We've all seen it, maybe even done it ourselves. I'm not active enough on Facebook to engage in what I believe to be nothing more than a bandwagon trend.
I'm talking of course, about the semi-transparent flag overlays present on the profile pictures of all your friends, relatives, and coworkers, and maybe even yourself.
Facebook first offered the feature in the form of a rainbow flag after the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage in June of last year. The option resurfaced in November after the Paris attacks. As of yet, Facebook has not offered a utility to apply a Belgian flag over your profile picture. (But give them time. The attacks are still only hours old at the time of writing.) Facebook denies that their flag-overlayer utility was used to conduct social experiments, but this wouldn't be the first time they've messed with user's psychology before. In October 2014, CTO of Facebook Mike Schroepfer admitted in a blog post that Facebook had indeed been experimenting with user psychology.
Whether or not Facebook offers an official flag overlay utility remains to be seen, but it doesn't matter. People have already begun to do it themselves, adding such dainty hashtags as "#prayforbrussels, #jesuisbelgium, etc. etc." This may come as a shock to some people, (I suppose I should add a "trigger warning" for the tumblr-types out there who will surely denounce this as blasphemy) but hashtags are not stopping terrorism. "Likes" do not stop terrorism, retweets do not stop terrorism, flag overlays do not stop terrorism, and prayers alone do not stop terrorism. What stops terrorism is meaningful action. None of the above are considered meaningful action. (More on this later.)
So why do people do this kind of crap?
I believe the answer lies in the flaws of human psychology. The first bit is something we'll call the "Me Too!" syndrome. It's the need to express mutual feeling (be it positive or negative) with another person. (Or in this case, multiple people.) If someone thinks that putting a Belgian flag on their profile picture is a meaningful expression of support, (it's not) the people in their friends list are going to want to express the same feeling of mutual (faux) support. This grows and grows into a bandwagon effect. People jump on the bandwagon because it's the cool new trend and they can pretend to be sympathetic while they're at it. There's another factor to consider though, and it's rooted in laziness. Changing a profile picture takes seconds. In the context we're discussing, however, it's perceived as a big deal. It's a defense mechanism of sorts. In the future, when your kids read about these attacks in history books, you (the hypothetical parent) will say, "Oh! I remember that! I helped during that disaster!" When your kids ask what you did, you'll say "I changed my profile picture and retweeted with a hashtag!"
Sure, this sounds silly. For some however, it's just enough to feel like they're a part of the solution, with the added benefit of not having to be an actual part of the solution.
So if you are going to change your profile picture, at least do something that can actually help the victims. Donate to the red cross. Donate blood. Do something other than changing your damn picture.
If you are in the US and know someone who may be a victim, you can contact the embassy office with this phone number: +32 2 811 40 00