This article has been co-written by Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet CEO of MCBG Conseil and Laurent François, co-founder of RE-UP agency. Both of them are French.
It's probably still too early to properly assess the impact of the terrible attacks that targeted Paris on January 7th, 2015. The first attack against Charlie Hebdo, led by Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, killed 12 people, including legendary cartoonists and journalists, two police officers and one building maintenance officer. The second attack, led by Amedy Coulibaly, targeted the Jewish community, killing four people in a "Hyper Casher" supermarket. None of the terrorists survived.
These two dramatic events generated one of the most powerful social media conversations ever in France, but also worldwide.
From a social media perspective, these tragic events present many revealing insights.
TV is the first social media
It takes time for a topic to really go worldwide. The following maps, showcasing the geotagged tweets mentioning #JeSuisCharlie, deliver at least four main insights:
- Western Europe is deeply connected to NYC. It may appear obvious, but when the buzz was already generating tremendous interest in NYC, after it had reached all Western European countries, it was only just starting to generate interest in other regions.
- Twitter is fed by television, and television is fed by emotions. Journalists have never had such a complex job. They not only have to cover what's happening on the ground, but they need to curate, analyze and validate in real time whatever information, videos or photos they can get through social networks published by witnesses of the events. Videos of the attack against Charlie Hebdo were published just minutes after the tragedy took place.
- This new information cycle, which feeds on 24/7 news from TV channels, imposes new communication paradigms. Should a TV channel broadcast all the information it has and all the information it gets from social media in real time, given that terrorists could use this information to their benefit? Without filtering or even thinking about what the consequences could be? Of course, these questions are hardly new, and they arise in relation to any hostage situation. But they are all the more acute now that any hostage situation can be filmed, photographed or commented on by thousands of people at the same time. What would have happened if the security cameras at the "Hyper Casher" had been wired to the Internet? Or if someone had access to them?
- That being said, it is because Paris is so well-connected to the rest of the world and constantly feeding the "social engine" with fresh news, pictures and analysis that conversations kept going about Charlie Hebdo. Global awareness and support rose. Even personalities such as George Clooney publicly stated "Je suis Charlie" in support. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie emerged less than an hour after the first attack.
01/07/2015 13h14 (Paris time)
01/07/2015 22h20 (Paris time)
Haters form clusters, and clusters know how to organize themselves
Despite massive support for #JeSuisCharlie, a few clusters actually developed free-loading strategies.
- Conspiracy theorists: Metro News, 20 Minutes and other popular news websites were challenged by internet users who suggested that what the media were saying was false, and that they, the users, knew what the truth was. The difference with 9/11 is the speed with which these reactions occurred. Although Le Monde's website did a truly excellent job, fact-checking every rumor in a live mode, it was the only media outlet to do so, due to the very complexity of the task that proves challenging to news media in a new and harassing way.
- Alleged Islamic groups: despite strong digital skills, and though they were using less conspicuous channels than the #JeSuisCharlie supporters, pro-terrorist groups didn't manage to compete with the general trend. Indeed, they tried to use #JeSuisCharlie themselves to divert attention. But pro-#JeSuisCharlie users set up the same strategy on #JeSuisKouachi, leading to very intense and hateful digital noise. This, however, presents so-called Islamic groups with a unique opportunity to "spot" people that favored their ideas. An active listening and data-mining operation should help them to recruit even further. Moreover, now that the climax is over, they are not faced by enough stakeholders that could possibly hinder their activities.
Me, Myself and We
On the streets of Paris on January 11th, we French were walking hand in hand, talking and debating with each other; on social media, something else was happening altogether. On social networks, we focused only on what mattered to most of us on our individual level, regarding our own religion, our own beliefs, or our own personal identities. The dialogue ended there. The communion was no longer possible. On social media, we did not comment the attacks as a "we" but as an "I". The sense of a collective goal was somehow lost in its digital translation.
We then realized, more vividly than ever, that the very design of social networks tends to exclude people we disagree with. Which is unfortunate, when they could have a key role in promoting dialogue and cohesion between people. In the long run, they could even misinform us, by suggesting to us only content we are ready to accept and willing to read. Where would Charlie Hebdo be, then? This paradoxical suggestive power of social network - if it widens the scope of our potential sources - could actually enclose ideas in a smaller playground. Could #JeSuisCharlie kill Charlie Hebdo?
Feeling so warm and comfortable together, despite being on the cold streets of Paris, we wished that social networks could look a little bit more like this: a gathering after the storm. The simple happiness of being together, despite our differences, but also the fierce, unbreakable will to debate our ideas, whatever the cost, in the name of what we took for granted, for so long. Knowing that we would never, ever again, regain our innocence.