Facebook has faced criticism for creating a tool to overlay the colours of the French flag — and only the French flag — on one's profile picture after last week's attacks in Paris. 

Some users pointed out that previous deadly ISIS attacks on civilians in Beirut and Baghdad didn't prompt similar tools to overlay the flags of those countries on their selfies. 

"Certainly the criticism that arose, it was quite a large response," said Rhonda McEwen, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Toronto. 

"The number of people that pointed out this discrepancy, that it was about a Eurocentric, or more broadly, a Western perspective on loss," she said. 

Some critics said the particular focus on an attack in Europe smacked of racism — that it meant lives in the Middle East weren't as valued.

Others rejected that, saying that the fact that such attacks are so rare in the West explains why there was such an outpouring on social media. 

Grief as performance

The desire of Facebook users to express their grief over the attacks and support for victims is natural, said McEwen, who has done research on how people use Facebook to grieve the death of a loved one. 

"I think social media provides a platform for people to both demonstrate social support for some kind of cause, but it also allows people to express grief, to mourn," she said. 

"There are many cases where we've seen people do this when a loved one passes away or when there's a natural disaster," said McEwen. 

McEwen said that when it comes to mourning death and tragedies on social media, the reasons are two-fold. 

"Part of it is a performance and it's external, so you want to show others in your network how you feel about a particular position… and for some people, it's basically jumping on a bandwagon," she said.  

"Part of it, though, we did find evidence of an internal part of it as well, where people need social support or seek social support when they are genuinely mourning the loss of something or someone," said McEwen. 

Flag tool influenced users

Facebook's one-click tool to put the French colours over your profile picture allowed users an easy way to make their feelings known in a very visible way. 

"The profile picture is a very powerful mechanism that people use to express a current feeling," said McEwen. 

She said the tool encouraged Facebook users to express support for victims of the Paris attacks specifically by making the French flag overlay easy to do. 

"This overlay of the flag was certainly influenced by Mark Zuckerberg himself because he was one of the first to actually make the change to his profile pic and it was rolled out to the rest of Facebook," she said. 

On Twitter, instead of changing their profile photos, people started to use the hashtag #PrayForParis and, later, #PrayForWorld

"For example, when the backlash came, the hashtag #PrayForParis started to be added on — #PrayForTheWorld, #PrayForBeirut, #PrayForNigeria, #PrayForRussia — so people had more of an ability to make a change," said McEwen.

"There was no way for a user of Facebook to actually change what flag gets overlaid for the network," she said. 

Safety Check for Paris

The criticism of Facebook wasn't limited to the flag tool. Facebook has another tool called Safety Check, which allows users to log into Facebook during a crisis to let their friends know they're OK. 

"The Safety Check for Facebook was activated for Paris only... and was not activated in Beirut or for other places in the world where we were seeing very similar kinds of losses," said McEwen. 

Zuckerberg wrote a response to the criticism in a comment on his Facebook profile

"Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters. We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters," he wrote. 

"We care about all people equally and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can," Zuckerberg said. 

Safety Check has since been activated for a suicide bombing in Yola, Nigeria, but hasn't yet activated it for the hostage situation in Mali