French citizens abroad have spoken to DW about their experiences as the attacks in Paris unfolded. The rapid spread of information, especially on social media, was essential in helping them follow what was happening.
Camille Lugan, a 26-year-old from Paris, was sitting in her office on the last day of her internship in Chicago when a Facebook post caught her eye. Along with a blurry photograph, her ex-boyfriend had posted a message warning people there had been a shooting in the French capital and that they shouldn’t go out into the street.
A few minutes later, she found out about the first of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks around Paris that would eventually claim the lives of at least 129 people.
With the help of social media and the Internet, Lugan immediately started checking in on her friends back home and following news reports out of her country.
“It was very distressing,” she told DW. “I was mostly worried about my loved ones.”
Many witnesses in Paris described the confusion, terror and disbelief they felt as the events unfolded Friday night. But those feelings were also shared by French citizens living abroad like Lugan, even if they were following those events from the relative safety of their laptops or television screens.
“If I had been in Paris I could’ve been in the area (where the attacks took place). I could have been hanging out with my friends,” she said, describing the sometimes surreal feeling of watching familiar landmarks suddenly take on a completely new quality. “It’s almost impossible to connect what happened with the places you know.”
For many people like Lugan, who had relatives and friends located not far from where the violence was taking place, social media and the Internet were both disorienting and invaluable. In some cases, Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms were not just tools to check in on loved ones or to express solidarity with their compatriots, but also the primary ways in which they found out what was happening in their country.
The ‘shock’ of non-stop information
Like Lugan, Paul Bonnemayre was at work when the attacks occurred. A 28-year-old from Lyon living in the French-speaking city of Montreal, Canada, he said he first heard about the events when his colleague told him “something crazy was happening in Paris,” after which he went online.
For the next several hours he monitored the news out of France. Still audibly shaken as he spoke to DW, Bonnemayre said he felt “strange” as the chaos unraveled.
“We couldn’t believe what we saw. I was shocked,” he said, adding that he was too upset to go out the night of the attacks, choosing instead to stay in his apartment.
He said he used Facebook to verify that his friends in Paris were all right, but could only bear following the news in small doses.
“You get more shocked (when you follow the news non-stop),” Bonnemayre said, noting that often information disseminated by the media isn’t verified.
Lugan seemed to share at least in part the sense of confusion that Bonnemayre felt. She said the shock of the events was sometimes compounded by social media.
“The speed with which this news travelled is incredibly distressing in a way, because there’s a sense of seeing these images in a loop but not being able to actually connect with what’s happening.”
Yet Lugan added she was grateful for the easy access to information.
“At the same time I was happy to learn about (the attacks) so quickly,” she said.
Social media solidarity
Alix Auzepy, a 23-year-old student who grew up around Paris but is currently living in Berlin, told DW it was largely thanks to social media that she even knew what was happening in her city.
Auzepy said she was throwing a party in her apartment when a friend told her to watch the news. “I started looking at (French newspaper) Le Monde and social media, and then I started realizing (what was happening),” she said.
Although Auzepy acknowledged there were drawbacks to relying on social media to follow what was happening in a breaking-news situation, she believes it ultimately proved useful in this case.
“I think social media was almost quicker at reacting (than the conventional news media),” she said, noting also that it provided her with easy access to news articles from a wider variety of sources.
She also pointed out the online solidarity campaigns that have sprung up online, such as the option to add a French flag filter to Facebook profile photos. Auzepy called such trends – which also include the popular hashtag #Prayers4Paris – “touching.”
In addition, she said social media provided an outlet through which French citizens could help each other amid the chaos. Indeed, many people took to Twitter to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones, using the hashtag #rechercheparis. Others used the hashtag #PorteOuverte (or “Open Door”) as a way to offer lodging to people stranded in the city.
Camille Lugan, the intern in Chicago, acknowledged that social media possibly saved lives during Friday night’s carnage. Yet the rapid spread of information hasn’t necessarily made the events feel any more understandable to her. Like Bonnemayre and Auzepy, Lugan said the reality of the situation was still sinking in.
For that reason, she said she was happy to be returning to Paris after six months in the US.
“I wasn’t eager to (go) back but now I can’t wait to be in the city – to meet up with the people I know, but also to just be there,” she said.