On March 13, a car bomb exploded in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, killing an estimated 32 people and injuring over 100 others. This attack came only a few days after several other small-scale strikes in both Ankara and Istanbul. On March 22nd, suicide bombings at the Brussels Airport and the Brussels subway in Belgium claimed 35 lives and left 300 injured. Just five days later, on Easter Sunday, Pakistan witnessed a large-scale terrorist attack, when a suicide blast killed 69 people and injured nearly 350 others, most of whom were women and children. In the last month alone, Iraq has witnessed three separate suicide bombings that have claimed up to 90 lives. Unfortunately, this is far from a comprehensive list; more unfortunate still is how many of these tragedies we are not even aware of. At the end of the day, do we measure the value of human life by who Facebook activates its safety check feature for?
In today’s world, social media platforms and online sources have become crucial for staying informed about international news and they shape our perspectives on global issues. However, they seem to fall dramatically short when covering or responding to devastating terrorist attacks that occur geographically further away from the United States and other Western countries, a fact that has been poignantly captured in a widely-shared illustration ironically titled “the World Tragedy Map.” Attacks in Western countries receive disproportionate media attention and airtime, particularly in comparison to those in the predominantly Islamic parts of the world, which raises important questions about selective attention and discrimination. First and foremost, why is this a trend? In other words, what makes a terrorist attack in a Western country inherently more important than one elsewhere? Furthermore, what does this trend say about the way we understand the global terror threat and who is most affected by it?
We can understand the phenomenon of selective sympathy better by breaking it down into two parts: media coverage and public response. Let’s take Paris and Beirut from last November, for example. In the course of two days, both cities suffered large-scale terrorist attacks which killed 130 and 43, respectively. In terms of media response, Facebook was among those criticized for a disproportionate emphasis on the terrorist attacks in Paris as compared to those in Beirut, activating its safety check feature for Paris but failing to do so for Beirut. Similarly, Facebook deployed a profile picture flag lens feature to allow its users to express their solidarity with the victims of Paris by displaying their profile pictures in the colors of the French flag, but again failed to do so for the victims in Lebanon. Moreover, while many cities around the world lit up their monuments in the colors of the French flag, no such solidarity was displayed with Lebanon. In the weeks following the events, social media platforms and online news sources were flooded with cartoons, graphics, news articles, and op-eds that expressed unconditional support for victims in Paris, but Beirut was largely ignored. Just as last November, those who suffered from the Beirut attacks asked why their pain meant less to the international community, Ankara and Lahore now ask why the media cares less about their loss than that of Brussels.
Journalists writing for mainstream western media have justified this phenomenon in several different ways, the most common of which has compared the death tolls of the terrorist attacks. Such reasoning is problematic not only because it embodies a reductionist approach to the consequences of terrorism, but also because the idea that Western targets have been hit harder by terrorism is grossly inaccurate on a broader scale. Even if we accept the idea of a strictly numerical comparison, statistics show that 78 percent of all terror-related casualties and 57 percent of all terror attacks in 2015 occurred in just five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. Only 2.6 percent of the total number of casualties from terrorism in 2015 were in Western countries.
Although disproportionate and uneven media coverage is troubling, there is much to be said about the public response to these attacks as well. A journalist for the Atlantic elaborated that it is easier to empathize with victims in nearby regions that we are more likely to visit, since then “people can see themselves in the victims.” Even though there may be some psychological truth to this assertion, it is nonetheless disturbing to assume that the life of a human being who is different from us is less valuable.
While differentiating between media coverage and public response may help in understanding part of the phenomenon of selective attention and sympathy in response to terrorist attacks, it is important to note that these two factors are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, the media do cover terrorist attacks in some literally and figuratively “distant” places, but they usually do so in a decidedly more distanced language. This discrepancy is apparent in the coverage of last month’s attacks in Turkey and the language used to describe the Brussels attacks in international media: Whereas most headlines related to Ankara were descriptive and informative in their tone, headlines covering Brussels were more exclamatory and emotionally charged, some deeming the strike an ‘attack on humanity.’
We find similar biases in the narratives that media reports develop around attacks in different geographic and cultural settings. Whereas the strikes in Turkey and Lebanon were portrayed as almost regular, everyday occurrences, the attacks in Paris and Brussels were seen as exceptional assaults on progressive, democratic Western values, with the target cities functioning as emblems and brave fortresses of modernity and development in the face of backward and evil forces. Turkey and Lebanon are indeed geographically closer to areas of ongoing armed conflict, but this shouldn’t diminish the atrocity — symbolic and real — of acts of inhumane violence against the civilians.
The unfortunate truth is that the international community understands very little about the threat of global terrorism. The general perception is that the West has increasingly become the primary target of terrorism due to a radical strand of Islam inherently hostile to Western values. Yet, this perception far from encompasses the whole truth. For instance, while the number of terrorist attacks in Western Europe linked to Islamic fundamentalism has increased somewhat in recent decades, the total number of casualties from terrorism in that region has plummeted. Additionally, the Middle East, parts of Africa and parts of South Asia are the primary targets of terrorism, much of which is rooted in domestic political strife. Yet, casualties of terrorism in these parts of the world are downplayed and attacks are trivialized as innate to these areas.
The tragedy is that selective attention and discrimination in media coverage play straight into the hands of terrorist organizations and their political goals. With news stories highlighting Islam as barbaric and inherently incompatible with modernity, the media distracts the focus from the loss of life and human suffering that results from terrorism, instead playing into Islamophobic biases that inspire hatred. Against the backdrop of increased global terrorism and the resulting prevalence of fear, it is very much in the hands of international news sources and social media platforms to alleviate the growing threat of polarization and bias in order to limit their contribution to the divisive agenda of terrorist groups.