Why the Paris attacks overshadowed Beirut bombings

A photo taken on November 16, 2015 in Paris shows the Eiffel Tower illuminated with the colors of the French flag in tribute to the victims of the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks. (AFP Photo/Alain Jocard)

It might be nearly impossible to find a social media-using member of Western society whose Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feeds were not filled with tributes to Paris this weekend — whether in the form of French flag filtered photos, a widely shared illustration of the Eiffel Tower at the center of a peace sign, or simply the hashtag #PrayForParis.

But, as the New York Times pointed out on Sunday, a scan of the same social media feeds would not likely produce much evidence of the fact that, just one day before over 120 people were killed in a string of consecutive attacks around Paris, dual suicide bombings took more than 40 lives in the Lebanese city of Beirut — the Islamic State terrorist organization (also known as ISIS) having claimed responsibility for both. 

Once news of the Beirut attacks did start to spread online, however, the response was less an outpouring of support and more an outpouring of outrage and attempts to blame either the media or the public for overlooking Lebanon.

In a post at Medium, journalist Martin Belam expressed his frustration over a widely shared tweet claiming that “no media” had covered the Beirut attacks when, in reality, Belam wrote, “search Google News and you will find pages and pages of reports of the attacks in Beirut. Pages and pages and pages. Over 1,286 articles in fact — lots of which pre-date the attacks in Paris.”

That same tweet elicited a similar reaction from Vox’s Max Fisher, who wrote, “The New York Times covered it. The Washington Post, in addition to running an Associated Press story on it, sent reporter Hugh Naylor to cover the blasts and then write a lengthy piece on their aftermath. The Economist had a thoughtful piece reflecting on the attack's significance. CNN, which rightly or wrongly has a reputation for least-common-denominator news judgment, aired one segment after another on the Beirut bombings. Even the Daily Mail, a British tabloid most known for its gossipy royals coverage, was on the story. And on and on.”

Yet, Fisher continued, “these are stories that, like so many stories of previous bombings and mass acts of violence outside of the West, readers have largely ignored.”

A request for data on Twitter responses to the Paris attacks was quickly met with a colorful visualization of the #PrayForParis hashtag’s climb from a single tweet to 6.7 million within 10 hours, and another similarly illustrating the trajectory of #PortOuverte. That hashtag (meaning “open door”) was used by Parisians offering shelter to those in need following Friday’s attacks and according to Twitter was tweeted 1 million times in 10 hours.

Similar statistics on Twitter’s response to the Beirut attacks, however, were neither as readily available nor brightly illustrated. A Twitter spokesperson referred Yahoo News to the public analytics service Topsy, which showed that the number of tweets containing the keyword “Beirut” started to climb from an average of around zero on Wednesday and peaked at 142,658 on Friday.

Facebook did not respond to a request for data on its users’ activity relating to the events in Paris or Beirut.

Pamela Rutledge, a professor of media psychology and director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, argues that the disparity between reactions to the events in Paris and Beirut from Westerners, and Americans in particular, is more an issue of understanding than wilful ignorance.

“People in the U.S. are much more familiar with Paris than Beirut,” Rutledge told Yahoo News. “We have this image of Paris as the place where Hemingway wrote or the place where you learn to paint or cook. “There’s this long history — they gave us the Statue of Liberty for heaven’s sake — and an understanding of Paris in each of our brains.”

Most Americans, she explained, can easily visualize Paris in their minds, whether they are recalling an image from their own experience as a tourist or a scene from one of the countless movies set in the French city. The Middle East, on the other hand, is generally more difficult to grasp.

“It’s a hugely diverse area of the world, but our sense of it is very limited by the small amount of information that we have,” said Rutledge. “And because many of the areas, especially around Beirut, have been in turmoil for so long, the images rooted in our brains are of violence and conflict.”

“When we hear there’s violence over there, we think, in an uneducated way, ‘Aren’t they always fighting?’ There’s that lack understanding about what's going on there.”

Not only is our capacity for empathy tied to our ability to visualize a place or a situation but also, Rutledge said, our brains are hardwired to judge whether something is dangerous based on how relevant we think it is to our own lives. And the Paris attacks, she noted, hit particularly close to home. Friday’s victims were sports fans, concertgoers, and restaurant patrons. The people held hostage at the Bataclan Theater were there to see an American band perform. Among those killed was a college student from California.

Such events “shatter our image of how the world is supposed to work,” Rutledge said.

Still, while the average American may be inclined to feel more of an emotional response to the attacks in Paris than those in Beirut, Rutledge said she hopes these parallel tragedies might result in greater awareness and a changed perspective.

“For a long time people were not taking the ISIS threat seriously because it was in a part of the world that didn’t seem personal, but now it is,” Rutledge said, suggesting that now “people might think, Paris and Beirut are related, and understand people in the Middle East are under attack from ISIS too. We are on the same side here.”

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