Within minutes of flames engulfing the Notre Dame Cathedral, cable television was on the story.
As millions watched, CNN flashed the number of firefighters battling the blaze, while BBC World News sent reporters to gauge the reactions of Parisians on the far bank of the Seine. Pages of articles and onscreen interviews offered somber accounts of the historical significance of the cathedral and its importance to local residents. Into the early hours of the next morning, the fire squeezed out every last drop of news coverage, even on the American stage.
As reporters gave detailed updates on French President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to rebuild, even more elaborate stories began to roll out: “The priceless relics inside Notre Dame,” “Notre Dame statues removed days before blaze,” “Rose windows of Notre Dame are safe.”
CNN even made sure to write that the thousands of bees living inside the church had survived.
Outside of mainstream media coverage, however, another angle of reporting was brewing.
“Am I missing something?” asked Twitter user @Kevyla on Wednesday. “I’m struggling to understand why a fire in an old building in France is still the No.1 news story on @BBCNews. They don’t report the #YellowVest demonstrations at all.” While Notre Dame burned in a few hours, the Yellow Vest or “Gilets Jaunes” economic protests have been rocking French cities since November of 2018, resulting in property damage, civilian deaths, and deep controversy.
Others on social media pointed out the hypocrisy of donating billions to rebuild the church within days while pressing issues fight for a trickle of the same funding. Many, like climate activist Greta Thunberg, called on the same effort to be dedicated to climate action. Climate Reality Africa tweeted that the fire was “undoubtedly a tragedy” showing that “money and resources can be mobilized rapidly in times of anguish” but asked, “why are we not seeing the same reaction on #climatechange?”
Frustrated Americans cited more dangerous and relevant domestic concerns.
“This is wonderful,” tweeted @augusten, “Almost 700 million dollars pledged since Monday’s #NotreDame fire. Our enduring #Flint fiasco could be fixed for 60 mill. Where are our billionaires?” Journalist Yashar Ali and Hillary Clinton, among others, helped to raise nearly $2 million in response to the Notre Dame effort in order to to rebuild Louisiana black churches destroyed by a racist arsonist. Ali wrote that “the rebuild of Notre Dame will be well funded…but these churches need your help.”
It is no secret that the American media reports on what it believes the people want to consume: often, white and/or European tragedy. Be it Brexit, Russia, or immigration policy, international news in particular seems to only reach American screens when it applies to America—or rather, white America, its closest friends, and its perceived enemies.
On Instagram and Twitter, however, social commentary has shifted the narrative. The #NotreDame tag is peppered with statements criticizing the hype-focus on Western, “popular” events and issues. While many recognize the significance of the cathedral, they also feel that much of the sorrow over the disaster is mass-produced by intense media coverage and disseminated shallowly through tourist pictures of the site.
Referencing issues such as those centering on the suffering of low-income Americans, Muslims, and people of color, some users feel disillusioned by the extensive coverage and donations for a fire that claimed the roof of a historical structure, but did not crush lives or livelihoods. The frustration is magnified by the lack of coverage on pressing, systemic injustice.
This is not the first time that social media platforms have given focus to important narratives beyond mainstream media coverage. With their long reach and popularity among younger generations, social platforms serve as a springboard for stifled news stories, helping them gain much-needed attention. Now, as the media again maintains its focus on more “major” tragedies, users have become frustrated at the lack of action on the world stage.
“While the world watches Notre Dame,” says @AbdugheniSabit, “Mosques are secretly destroyed, #Uyghurs, #Kazakhs have been locked in concentration camps and #Muslims forced to renounce their religion in #Chinese occupied East #Turkistan.”
In August of 2018, a United Nations committee first heard that nearly one million Uyghur Muslims in China were being detained in “re-education camps.” As mainstream U.S. outlets ritually examined the inappropriate behavior of the President, mourned John McCain, and revered the late Aretha Franklin, China refused to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of a marginalized minority population. While some organizations did report on the wrongful detainment, most of it never reached the eyes and ears of everyday Americans.
Many did learn of the ethnic persecution through tweets, screenshots, and heartbreaking images shared on social media. More recently, in February 2019, Uyghurs whose family members had been taken away began to post pictures with “#MeTooUyghur” to plead for proof of life for their loved ones and to protest against the internment. Tweets began to flood platforms from Americans who had learned of the persecution and were desperate to raise awareness. Slowly, the crisis found its way to major outlets but still has not managed to capture the attention of most citizens.
As the UN heard of Uyghur oppression, student road safety protests rocked Dhaka,the capital of Bangladesh, after two college students were killed by unsafe motorists. The government suppressed the news coverage, but messages began to spread on social media that demonstrators were being beaten and raped, forced to defend themselves with branches found on the ground. The news flooded popular influencers’ pages and the Instagram stories of passionate young people. Weeks later, the mainstream media began to mention the protests, but only with the nudge of these critical voices first.
Countless other lesser-known stories have bubbled up from personal accounts on social media. While the New Zealand mosque shooting engendered mass coverage and evoked international horror, nearly 160 Fulani Muslim herders were massacred in Mali without a whisper from mainstream outlets. Although the tragic killings in New Zealand deserved due attention and mourning, some felt that those African Muslims killed just a week later merited the same heartfelt outpouring of support.
Twitter users like @MaximEristavi struggle to share stories of the persecution of queer women in Southern Russia while timelines are flooded with the news of the Notre Dame fire. @LittleMissFlint continues raising money for her community that, after five years, still lacks access to safe water. She recently tweeted her impression that “some ‘Christians’ care more about a building than human lives.
To those who sympathize with true human suffering, the immense effort to rebuild a beloved world monument seems like a misdirected philanthropy exercise. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the international reaction is not to discount the significance of the building, nor the emotions of those who mourn its damage, but rather to bring our focus back to the even more important struggles we don’t see plastered on screen. The coverage of Notre Dame and the resulting social media backlash should remind us that the news we consume is far from the whole truth.
Social media critics of Notre Dame are not cynical or cold-hearted. They are people watching their communities struggle, reminding those privileged enough to turn off tragedy with a click of the remote that each human tragedy deserves the same sympathy, attention, and effort to rebuild. Until the mainstream media can remove the bias limiting its focus largely to sensational Western events, social media will continue to expose us to the stories of real people who just want to be heard. The best thing we can do is listen.
Cover image: “Las Buenas Conciencias” -Carlos Abraham Ortiz Huerta, @recorte_cruzado