How One Paris Massacre Tweet Captured the Meme-ification of Tragedy


After a series of terrorist attacks in Paris left the internet-commenting world in a state of public shock and grieving, software CMO Rurik Bradbury took note of one particular myth that was making the viral rounds: that the Eiffel Tower had gone dark in tribute, instead of as it always did at 1 a.m.

Bradbury, a software CMO, tweeted a tongue-in-cheek, factually-incorrect message that quickly became his most popular tweet by a long shot, with reputable news organizations sharing and aggregating it. It was the perfect meme-ification of the attacks: it reduced the Paris massacres to an easily digestible, acutely moving image and accompanying fact that meant nothing.

“In general I am fascinated by the way history and fake history spreads on Twitter, such as the ‘History in Pics’ type accounts, and the very low bar for spreading a viral meme through a credulous public,” said Bradbury in an interview with the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel.

Many Twitter users missed the sarcasm beneath his message and attempted to correct his information, not that it needed correcting. The expectation was that his tweet was written in the same somber, weighty tone that scores of others had been written in that evening.

“It should be obvious, with a pause for thought, that the lights haven’t been on continuously since 1889,” he continued. “That scale of lighting would not have been viable in the late 1800s (the lighting was only installed in 1925); there were two world wars in between; it would be hugely expensive to leave the lights on continuously (as one French person pointed out); there have been many tragedies since then that would justify turning off the lights in mourning, such as the Charlie Hebdo murders as recently as January this year, and so on.”

Social media participation during tragedies has become, for many, the expectation—by retweeting another person’s moving message, you too are showing your solidarity with victims across the globe. With a retweet or a tricolored temporary Facebook profile picture, we can shoehorn our way into history, forcing our way into violence and loss we know nothing about.

“The social media reaction to a tragedy is a spaghetti mess of many strands, some OK but most of them useless,” Bradbury said in an email to the Post. “But the part that feels the most useless to me is people’s vicarious participation in the event, which on the ground is a horrible tragedy, but in cyberspace is flattened to a meme like any other.”

“Instead of silence or helpfulness, social media pukes out stupidity, virtue-signaling and vicarious ‘enjoyment’ (in a psychoanalytic sense) of a terrible tragedy by people thousands of miles away, for whom the event is just a meme they will participate in for a couple of days, then let fade into their timeline.”

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Image via Getty.

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