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How social media shows solidarity for Paris victims

From defiant hashtags to millions of profile pictures changed in support, the recent terrorist attacks sparked an outpouring of emotion online. Katie Wright looks at how and why we take to cyberspace in the wake of mass murder

For many people, Facebook was where they first found out about the series of co-ordinated terror attacks that took place in Paris on Friday, November 13. Soon, the social media site was awash with blue, white and red as a feature was unveiled that let members overlay their profile pictures with the French tricolour flag.

On Instagram and Twitter, hundreds of thousands of users posted an image that combines the peace symbol and the Eiffel Tower, painted spontaneously by illustrator Jean Jullien when he heard about the events in his homeland.

The hashtag #prayforparis went viral as people turned to social media to express shock and sadness at the bombings and shootings that left 130 innocent people dead and hundreds more injured.

But why did the tragedies in the French capital lead to such a huge flood of online reaction - seemingly greater than for any previous terror attack?

"Demonstrating we care for one another is a fundamental part of social psychology, it helps bind us together," says psychologist Graham Jones.

"Also, in a major incident like this, it is a way of people demonstrating their position and showing defiance against the terrorists.

"More than anything, though, it is probably the 'it could have been me' syndrome, because each one of us has been in that kind of situation so many times - eating out on a Friday night or going to a rock concert.

"It is normal activity for most people and so we relate to it much more than, for instance, a suicide bomber in an already war-torn place."

Sharing pictures and hashtags isn't pure altruism, however, but rather a reaction to shock, which is soon replaced by anger.

"Once people start to feel that emotion, they often want to shout about it and hence they go on to social media. Many of the messages a couple of days after were angry ones, compared with the sympathetic ones in the immediate aftermath," says Jones.

One angry Facebook status that gained a lot of attention came from a middle-aged American named Linda Clarke who publicly pledged: "I will destroy Isis." (It was actually in response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings, but went viral again in November). The internet quickly responded by photoshopping the sweet-looking lady into battle-ready poses.

As well as catharsis during dark times, we need a little light relief. The internet provides that in spades.

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