Paris and Facebook: Fear, cognition and manufacturing consent

At seven different locations, and within a twenty minute window, 128 people died in Paris on the night of Friday November 13th, 2015. As the chaos erupted in the French capital, so did social media. Live news updates, videos and testimonials rapidly filled streams, threads and rss feeds. Thirteen hours later, at 10:38am, Facebook launched a watermark tool to overlay the French flag over your profile image. This article focuses on this component and the implications that social media plays in risk perception and the dialogue on terrorism and foreign military initiatives.

Mark Zuckerberg’s profile photo with its ‘Pray for Paris’ overlay



“On a Sunday evening, 30 October 1938, a play broadcast on CBS Radio caused over a million Americans to flee their homes in fright, believing that the vanguard of an invading army from outer space had landed in the farmlands of New Jersey” (Bourke, 2005: 178). It was the frightening radio adaptation by Howard Koch of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds:

“It began with [Orson] Welles’s voice, notifying listeners that, in the early years of the twentieth century, Americans knew that ‘this world was being watched closely by intelligence greater than man’s and yet as moral as his own’. This alien intelligence was ‘cool and unsympathetic, regarding this earth with envious eyes’ and was ‘slowly and surely’ plotting against humanity.” (Bourke, 2005: 178)

It is indeed true that means of communication and our interaction with mediatized information has vastly changed since the age of radio, but we should take care not to underestimate the role of emotions within the 21st century social media environment. A study on Twitter trends and emotions by Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan (2013) revealed several findings, including the observation that “(…) the affective dimensions (positive or negative sentiment) of political Twitter messages are indeed significantly associated with retweet behaviour in terms of retweet quantity, in the way that emotionally charged tweets are more likely to be disseminated compared to neutral ones” (Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan, 2013: 240-241), and that “(…) sentiment is positively related to not only retweet quantity but also retweet speed” (Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan, 2013: 241). This may explain why emotionally-charge subjects tend to become widespread trends across seamlessly interconnected social media platforms. As the discourse on terrorism is undeniably one of fear and anger, the contagion of these emotions on social media platforms is hardly a debatable observation. Although we may assume that the Internet is a vast and endless space, as trending dialogues occupy space on social media platforms, a funnelling and centralisation of discussion takes place where alternate narratives and news events take a backseat. On the same day as the Paris attacks, 26 people were killed and dozens wounded in Baghdad (Al Jazeera, 2015). One day prior, two suicide bombers left 43 dead and 239 wounded in Beirut (The Guardian, 2015). Yet, as Facebook’s ‘Pray for Paris’ watermark gained substantial fervor, Baghdad and Beirut became subtext events even though all three events had a common antagonist.

This has large implications in the way citizens of the Western world perceive terrorism, as discourse on its impact is too often confined to the geographic limits of Europe and the U.S. As Slovic and Petters (2006) characterize affect as “(…) the specific quality of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ (a) experienced as a feeling state (with or without consciousness) and (b) demarcating a positive or negative quality of a stimulus” (Slovic and Petters, 2006: 322) and affect heuristic as a “(…) reliance on such feelings (….) to guide judgments and decision making”, an important point must be made in regards to how social media guides these cognitive processes. Middle-Eastern communities face the plights of terrorism similar to those faced by the West, and a mediatized exclusion of these communities risks leading us to an affect and its heuristic based on polarization and dichotomy. As the cognitive process of cognitive-dissonance avoidance teaches us that “(…) it’s not comforting to entertain beliefs about what’s harmless and what’s harmful that force us to renounce commitments and affiliations essential to one’s identity” (Kahan and Braman, 2006: 155), it is imperative that identities of all who face terror be reconciled. If not, how can we expect sustainable solutions that harmonize our commonality of fear?


In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman published Manufacturing Consent, a ground-breaking analysis of how the media acts as a vehicle for strong ideological propaganda. The general thesis of this literary work is that by intricate means and uses of media, the powerful elite can achieve public validation and consent for the various undertakings they pursue. The authors explain that as the media has the “(…) function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society” (Herman and Chomsky, 1988: 1), a systematic and calculated use of propaganda has been applied to maintain equilibrium and status quo within “(…) a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest (…)” (Herman and Chomsky, 1988:1). Within the preface, Chomsky and Herman make reference to Walter Lippmann’s concept of manufacturing consent, claiming that although the sole aim and vision of media is not to produce public consent on systematic symbols, structures, policies and undertakings, evidence suggests “the propaganda function to be a very important aspect of their overall service” (Herman and Chomsky, 1988: Iix). This may take place with what Cottle (2006) refers to as mediatized rituals, which “(…) are more productively conceptualized as an identifiable and variegated class of performative media enactments in which solidarities are summoned and moral ideas of the ‘social good’ are unleashed and exert agency in the public life of societies” (Cottle, 2006: 411). He explains that the “(…) media periodically intervene in the life of contemporary societies, their contending identities and contests of interest, and (…) can contribute to the formation of plural solidarities or ‘publics’” (Cottle, 2006: 411). It is argued here that Facebook’s ‘Pray for Paris’ watermark tool (willingly or not) acted as a mediatized ritual, of which rallied individuals into a ‘public’ operating under a unifying symbol.

The risk at hand is the creeping on of doxa, a concept developed by Bourdieu in his attempt to understand the acceptance of neoliberalism as the most advanced and ideal global economic system. He explains that neoliberalism has seen so much success and public consent because it “(…) has been steadily prepared over decades in France and the UK by partisan groups of academics, mediapersons, businessmen, and others” and that “ordinary citizens and the media ‘passively’ contribute to the entrenchment of neoliberalism as doxa, by accepting and repeating the claims of neoliberalism” (Chopra, 2003: 424). Arguably, a similar process has silently crowded the mediascape, where expressions such as ‘boots on the ground’, ‘war on terror’ and ‘threat to national security’, and symbols such as the Twin Towers, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and Facebook’s ‘Pray for Paris’ feature have undoubtedly dominated the Western discourse on terrorism. Perhaps these lead to the production of manufactured consent for predominantly military endeavors in the Middle East, and perhaps not. Yet, as sociologist Ulrich Beck claims that “(…) risk is a way of controlling or, one could say, colonizing the future” (Beck, 1998: 11) and that “the greater the threat (or to be more precise, the social construction of the threat), the greater the obligation and power to change current events” (Beck, 1998: 11), it is imperative to address to question of terrorism with rationality, compassion for middle-eastern communities and without unreasonable paranoia, and not to give unnecessary carte-blanche purchase to military responses that have proven ineffective in stabilizing the region.



Al Jazeera (2015) ‘Dozens dead as ISIL claims attacks against Iraqi Shias’, Al Jazeera (online), November 13; available online at:

Beck, U. (1998) ‘Politics of risk society’, in J. Franklin, (ed.) The Politics of Risk Society, Cambridge: Polity Press: 9-22.

Bourke, J. (2005) Fear: A Cultural History, London: Virago Press.

Chopra, R. (2003) ‘Neoliberalism as doxa: Bourdieu’s theory of the state and the contemporary Indian discourse on globalization and liberalization’, Cultural Studies, 14 (3/4): 419-444.

Cottle, S. (2006) ‘Mediatized rituals: Beyond manufacturing consent’, Media, Culture & Society, 28 (3): 411-432.

Herman, E. S. and Chomsky, N. (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, New York: Pantheon Books.

Kahan, D. M. and Braman, D. (2006) ‘Cultural cognition and public policy’, Yale Law & Policy Review, 24 (1): 149-172.

Slovic, P. and Petters, E. (2006) ‘Risk perception and affect’, Current directions in psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society, 15 (6): 322-325.

Stieglitz, S. and Dang-Xuan, L. (2013) ‘Emotions and information diffusion in social media – Sentiment of microblogs and sharing behaviour’, Journal of management information systems, 29 (4): 217-248.

The Guardian (2015) ‘Isis claims responsibility as suicide bombers kill dozens in Beirut’, The Guardian (online), November 12; available online at:

Inside Cairo’s ‘Garbage City’: Slums, waste management and contested spaces [photo-essay]

It was a hot summer day reaching nearly 50 degrees Celsius when I visited Mokattam village (informally known as “Garbage City”) in Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser district (see Fig.1). As I approached the area, the steaming scent of trash filled my nose as I made repeated and largely unsuccessful attempts to swat the flies hovering around my head.

Fig.1: Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser district (Mokattam village ‘Garbage City’ in the black rectangle). Base map by Nicolas Parent, 2015.

Mokattam has over 50,000 inhabitants, most of them Coptic Christians that settled in Cairo about 70 years ago after leaving their agricultural roots in Southern Egypt [1]. They work informally, as Cairo’s most important labor force of garbage collectors, sorters and recyclers.

An ostracized people from Cairo’s broader population, they are known as the Zabaleen, literally meaning “garbage people” in Arabic.

Cairo - Garbage City 5

What is most impressive, however, is the efficiency at which they do their work: “(…) the Zabaleen, the traditional waste collectors of Cairo, have created what is arguably one of the world’s most efficient resource-recovery and waste-recycling systems” [2]. Collecting from the heart of the city center to the greater metropolitan limits of Cairo, 4,500 tons (although other estimates go up to 9,000 tons [3]) of waste is brought to and processed in Mokattam village every single day, of which 80% of it is recycled and turned into sellable raw material [4]. This is an astonishing figure when considering Europe’s 2014 recycling rates, where Germany takes the lead at 65% and the overall EU average tops out at a slim 42% (see Fig.2).

Fig. 2: Recycling Rates in Europe. Source: Daily Mail (2014), UK; available online at:

Aside from the efficiency factor, a vast and complex array challenges exist for the Zabaleen. The 7 areas of residence (Ein El Sira; Moatamadia; El Baragil; Tora; Ezbet El Nakhl; Helwan; and Muqattam) have now become contested spaces, where Cairo’s population growth and urbanization have led to a political push to displace the Zabaleen in order to gentrify the slum areas that have gained substantial real estate value over the last decades. Fahmi and Sutton (2006) assert that the city government made substantial financial contributions to livelihood development projects in the Zabaleen communities over the years, but in reference to Muqattam, this may have been part of a “(…) wider but hidden agenda involving urban redevelopment of this part of the city” [5]. This has led to various resettlement schemes that have brought some Zabaleen communities to the outskirts of Cairo [6], placing them further away from the sources of trash that supply their daily bread and butter.

Cairo - Garbage City 11

However, the Zabaleen are a strong and hard working community that has already surmounted previous challenges. In 2003, the then-President Hosni Mubarak made an attempt to liberalize the waste management sector by contracting out the work to multinational corporations. As this new approach required the residents of Cairo to change their sorting and disposal habits, its efficiency was compromised and became a failed project. However, it raised a multitude of questions and debates concerning the Zabaleen’ legal rights to Cairo’s trash industry. Since then, organizations such as Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) and the Spirit of Youth Foundation have made strides towards establishing formal Zabaleen trash sorting and recycling enterprises [7].


Cairo - Garbage City 9

Cairo - Garbage City 6

As I strolled through the tight alleyways with towering windowless brick buildings, children played and worked amidst the rubbish. Although some would be appalled by the filth of this precarious environment, it was an organized place where laughter and the values of hard work and solidarity still thrived. No matter the issues of legal tenure or the informal nature of their work, waste management is a critical issue for all large metropolitan areas. And as Cairo grows as Africa’s second largest capital, it is difficult to conceptualize a Cairo without the Zabaleen.

To supplement the photos above, I suggest watching Garbage Dreams (2009), a documentary following the lives of three Egyptian boys that have grown up in Mokattam village.



[1] Mills, D. (2013) ‘Cairo’s “Garbage City” is a slum of 50,000 people, mostly Coptic Christians whose families came to the city from farms in the south seventy years ago’, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, (235).

[2] Fahmi, W. S. (2005) ‘The impact of privatization of solid waste management on Zabaleen garbage collectors in Cairo’, Environment & Urbanization, 17 (2): 155.

[3] Guénard, M. (2013) ‘Cairo puts its faith in ragpickers to manage the city’s waste problem’, The Guardian, (London), 19 November; available online at:

[4] Wood, E. D. (2011) ‘Garbage City: For Cairo’s Coptic Christians, the future may rise from what others discard’, The Virginia Quarterly Review, 87 (2): 7.

[5] Fahmi, W. S. and Sutton, K. (2006) ‘Cairo’s Zabaleen garbage recyclers: Multi-national’ takeover and state relocation plans’, Habitat International, 30 (4): 809-837.

[6] Sutton, K. and Fahmi, W. (2010) ‘Cairo’s contested garbage: Sustainable solid waste management and the Zabaleen’s right to the city’, Sustainability, 2 (6): 1765-1783.

[7] University of Pennsylvania, Wharton (2010) ‘Waste not: Egypt’s “Garbage People” seek formal recognition’, Knowledge @ Wharton, 10 August; available online at:

A glimpse of the “Borders and Refugees” International Cartoon Exhibition, Izmir [cartoons]

At the time of this publication, nearly 70,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan have settled in the ancient city of Smyrna, now known as Izmir [1]. This summer, however, the city’s Basmane neighbourhood saw a mass inflow of transient refugees – a stopover for those pursuing the treacherous sea journey to various Greek islands in the hopes for a better life in the EU. Izmir was one of many cities and villages that hosted the nomad-like migrants, and is still doing so, but the numbers are dwindling as the weather becomes increasingly brisk and the sea angrier. Some locals offer a helping hand: food, clothes and supplies – organisations such as Halkların Köprüsü have done substantial work in this regard. Others remind the passerby of passages from The Stranger, the commoner and the hostile view of the Arab. Perhaps this fuels the transit towards Europe, of which for most of the summer comprised of 100 boats leaving the “(…) Turkish shoreline every night, carrying up to 5,000 refugees” [2]. Risks were high, and as the media frenzy exploded with reports of drownings, smuggling and death, so were the costs.

Last night’s opening of the “Borders and Refugees” International Cartoon Exhibition was one of celebration and distress, of humour and misery. Hosted by the İzmir Karikatür Müzesi (Izmir Caricature Museum), in association with Multeci-Der (Association for Solidarity with Refugees), Konak Belediyesi and Don Qichotte e-humour magazine, the exhibition assembled heart-wrenching pieces from dozens of artists around the world. Uncommon to regular interactions with cartoons of which typically sit neatly within blocs of news text, having them as the centre-piece provided an intimate opportunity to speculate on symbolism and find meaning between the lines of fine pen strokes. For those living abroad, below is a glimpse of the exhibition. For those living in Izmir, the exhibition will be on until November 27th and is well worth your time.















[1] Personal communication, Multeci-Der, August 2015.

[2] Kingsley, P. (2015) ‘Lifejackets going cheap: People smugglers of Izmir, Turkey, predict drop in business’, The Guardian, 24 September; available online at:

Catalonian regional parliamentary election 2015 [infographic]


Last Sunday, the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia had its regional parliamentary elections. Following rejections from Madrid to allow for an independence referendum in Catalonia, regional President Artur Mas made this a key electoral theme. His party, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), teamed up with Republican Left of Catalonia (ER) to form the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) independence coalition, hoping to gain more votes on the independence issue [1].

Having the opportunity to see the fervor in Barcelona first hand, the streets were bursting with rallies, held together by an endless horizon of Catalonian flag. The fiery spirit was further intensified by the hustle and bustle of La Mercè, an annual festival held in Catalonia’s capital city. The human towers, the fireworks, the street performances and whispers (sometimes in ear-piercing form) on the upcoming election meshed harmoniously in a potpourri of excitement.

The votes are now in, and Junts pel Sí has won 62 of 135 seats, meaning that they will need to create a coalition with another party to receive majority on the march toward independence [2]. The Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party is most likely to join this coalition, although it previously stated that it would not do so unless Junts pel Sí received at least 50% of the vote and has little in common with CDC and ER parties [3]. With a majority, Artur Mas will push for a binding referendum and aims for independence in 2017 [4], although pro-unity Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey has claimed that, constitutionally, a referendum can only be authorized by the central government and that it will not do so [5].

The above infographic provides additional statistics, as well as “issues at hand” in the separatism debate. Data for the infographic was collected through content analysis of articles published online by The Guardian, Associated Press and The Local ES, from September 24-29.



[1] The Local ES (2015). “Q&A: Everything you need to know about the Catalan elections”. The Local ES, 25 September; available online at:

[2] Minder, R. (2015). “Catalan separatists win narrow majority in regional elections”. New York Times, 27 September; available online at:

[3] Clendenning, A. and Wilson, J. (2015). “Spain: A look at Catalonia’s secession drive, Sunday’s vote”. The Denver Post, 26 September; available online at:

[4] Dawber, A. (2015). “Catalan independence vote may push Spain into crisis”. Independent, 26 September; available online at:

[5] Kassam, A. (2015). “Catalan separatists win election and claim it as yes vote for breakaway”. The Guardian, 28 September; available online at:

Standby Task Force (SBTF), digital humanitarianism and the Syrian refugee crisis: Building the information, services and aid database


Public announcement and press conference on refugees in Turkey, [Basmane, Izmir, Turkey] (12.09.2015). Photo: Nicolas Parent.
Public announcement and press conference on refugees in Turkey, [Basmane, Izmir, Turkey] (12.09.2015). Photo: Nicolas Parent.

The problem

In recent weeks, we have seen a media frenzy surrounding the mass inflow of Syrian refugees into Europe. Tensions have been high amongst European leaders, all having their own strategic plan, vision and position on the issue. Germany, the leading country in refugee and asylum claim acceptance, alongside European commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, has asked EU leaders to agree upon a mandatory refugee quota system. Yet, “Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and other eastern European leaders insist that they will not accept (…)” (Harding, 2015) this proposition.

According to Martinez (2015), these are the current figures for European asylum claims:

  • Germany: 98,700
  • Sweden: 64,700
  • France: 6,700
  • United Kingdom: 7,000
  • Denmark: 11,300
  • Hungary 18,800
Crisis and refugee migration patterns, September 2015. Nicolas Parent, 2015.
Crisis and refugee migration patterns, September 2015. Nicolas Parent, 2015.

Where the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan show no signs of winding down, refugees from these countries have led to “(…) the biggest wave of refugees in Europe since World War II” (Collard, 2015). However, entry to European countries has become increasingly difficult in the last few days. Most prominent is Hungary’s construction of a 13 ft. high fence along its border with Serbia (Collard, 2015) and Germany’s recent closure of its border with Austria to all not holding a EU passport or visa (Harding, 2015). It is safe to say that the so-called ‘Balkan Corridor’ is shutting down, leaving refugees in transit limbo with little knowledge of where to find aid, services, information and support.

The solution

Internews, an “(…) international organization whose mission is to empower local media worldwide to give people the news and information they need, the ability to connect and the means to make their voices heard” (Internews, 2015), is working on building a database of services and information throughout the Turkey-Balkans-Germany corridor. It’s objective is to collate data about which and where services are available, along with filling the informational gaps hat are negatively impacting refugees along this route.

Internews has recently reached out to Standby Task Force (SBTF), an organisation of some 1600 digital humanitarians, seeking help to scour the Internet to find answers to the following questions:


  • Who is providing services to refugees along this route?
  • What services are they providing?
  • Where are these services being provided?


  • What information are refugees getting along the route?
  • Where are refugees getting information from?
  • What topics is the information covering?

If you have any answers to the above questions (or have time to do some research via news reports), please enter the data in this table, or send to Information will be entered within the SBTF network. Data must be entered by September 23rd, 2015.

Standby Task Force and digital humanitarianism

For those living far from crisis and disasters, it seems almost impossible to provide help effectively. Yet, in this age of globalised technology and communication, this fable has been dispelled and digital humanitarianism is at our doorstep. Standby Task Force is there to help.

The mission of Standby Task Force is as follows:

“(…) to provide volunteer online digital responses to humanitarian crises, local emergencies, and issues of local or global concern by:

  • Deploying a flexible, trained and prepared network of digital volunteers to assist crisis-affected communities through cooperation with local and international responders, including real-time CrisisMapping support.
  • Maintaining awareness of developing crises, connections with responder organisations and potential deployment partners.
  • Testing and refining crisis data processes and technologies.
  • Supporting and advising local, autonomous crisis mapping groups that may or may not be affiliated with the SBTF.” (Stanby Task Force, undated)

Standby Task Force is one of the few networks for crisis mapping, and has participated in dozens of deployments over the years, including during Lybia’s political crisis (2011), the Colombia floods (2012), Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines (2013), the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014) and during the Nepal earthquake this year.

Want to join but you aren’t a technology wizard or geo-master? Not a problem. Standby Task Force is unique in its simple interface and well-designed training for newcomers. Find out more or sign up here.

Also, if interested in digital humanitarianism, Patrick Meier’s book Digital Humanitarians: How Bid Data is Changing The Face of Humanitarian Response (2015) is comprehensive. Alternatively, visit his blog.


Collard, R. (2015) ‘Large numbers pour into Hungary daily in the hopes of being allowed to continue their journey north before travel restrictions tighten’, Time, (New York), September 6th; available online at:

Harding, L. (2015) ‘Refugee crisis: EU in crunch talks as queues form at German border’, The Guardian, (London), September 14; available online at:

Internews (2015) ‘What we do’; available online at:

Martinez, M. (2015) ‘Syrian refugees: which countries welcome them, which ones don’t’, CNN, (London), September 10; available online at:

Meier, P. (2015) Digital Humanitarians: How Bid Data is Changing The Face of Humanitarian Response, UK: Taylor and Francis Press.

Stanby Task Force (2015) ‘Our vision’; available online at: