From Facebook’s Safety Check to #PorteOuverte, social media has been vital in bringing people together in the aftermath of the attacks on Nice. However, the onslaught of graphic coverage on these platforms has left many concerned about the darker side of social in times like these. Rebecca Stewart and Jess Goodfellow report.
Rolling news coverage of disasters and tragedies can quickly turn social media users into unwitting witnesses. The very nature of retweets, shares and autoplay means graphic, and sometimes disturbing, images and videos can easily end up on users’ timelines.
In the immediate aftermath of the an attack in the French city of Nice last night (14 July), in which an armed man drove into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais killing at least 84 people, social media was criticised for being at its worst. Journalists on Twitter were reminding people, and news outlets, to avoid spreading unconfirmed reports or images which could easily identify victims.
At the same time, however, social media and tech companies have been vital in bringing people together. Facebook’s Safety Check has helped individuals let loved ones know they’re safe, while over on Twitter tens of thousands of people worldwide have used the hashtag #JeSuisNice to show their solidarity with the victims.
A separate #PorteOuverteNice movement – French for ‘Open Door’ – was also used to offer safe spaces to strangers stranded in the city after the tragedy, while Google is among a host of providers offering free calls and messages to France so friends and family can contact people they know in the region.
The #JeSuis hashtag first emerged following the attack last January on French satarist magazine Charlie Hebdo and saw cartoonists pen messages of defiant support under the umbrella of #JeSuisCharlie after 11 of the title’s staff were shot dead by group of radicalised ISIS supporters.
It rose to prominence once more last November as #JeSuisParis following a series of attacks in the French Capital which left 130 dead and hundreds wounded, and was quickly adopted again by users as news of the events in Nice came to light on Twitter yesterday evening.
From Jeremy Corbyn to Chris Froome, the hashtag has let ordinary users, public figures and politicians express their grief online. Speaking on the impact of the hashtag, founder and managing director of Why Social, Dom Burch said: “Often words in a tweet seem meaningless and shallow when there has been such horrific loss of life, but naturally people want to show their solidarity and offer their support, hence hashtags pop up instantaneously.”
“Social media amplifies our society,” he added, “so inevitably not everything shared is positive or sensitive to those affected.”
Less than 12 hours after the attack was reported it had been used over 12,000 times on Twitter alone and while not an actionable hashtag it has helped spur further initiatives on the platform to help lead people to safety.
#PorteOuverteNice began trending on Twitter in the area following the assault, with users in Nice offering up their homes and businesses to those looking for somewhere safe to shelter. People were encouraged to send their addresses to those who replied to them via direct message rather than sharing them openly online. #Nice06 was another hashtag started by users in reference to the postcode where the attacks had occurred, allowing people in the local area to seek out help nearby.
Utilisez ce hashtag #PortesOuvertesNice amis niçois, pour un hébergement ou du réconfort. On est avec vous
— Alice Vachet (@AliceVachet) July 14, 2016
"Use the hashtag #PortesOuvertesNice for a roof or consolation. We are with you.”
— Sylvain Lapoix (@SylvainLapoix) July 14, 2016
Those stranded were also using the hashtag as a cry for help, harnessing the Twitter’s mammoth audience to quickly attract attention and find some shelter while the city was in lockdown mode.
J'étais au festival avec mes 2 filles s'il vous plaît aidez nous, nous sommes Avenue Saint Augustin, l'hôtel est fermé. #PortesOuvertesNice
— Amhai (@AmhaiSharib) July 14, 2016
“I was at the festival with my two girls please help us, we are Avenue Saint Augustine, the hotel is closed.”
#PortesOuvertesNice je suis à l'aeroport cherche hebergement please !!!!
— KenzA (@Kenfeu) July 14, 2016
“I'm at the airport looking for accommodation please!”
It isn't just social media companies laying the groundwork to help people affected by these events. In the wake of the Paris attacks Google waived all fees on international calls to France via hangouts, and this morning it announced it would do the same in the wake of the tragedy in Nice.
Other wireless companies have followed suit, with AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint all abandoning charges on calls and roaming fees to, and in, France.
Additionally, for those in and around Nice, Google is continuing to publish special Google Now cards (which serve up Android users information bulletins) containing critical updates from French authorities.
Facebook activated its Safety Check feature shortly after the attack following a community-generated activation of the tool. The social media giant rolled out a new system that can be activated by its users last month. This means it responds quicker in times of crisis, and in tandem with trends in user conversations instead of being manually switched on by Facebook employees.
Of the tool's activation in Nice, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We hope the people in the area find the tool a helpful way to let their friends and family know they are okay.
“Last month, we began testing features that allow people to both initiate and share Safety Check on Facebook. Over the last few months, we have improved the launch process to make it easier for our team to activate more frequently and faster, while testing ways to empower people to identify and elevate local crises as well.”
It comes as more people are becoming reliant on such features to reach family and friends and assure of their safety quickly. The service first launched in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and was updated to include both natural and human disasters last year in response to demand. That version was first activated after the Paris attacks last November.
At the same time, Facebook has come under fire for sharing a graphic video of the aftermath of the Nice attack on its Newswire page, which acts as the company's way of delivering breaking news content to the public.
The company used this platform to share an Instagram video showing graphic footage of the victims. It was quickly called out for posting the harrowing images of the dead and injured victims, with users concerned such images could cause grief to those affected.
Facebook has since pulled the video, after the French Interior Ministry tweeted requesting that people do not share the pictures due to their graphic nature.
— Ministère Intérieur (@Place_Beauvau) July 14, 2016
Officials from Twitter have also confirmed the editorial team handling Twitter's Moments service has "responded [with] tighter curation” to prevent the spread of such images.
Pause for thought
The promise of "tighter curation" will come as welcome news to users looking to avoid the darker side of social following the tragedy.
While it's clear that tech behemoths like Facebook and Google have been instrumental in the spread of information, connecting people and allowing those affected to let their loved ones know they are safe with the click of a button, the companies have yet to take any harsh line of action against the sharing of graphic content from the scene.
Back in 2015 Twitter and Facebook's autoplay feature came under the spotlight when a killer posted footage of himself shooting a WDBJ-7 news reporter and cameraman. The fact that the videos were automatically played and the rate at which the content was shared meant that many social media users saw the disturbing footage - without an opportunity to opt out.
It opened up a discourse on how to curb the virality of such content in the future, but given the speed at which content is retweeted or shared it has been hard for social networks to crack down on graphic content.
Burch said times like these require "pause for thought."
"In our haste to pass on breaking news we often forget the images being posted are people's family, friends and loved ones," he added.
"Can publishers like Facebook do more to screen content to help prevent it offending or being seen by children who should be protected from explicit images of horror? Undoubtedly yes, but as responsible, caring adults we too must take control of the devices in our hands and actively choose not to share everything on impulse."