels began trending on Twitter. Images of a tearful Tintin, the famed Belgian cartoon character, spread across the web. The Belgian flag was shared widely online.
Five days later, a suicide bomber killed at least 72 people and injured hundreds more at a busy park in Lahore, Pakistan.
Social media was by no means silent on the subject. The hashtags #LahoreBlast and #PrayForLahore began trending as reports of the incident came in, and Facebook responded by activating its Safety Check (which subsequently suffered from a glitch). Meanwhile, public figures took to Twitter to condemn the violence, including famed Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.
But many were also critical of what they saw as a comparatively underwhelming response to the violence.
Similar criticism appeared following the Paris terrorist attacks in November. Whereas the events in the French capital led to an outpouring of grief and solidarity online, an attack that occurred in Beirut, Lebanon, only a day earlier seemed to have provoked little emotional response. Some have also argued that Turkey, which has experienced heavy bouts of violence in recent months in connection with the government's ongoing conflict with the Kurds, has also been relatively forgotten. For many, these divergent responses are a sign that for users of Western social media platforms, some lives are simply more valuable than others.
As Catalan activist Maiol Sanaüja put it in a widely shared post following the attack in Pakistan:
But Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, had a more nuanced explanation.
“People in the Western world are more familiar with the people and places in Europe than they are in other areas,” she told DW in an email. “These attacks, therefore, feel more relevant and have more personal meaning.”
“This isn't about the relative value of French lives versus Kurdish ones; it is about the limitations of the human brain to be able to visualize and empathize with things they don't know,” she added.
Local interest factor
Rutledge noted that the mainstream news media share some of the blame for this phenomenon. The stories that news organizations focus on are largely determined by what they feel their audiences are interested in. Because an attack on European or American soil feels more relevant to a European or American audience, Western news outlets focus on that. This in turn helps determine the social media response to such an event.
She said the situation was no different in other parts of the world. People in the Middle East, for example, have inaccurate perceptions of the West. These misunderstandings help determine the way people relate to each other across social media.
“This is why it's so important to share the human side of different cultures, so that people see each other as similar ‘others', not different ones,” Rutledge said.