09/09/2016 12:47 BST | Updated 09/09/2017 06:12 BST

Charlie Hebdo Earthquake Cartoons Spark A Digital Identity Crisis

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It was only eighteen months ago that the world was shocked by the horrific terrorist attack on satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Within hours of the news, millions of people adopted the "Je suis Charlie" slogan to express their solidarity with the victims. But that was last year. Since publishing cartoons depicting the Italian earthquake victims as lasagne, many of the same "Je Suis Charlie" supporters have denounced the magazine as "sick" and "disgusting". Nothing lasts for long on social media.


Image © Andrew Keith Walker

This u-turn in public opinion illustrates the flawed marketing mythology of the platforms where we share our thoughts and pictures, the myth that we're all part of some big global culture. We're not. That's just a sales tactic to buy our clicks and data with warm fuzzy feelings of togetherness. Events like the Hebdo earthquake controversy challenge the faith we put in our digital identities, revealing social media trends as a stream of mood swings more than a qualitative insight into public opinion.

I didn't declare "Je Suis Charlie". It felt like an emotional no-brainer, but I was troubled by the idea of posting it online or writing it across my profile picture. Public declarations of support in social media (much as I hate to say it) resemble a bandwagon at times. You might wonder what harm it could do, but as I read through the "Je Suis Charlie" posts in Twitter and Facebook, it became apparent that there was an ontology of views contained within them, from genuine grief to genuine racism.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right but you can't ignore the fact it's also used to justify hate speech in the online world, especially on Twitter. Gamergate, Ghostbusters, Trump supporters... telling it how it is, as some misguided souls call it, rape threats and racism to the rest of us. After the attack, Charlie Hebdo - a magazine with a history of offending people - suddenly became symbolic of pernicious "us versus them" arguments, where both "us" and "them" were interchangeably liberals, humanitarians, Muslims, libertarians... pretty much anyone, in fact.

I thought it best to keep out of that political melee. Too many trolls, too many bleeding hearts, not enough reasonable discourse for my tastes. But the backlash against Hebdo's earthquake cartoons, on the other hand, is worthy of comment.

It shows how the "like" interaction is intrinsically shallow. That's not a criticism, it's an observation. It's easy to self-identify and affiliate yourself with all kinds of groups online, without having any real connection with them or a shared experience of other people's lives and problems. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it means when you observe a surge of support for anything online, it's more akin to watching people shouting at their TV sets than actually registering a cogent opinion. Like the millionaire politician declaring "we're all in this together" to the unemployed single mother, it's an expression of sentiment more than support.

That realisation speaks to a lack of shared online culture. There's an implicit assumption - particularly in the way social networks market themselves - that there is some sort of common ground shared between all humans connected to the digital feed. But this isn't the case. Charlie Hebdo exemplifies a particular European tradition of political satire. If you're English or American satire is Private Eye, Have I Got News for You, Last Week Tonight or the Daily Show. Not Charlie Hebdo. What they do isn't Youtube LOLs, it's something else entirely.

Where real world communities are defined by permanence, online communities are defined by trends. In that digital world, the herd moves in contradictory circles. Support turns to outrage, free expression to causing offence, bawdy humour into rape threats and so on. Which means when people declared "Je Suis Charlie" most of them had no idea the full extent of what they were saying. Since the lasagne cartoons, they do. It's caused an epidemic of cognitive dissonance.

Online, everyone projects their persona, an image of the person they want to be, not the person they really are. It's a fantasy life. People who wouldn't say boo to a goose rush to the barricades (or tear lumps out of each other) via their smartphones without pause for thought. As a result, the so-called conversation descends into febrile tribal conflicts or indifferent self-promoting broadcasts. It's many things, but common ground it is not.

As one tweet put it "Don't go moaning when you get shot at. And to think I supported you." And therein lies the problem. In the stream of consciousness from your projected ego, influenced by the herd-like movements of the crowd, posting comes first, thinking second.

Je suis Charlie? Non. Plus ça change...