Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Facebook and the French Flag: A Social Media Ethics Case Study

By Irina Raicu

On November 13, 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks killed more than 120 people in Paris. Among the dead were citizens of more than a dozen countries.

Many people took to Facebook to express their shock and seek information about friends and family members. That same evening, Facebook enabled a feature that it had used before, which allows users to overlay the colors of a flag over their profile pictures in order to express support for a cause or solidarity with a particular group. In this case, the overlay consisted of the colors of the French flag.

Many Facebook users chose to activate that feature, superimposing the French flag over their photos in order to express their sorrow and solidarity with the people of Paris. Others, however, expressed a number of different frustrations with Facebook's actions. Some people complained that Facebook had not enabled a similar show of support for the victims of terrorist bombings in Lebanon, which had taken place a day before the Paris attacks—or for other victims in other parts of the world. Others questioned the value of placing any flags as a show of support, claiming that such use of symbolism would make users "part of the 'us and them' mentality." One commentator saw this action as "self-involvement masquerading as empathy for others." In an article titled "Facebook's Tragedy Features and the Outrage They Inspired," a Wired journalist noted, "I've seen the same effect offered to me on certain weekends asking if I want a green and yellow filter to show my enthusiasm for the University of Oregon Ducks."

(In response to the Paris attacks, Facebook also enabled a separate feature, called "Safety Check," which was subsequently used by more than 4 million people in Paris; that action by the company was also met with both gratitude and critique for the way it has been deployed so far.)

Before answering the questions below, please review this article about ethical decision-making and the considerations that we should keep in mind when faced with an ethical issue.

Was Facebook acting ethically in enabling the French flag overlay for its users? Why, or why not? What, if anything, might Facebook do differently to achieve more ethical results in similar circumstances?

Were users who took advantage of the feature acting ethically? Why, or why not?

Irina Raicu is the director of Internet Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

November 2015

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