When Empathy Becomes a Meme, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Megan’s piece today made me think of this hilariously awful tweet I spotted last night:

From Megan’s piece:

[A]ll the French flag filters on Facebook, like the rainbow filters supporting marriage equality, have come from Facebook itself. (Similar efforts have sometimes come from users or political organizations, as with Planned Parenthood’s “Pink Out” day.) The company has directly encouraged its users to activate the filter on their profiles, keeping updates about the filter option high up on users’ newsfeeds and accompanying those updates with a message that reads, “Change your profile picture to support France and the people of Paris.”

It’s hard not to see this in the context of Facebook’s development of an “empathy button”—a mechanism, essentially, for users to express solidarity with a news event or an argument without literally “liking” it. [...] The memes are all, in their way, an empathy button. They work to convert shock and sadness and solidarity into currency. And, in the process, into data.

Could that flag filter data be used for advertisers?

It’s no secret that Facebook trades information for money. The company collects the likes, posts, friend requests, location information and other data points that its nearly 1.5 billion users freely share on its platform, synthesizes everything to create detailed individual user profiles and then sells those profiles to advertisers at a premium.