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» #GriefBias, a personal confession

October 15, 2018

#GriefBias, a personal confession

Man upset

On Friday 13 November 2015, unknown assailants attacked multiple venues throughout Paris, killing over 100 people in what is now known to be a terrorist attack. As news spread all over the world the hashtag #prayforparis/#prayersforparis started trending on Twitter and Facebook. Shortly after this Facebook released a new profile picture feature which allows users to superimpose the French flag as a watermark onto their profile pictures. Millions of users across the world showed their support of Paris and France in general by adapting their profile pictures. However, some users questioned the validity of this feature and why Facebook has not provided the same functionality as a means to display solidarity in relation to other terrorist attacks in the rest of the world. I am one of these users. I took to Facebook to air out my thoughts after debating this with friends the day after the attacks.

My Facebook status reads:

So I’ve been burning to say this since yesterday but feared the crucifixion by social media but thanks to a few brave souls I’m going to say it loud and clear…I’m so shocked at the number of people on my timeline who have changed their profile pics to the French flag, while I take nothing (away) from the tragic events I think charity begins at home. Be cognizant of the western media coverage of western tragedies vs the rest of the world. #‎prayforafrica #‎prayforsyria #‎prayforbeirut #‎prayfortheworld #‎openyoureyes

The impetus of my frustration stems mainly from my African friends who changed their profile pictures. To put it plainly, I was in disbelief. Where was the outrage and show of solidarity during the numerous attacks in Nigeria, Kenya, Lebanon and Syria? It seems to me that there is an inherent grief bias, we allocate our grief on the basis of how much media coverage that particular story garners. It is a well-known fact that large media outlets cover terrorist attacks in the west more widely and with more fervor than similar attacks that occur in the rest of the world, however I did not think sitting here in South Africa that a large number of my friends (mostly based in Africa) would jump on the Facebook profile picture bandwagon. While my comments may seem extreme and border on rhetoric, I endeavor to remain unbiased. A few themes emerged from the comments that friends posted in response to my status, one in particular has made me pause and think. Two of my friends posited that although the objections to the profile picture change has its merits, it seems as if that it is only now with the Paris attacks that people remember the Beirut attacks the day before or any other terrorist attacks in the “third world”. How ironic. We are all guilty of grief bias, the closer it is to home, the more media coverage it gets, the more likely we are to wear our hearts on our Facebook sleeves. I’ll be the first to say, guilty. I did not take to social media in protest of the attacks in Beirut, I did not take to social media in protest of the Syrian situation, starvation in North Korea, terrorism in Nigeria etc etc. I didn’t because while I empathise, I am desensitised and it took the reaction of millions to the Paris attacks to realise my own grief bias.

So what is the solution, do we protest for all or protest for none? Is it even possible to protest for all? Can we change the world? So many questions and I have no answers. There’s a constant aching in my heart for the plight of my fellow Africans, this is one of my main motivations to form Mbewu Movement to try make a small change. What I’ve now realized is that I have to live the change on all the platforms available to me. Thank you to those that have allowed me this moment of introspection, we all need it every now and then. The joy I take out of the social media reactions (both for and against and indifferent of the Facebook profile update) is that at least there is reaction and it is strongly against ANY acts of terrorism. There is some semblance of humanity after all.



Nswana Profile PicNswana is a co-founding member of Mbewu Movement and holds an MSc in Investment Management and currently works in debt capital markets.

  • Valid points, food for thought.
    Here’s what I think:
    – About the western media giving more coverage to attacks in developed countries: you can’t blame them, that’s how the World is setup, they spend more time and energy on stories that affect them(as the West) more directly; after all, these attacks happened in their “backyard”, as opposed to attacks that happen “elsewhere, far away.” It’s sort of a “natural” reaction to make more noise about a situation that affects you directly than indirectly.
    I’m not saying that it’s how it should be, as we expect the media to do their work without bias, but we have to accept it; if the 3rd World wants more coverage on their stories, it’s up to them to make a stand(make some noise) or grow their media outlets.
    – The other thing about this situation is that it’s a shock to the World when such bold attacks happen in countries where we don’t suspect they would(either because they rarely do, or we think those countries are better prepared against such) and hence the media and people worldwide talk about it more(which would explain why lots of your African friends reacted.) We sort of “expect” these attacks in the 3rd world, or we are under no illusion that they can happen, or they actually frequently do happen and we are desensitized and don’t talk much about them.
    – Because the western media doesn’t give attacks that happen in the 3rd world much air time, not many average people are even aware of most the attacks in those places.
    In conclusion I’d say, African media and people should make sure they are aware and talk about affairs that affect them and not expect the western owned media to do it for us, as this state of things isn’t likely to change soon. Africans should show more concern, solidarity and be aware of African affairs, they should not let the hype of western media coverage of a situation dictate how they react to what they see on TV(not to say that Africans shouldn’t empathize with the west though, as these attacks at the end of the day affect all of us.)