Arts, Culture & Media

In charts, the world's differing view of the Paris, Beirut attacks

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Google Trend results showing the relative numbers of searches for the terms "paris" and "beirut" when the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut happened.

Two major terrorist attacks happened last week. One killed at least 129 people in Paris, France. Another killed at least 43 people in Beirut, Lebanon.

ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks, but the global support and attention given to each incident varied widely.

To quantify the difference in online attention since the attack in Beirut happened, PRI has done some simple estimations using several free online tools. The evidence unfortunately has confirmed the observation above.

According to Google Trends, which tracks terms used in its search engine, total searches for the term "paris" were twice the searches for the term "beirut" before both attacks happened. When the bombings in Beirut occurred on Nov 12, the search activity for 'beirut' remained unchanged.

But when the attacks in Paris took place in the evening of Nov 13, the searches for "paris" skyrocketed more than 50 times the normal rate and remained high in the following days. In contrast, the searches for 'beirut' saw a very minimal increase on Nov 14.

A check using social analytics tool Tagboard at 12:30pm eastern time Monday showed that the same trend was still going on. Posts with the hashtag #PrayForParis in all major social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Vice and Flickr — were being posted at the rate of over 99 per minute. For posts with the hashtag #PrayForBeirut, the rate was only two per minute. Similar results were found for hashtags #Paris and #Beirut, as well as #ParisAttacks and #BeirutAttacks. The numbers shown in the chart represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. 

Searching the same set of hashtags in Topsy, a social analytics tool tracking the number of published tweets, revealed a similar trend. The number of tweets using any of the three hashtags related to the Paris attacks — #PrayForParis, #Paris and #ParisAttacks — dwarfed the number of tweets using hashtags related to the Beirut attacks.

The different treatments given to the French and the Lebanese were partly due to lopsided media coverage on both incidents. A view on Buzzfeed Trending found that out of the top 20 most-viewed stories this week, five were reports on the attacks in Paris but zero on Beirut.

During the Paris attacks, social media giant Facebook activated its Safety Check button allowing people near the attacked areas in Paris to tell their Facebook friends that they were safe. This was the first time Facebook had activated this feature, initially developed to be used during natural disasters, in response to a man-made crisis.

However, critics were quick to point out that the feature was not available to users in Beirut when two suicide bombers struck the city. In a comment added to a Facebook status update, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded that the company plans to activate the feature for more human disasters in the future.

Its vice-president of growth, Alex Schultz, who was referred to by Zuckerberg in his comment, explained in another, longer post that Safety Check was not activated during the Beirut attacks because it is not that useful “during an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic” as it is impossible to know when someone is truly “safe.” The Paris attack was the first time the feature was used for a non-natural disaster. 

Facebook, however, did not provide any explanation on why its users can overlay their profile picture temporarily with the French flag but not the Lebanese flag, another feature that has angered many Lebanese and Middle Eastern users. Some of them raised the question in Zuckerberg's status update that showed his profile photo overlayed with the French flag. 

But some Internet users saw nothing wrong with the wider coverage on Paris because the city has been a major part of the world's economy, arts and sciences for centuries. In addition, more people in the world have social and emotional ties with Paris as a result of having visited or lived in the city.

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