#Paris: The power, the horror, and the distortions

  • 14 November 2015
  • From the section Technology
  • comments

As the true extent of the Paris attacks becomes clear, we are reminded yet again how the internet - or more specifically, social media - is changing what it means to cope with disasters affecting people on a global scale.

It may seem trivial to even care about social media during moments like this - in happier moments it can seem like a place for selfies, holiday photos and banal arguments in 140 characters.

But during a crisis social media becomes the single most significant platform for news to be spread, eyewitness experiences to be shared and official statements to be made.

And inevitably, these same channels amplify misinformation, allowing rash judgements and prejudices to boil to the surface, fuelling fear and ignorance.

The power

Image caption Friends are informed if one of their friends marks themselves as "safe" in Paris

But it can also be a powerful tool for those trying to cope - and we've seen this in full swing in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks.

Moments after the news broke, Facebook rolled out its Safety Check feature for Parisians to reassure friends and family that they are safe.

The system, first used earlier this year during the Nepal earthquake, targets users it knows to be in or around the affected area and asks them to "check in".

Facebook said: "Communication is critical in these moments both for people there and for their friends and families anxious for news.

"People turn to Facebook to check on loved ones and get updates which is why we created Safety Check and why we have activated it today for people in Paris."

It's an effective way for Facebook users to inform possibly hundreds of friends at once. In terrorist situations, mobile phone networks often collapse under the stress of everyone calling using their phones at once - this is one way to help solve that.

On Twitter, the #porteouverte hashtag was being used to offer places to stay for people affected by the tragedy.

In the coming days, we'll no doubt see viral expressions of solidarity with Parisians.

The horror

Reporting of what was being shared on social media was restrained - not only by traditional broadcasters and press but also by some of the newer news platforms, like Reddit Live.

This stems partly from what happened after the Charlie Hebdo attacks - where media companies were accused of endangering hostages by broadcasting their location based on information posted to social media. One company was even sued.

In this latest attack, one image on Instagram showed a picture of the gig taking place at the Bataclan concert hall - the scene where more than 100 people were killed.

The Instagram account it was posted to has not been updated since.

On Facebook, one status update, reportedly also from inside the concert hall, described how gunmen were killing people, one-by-one - a description which matched with other eyewitness accounts gathered by the media.

Social media brings the real horror of an atrocity closer to all of us. Images that, in the past, would have not made it to air, are now appearing in our newsfeeds.

The lies

Donald Trump, a man who hopes to win the White House next year, tweeted about the attacks.

"My prayers are with the victims and hostages in the horrible Paris attacks," he wrote. "May God be with you all."

But that wasn't the tweet that people shared. Instead, it was a post he wrote in January, making reference to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and noting that France has strict gun laws.

But while all tweets have their date clearly visible, this didn't stop the tweet being shared rapidly - with Mr Trump getting bombarded with abuse for using the incident for political gain.

Elsewhere, others tweeted that a "revenge attack" was taking place at a refugee camp in Calais - when it appears an electrical fire was the cause of a blaze.

And the Eiffel Tower was apparently "turned dark" in respect for the victims, when in fact the lights are turn off every night to save electricity.

Why do people spread misinformation during major events? Attention seeking, perhaps - no made up story is ever boring. Naivety plays a role, people wrapped up in a moment don't always give themselves a moment to apply common sense, or to check.

But increasingly, misinformation seems to be a method of making ourselves feel better about the world. Seeing scenes of solidarity - even if they're not true - acts as a small distraction from the real horrors at hand.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC