#JeSuisBruxelles – grief, empathy and sympathy on social media

Let’s get two things out of the way upfront.

First, it’s okay to be angry and to grieve, and wanting to express empathy, solidarity, and sympathy.

Second, it’s okay to express your anger, grief, empathy, solidarity, and sympathy on social media – or not.

What separates the socially acceptable and the utterly inappropriate is the manner in which you express these very natural and normal human emotions, whether on social media or some other forum.

Humans are social creatures, and there is nothing more social than social media. Gestures and words should never be underestimated. They can be incredibly powerful – that’s why humanity developed rituals, celebrations, commemorations, literature, and poetry.

After violent events, such as the terror unleashed on Paris, Istanbul, and Brussels, there are always some who think public expressions of emotions on social media are ‘narcissistic‘, ‘useless’, and ‘superficial’, even ‘selfish’, and sneer at those who do so.

Last year, The Independent went as far as congratulating people on their ‘corporate white supremacy‘ over putting a French flag on their Facebook profile picture.

Cynics will doubt, and haters will hate …

I admit I had a French flag over all my social media profile pictures for several weeks after the event. I also posted public messages of solidarity, and sent private condolence messages to our French friends. My reasoning for doing so included Paris being one of my favourite cities in the world, and my deep appreciation of, and love for the French people and their culture, which I explored during multiple visits to France over the years.

This time, I posted the above ‘I love Brussels’ message, which I overlaid on a photo I took while visiting the city in 2008, to social media. However, I haven’t updated my social media profile pictures, and didn’t have any friends to contact.

Perhaps the science is not fully developed on the subject, but the only thing that really matters is whether expressing your emotions publicly will help those who have been directly affected by tragic events in any way, and whether doing so will help you to process those events.

Empathy, solidarity, and sympathy are quintessential human emotions. When you are struck by tragedy, people rallying around you invariably offers comfort and peace.

“Social media can act as a social buffer or catalyst for people’s pain and loneliness. It is a cry for warmth and sympathy in an otherwise superficial and narcissistic environment,” explained Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at the University of London. “People’s sympathy and ‘likes’ are genuine, not least because they recognize that the person is genuinely looking for support and help rather than the usual admiration or status approval.”
How we grieve on social media, The Atlantic (25 April 2014)

Expressing your emotions will usually also help you in dealing with them, especially in circumstances where you can readily imagine yourself in the place of those touched by the tragedy.

Terrorist attacks, such as the ones that occurred in Paris, Istanbul and Brussels, are events that can realistically occur anywhere in the world. Such events can now shatter the relative safety of any Western city, most of which have been insulated and kept safe from global upheavals over the past 50 years or so.

The brutal Brussels attacks on people as they made their way to work on a Tuesday morning, the vicious bombings in rush-hour Istanbul, and the Paris shootings last year as people enjoyed their Friday night out, struck a particular chord on social media because the victims could have been any one of us.

Making our way to work in the morning, being stuck in rush-hour traffic, and going out for a bite and a show on a Friday night are shared experiences by millions, from which we expect to come home alive.

When terrorism strikes in such circumstances, especially in cities considered safe, usually largely unaffected by the world’s troubles, and similar to our own, we put ourselves in the place of the victims, recognising any one of us could have been the target of that terror.

The subsequent combination of emotions will inevitable land on our media du jour – social media, through changed profile pictures, shared quotes, images and memes.

These gestures of shared feelings have now become a social media ritual – a ritual which helps people around the world to work through their own emotions, while showing the people directly affected that others care for them.

People also often feel helpless when such events occur. Even in Western democracies, where we elect our political leaders, we often have very little, if any, practical control over global foreign policies, geo-political intricacies, and its effects around the world, and on us.

What we can do, is to express our sorrow and empathy and offer comfort to those struck by tragedy – a very human, and natural thing to do.

Of course we also have to be careful, and recognise that not everyone grieves and shows sympathy publicly, on social media.

Grief is a very personal emotion, and just because someone doesn’t overlay a national flag over their profile picture, or share public condolences on social media at a time of tragedy, that doesn’t mean they don’t care.

They just manage their grief differently from you.

Social media is also helpful during times of tragedy, not just as a tool of shared grief, solidarity, and sympathy afterwards, but as a tool of emergency communications during events unfolding.

Social media enables those caught up in tragic events to keep their friends and family informed and, in certain circumstances, to provide authorities with valuable information via private messaging channels.

Social media also enables the public to offer assistance to those caught up in unfolding events, by offering assistance and safety.

This was on display in Brussels on Tuesday, similarly to what happened in Paris last year, with locals posting with the hashtags #OpenHouse and #ikwilhelpen (I will help) to guide people to safe houses, a bed for the night, or a meal and a drink, depending on their need.

Facebook also activated its ‘Safety Check’ feature as news of the attacks on Brussels spread, enabling people to check themselves in, offering some measure of relief to worried family and friends.

And then there is perhaps one of the most unique aspects of social media, the manner in which it provides a channel for communal humour and satire to deal with very difficult, even dangerous, issues.

This aspect of social media was amply illustrated last year when the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown trended on Twitter, providing an outlet for Belgians during a series of anti-terror operations by police that practically shut down the capital, and the ‘Duck Daesh’ meme which mercilessly satirised the terrorist organisation.

As I noted at the time, some may consider such responses to Daesh, or other serious issues, childish, inappropriate, or even useless.

And, of course, hashtags and memes can’t stop terror from occurring.

However as I said last year, considering the significant investment Daesh is making in their social media presence, largely with Western and young audiences in mind, making them the subject of derision, mockery and ridicule on the medium is an excellent method of combating and disempowering their messages.

Within hours of the attacks on Brussels, Belgians, and people around the world, defiantly responded on social media to Daesh’s terror. Some of the funniest and most poignant responses were a play on Brussels’ famous ‘Manneken Pis,’ a bronze sculpture depicting a naked little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin …

Even if humour and satire can’t prevent the terrorist acts of some crazed followers of Daesh, hopefully they can help reduce the recruitment success of this barbaric group and, at the same time, provide a creative, non-violent, yet defiant outlet for people’s anger and grief.

After the victims of these acts of barbaric terrorism are respectfully mourned and life slowly returns to ‘normal’, we will be left dealing with the cultural, political and social outfall of these latest monstrous attacks.

Such attacks are designed to punish and terrorise. Instead, Daesh invariably finds defiance, and a world coming together in solidarity, and in condemnation of those responsible.

Brussels was another cowardly attack, and we will have an important collective decision to make yet again: will our response be a knee-jerk West vs Islam fear-reaction, and a primitive desire for violent confrontation and revenge, as no doubt hoped by Daesh?

Or, will we be clever and strong enough to take the intellectual highroad, and see these events for what they really are: the best of our humanity standing proud and defiant against all forms of extremism, no matter what ideology, nationality or religion.

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