Paris at One Month: How Twitter Helped Make Sense of a Massacre

A man holds a placard with the hashtags 'I am Danish, I am Jewish, I am Freedom'  next to a woman holding a Danish flag  outs
A man holds a placard with the hashtags 'I am Danish, I am Jewish, I am Freedom' next to a woman holding a Danish flag outside the Danish Embassy in Paris on February 16, 2015, where France's political leaders attended a commemorative gathering after double shootings that killed two people at a cultural centre and a synagogue in Copenhagen on February 14. The twin attacks on a cultural centre and synagogue in Copenhagen left two people dead and five police officers wounded before the assailant himself was gunned down. AFP PHOTO / JACQUES DEMARTHON (Photo credit should read JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)

By Jennings Brown and Adi Cohen

Twitter year-end review of 2015 revealed that the Paris attack was one of the year's most discussed topics on social media. But while Paris was the biggest news story on Twitter this year, Twitter was also a major player in the Paris tragedy, and a guiding force for news coverage and information.

There's been much ado in the tech world lately about the twilight of Twitter, but based on usage in the last month, it seems the social network is more relevant than it's ever been. At Vocativ, where we uncover news from the deep web, our coverage of breaking news often includes stories that emerge on social media. Never before, however, have Twitter conversations permeated every angle of our coverage quite like they did as the Paris attack unfolded. As the tragedy played out, communities used Twitter for messages of condolence, alliance and retaliation, as well as bigotry and support for the terrorists who took the lives of 130 people.

#PrayForParis Lights Up Around The World

In the immediate aftermath, people around the world supported Parisians on Twitter with a multitude of hashtags, like #prayforparis, #jesuisparis #fusillade, #13novembre and #Bataclan (#PrayForParis: Horrified Observers Show Their Support For Paris Victims) and an image fusing the Eiffel Tower with a peace sign, designed by French graphic designer Jean Julien, went viral (The Paris Attacks Reverberate Around The World). New York showed solidarity, gathering for a vigil and sharing messages with the hashtags #NewYorkIsParis and #LoveToParis (Hundreds In New York Gather At Solidarity Vigil For Paris).

But just as people across the world were using social media to mourn the deaths, ISIS supporters celebrated on Twitter, using hashtags that loosely translated to "Paris in flames" (Paris Terror Attack: ISIS Adherents Celebrate "Paris In Flames," 140 Feared Dead).

There was immediate backlash from Islamophobes, but Muslims and their supporters spread awareness using the hashtag #MuslimsAreNotTerrorist (Zero Post: Muslims Condemn Paris Attacks With #MuslimsAreNotTerrorist) and non-Muslims in Paris offered protection for Muslims who felt threatened, using the hashtag #VoyageAvecMoi, or "ride with me" (Parisians Defend Muslims After Terror Attack).

Twitter also became a tool, as people used the hashtag #RechercheParis ("search Paris") to try and find missing loved ones in the city (Paris Attacks: Parisians Turn To Twitter To Find Missing Loved Ones). After police asked citizens to refrain from tweeting about the Brussels manhunt for Paris attackers, the Internet showed support for the blackout by tweeting photos of cats with the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown (Belgians Find Adorable Cat-Centric Ways To Help The Police). When Anonymous decided to refocus their war against ISIS, a strategy that partially targeted ISIS supporters' Twitter accounts, the hacktivist collective's message spread through social media under the project's name, #OpParis (Paris Terrorism: ISIS Hackers Brace For Attacks By Anonymous).

In the hours and weeks that followed the attack, it was nearly impossible to read any coverage that did not include a hashtag or tweet.

Of course, none of this is new. We often use social media it to check on people after a disaster, we use it to mourn, we use it to protest and assemble, we use it to connect with people in other countries, we use it to bully and we use it to search for truths and meaning in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. But people across the world using the platform for all those purposes at once, all coalescing around one isolated event--that is completely unprecedented.

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