Transparent Layers for Covering Things: Flags, Filters, and Myths in the Digital Age

night view of the London Eye with French flag colored blue red and white lights
"This work" is licensed under CC BY 4.0

In November 2015, you probably saw the same image in almost every media outlet: well-known buildings across the world lit up by the colors of the French flag. Blue, white, and red were honored to show solidarity with the victims of the Paris terrorist attack. Then another use of the flag’s features appeared on the web. Very shortly after the attack, Facebook launched a French flag filter to add to one’s profile picture. In a few days, the movement of solidarity triggered a collective sense of belonging even among adversaries. But there was more than unification going on. Indeed, the appropriation of the French flag, by an institution or an individual, and its utilisation in a specific space — whether it is a city, the political sphere, or even the web — speak to complex power dynamics.

Generally, collective symbols (like flags) represent collective systems of thoughts and action. This process is explained by the cultural studies theory of representation: the idea that the production of concepts in our minds is then “represented” through shared language, which includes visual and other symbols. It is from the need to give a shape to concepts and communicate that a symbol emerges and carries the meaning it has been given. It can speak for and to a community with no words, just by its presence or its image within a certain context.

As a national symbol, flags create a distinction between ‘us’ and the ‘other’ by rallying around a visual object which allows communal participation and mutual understanding. National symbols raise a collective sense of identity and attachment to a territory. Every nation adopts a flag as a direct and obvious way of proclaiming its distinctiveness and independence as a territory. Through their conception and use in history, flags are made sacred objects, created by institutions to worship the abstract and simplistic concept of nationhood. Flags are mobile and flexible, and have attained prominence over all other forms of national symbolism, due to their plasticity, simplicity and effectiveness. This way, the appropriation of those symbols allows people to manifest an idea of similarity and help them to get involved in the political process.

The French flag can stand in front of the rest of the world as a representation of the French territory and its values. Similarly, national landmark buildings can stand in front of the world as a representation of the land to which they belong. In her essay about symbols of nationhood, Gabriella Elgenius claims that “national monuments are […] central ceremonial instruments reinforcing a permanent feeling of belonging since history is used as a mediator between the past, the present and the future. […] Although their significance may change through time, they reach an ‘objective’ status as part of the national landscape.”

Thus, monuments are perfect public spaces to host temporary physical gatherings for remembrance. The creation of this space of recollection and collective identity likely contributed to the French flag being projected onto so many foreign buildings after the 2015 attacks. They appeared as a visible mark of solidarity, from another nation or city, with victims in France, and together with the display of a foreign flag, they act as demonstrations of respect. However, digging deeper, this manifestation also reveals certain controversial political motivations.

Right after the terrorist attack it was necessary to create a strong image for a nation to “show,” and not simply “tell,” its support through the short written words of a governmental representative on Twitter. In a world where diplomacy is at the core of the actual political scene, for a city to take part in the movement of support, is interpreted as a statement. Shortly after the lit up monuments’ pictures were released, many pointed out that other terrorist attacks had not received as much international attention, either in the media or from other countries. This critique applied to a place such as Beirut, where two suicide bombings occurred the day before the Paris attack, or to Lahore in Pakistan, victim of a terrorist attack in March 2016.

Tall tower at night lit like French flag
CN Tower in Toronto, 2015. “This work” is licensed under CC by 4.0.

After Pakistan’s tragedy, the inhabitants of Toronto criticised the city for not having lit up its emblematic letters with Pakistan’s national colors, particularly since Toronto holds the largest Pakistani population in Canada. This claim led to the lighting of the letters the very next day, and a justification from the mayor accusing technical issues for the delay. While cities have to defend themselves and explain their choices, the reaction in France after Lahore’s attack was to affirm that as there are regularly attacks around the world, they honour the victims in different ways, and case to case. For instance, the attacks in Brussels had a special resonance in France because of the exceptional link of those two nations, which supposedly explains the projection of the Belgian flag’s colors on the Eiffel tower. But as Max Fisher wrote for Vox in November 2015, this kind of action “ignores similar traumas throughout the world if they occur in the wrong places, [and] does not offer the same sympathy to victims outside of wealthy or Western countries…”

Similar reactions developed in response to the Facebook flag filters, which resulted in tremendous political and ethical debates. The filter went viral, and was applied not only by French people, but anyone positioning themselves as standing for the shared values claimed in reaction to the terrorist attacks. Criticisms were directed toward Facebook, reproaching them for never having offered a flag filter for other countries undergoing frequent terrorist attacks, and to test their influence on the behaviour of their ever growing number of members and their audience. The same criticisms were directed at individual users, as this choice implied an unquestioned alignment with Western values and a failure to support countries other than France.

In the preface of his book Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes states that the starting point of his reflections was “usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality” and that is hidden “in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse.” In the digital era, this ideological abuse is visible in an image’s excessive use and plural interpretations. Online media allow a distortion of information through the manipulation of images, as they are easily driven away from their initial context. Images do not carry meaning or signify on their own, and when affixed to a text, their meaning can modified.

And considering that, after the criticisms started a photo was spread by diverse online information platforms, showing the Eiffel tower lit up to the colors of Pakistan after the Lahore’s terrorist attacks — but it has emerged to be from the Rugby World Cup in 2007. But still, those photographs and their legend, are mostly referred to by their denotation and not by their actual connotation within the contemporary global, digital and historical context, where their responsibility is considerable — and they are more complex than simply stating “World monuments lit up with Tricolore in solidarity with France” as describe most of the articles’ titles.

To go further on the effect — and affect — created by those projected flags, we may consider their existence through an ever changing political context filled with divergent ideas (as for example the ambivalent definition of nationhood) together with their adjustable quality. The French flag stands out with its basic layout and primary colors, and online or on monuments it can be turned into a transparent layer. In her article Mariannig Le Béchec defines a transposable sign as “a sign which has the power to at the same time remain attached to a territory in space and time, and spread on the web becoming then able to translate and reformulate this territory on the internet.” She argues that some signs will remain non-transposable not because of the weakness of the political attachments they set off, but “simply because they are badly composed.”

screenshot of some flag filter options on Facebook
Facebook doesn’t officially endorse flag filters anymore, but some alternatives are still available (pictured are flag symbols representing transgender pride, Portugal, and Palestine. Screenshot, 6/9/19

Flags, including when used as filters or projections, reveal distinctive practices of power and knowledge. As flags are turned into transparent layers, the celebration of a nation found a new ground to expand online, as national flags switch from a flag on a pole to a coded digital file, which can vary according to its context of use. Those signs are offered new possibilities to be appropriated, and an ever changing meaning of personal and institutional conceptions of national identity, a concept in itself already highly complex.

But the presence of flags as signs on social media also induces a higher visibility across the world and a responsibility for their creator to consider the plural meaning and interpretations it can gain on such spaces. National flags as symbols have to cope with historical and future meanings that have been attached to them, as much as we audience, have to be aware of the power dynamics they transmit. Because of their inherited sacred position, they keep having a very strong place in the visual culture of politics, and their use or manipulation in a field of global power relations cannot be inconsequential.

Help us make more work like this by heading to our Support Us page! Then follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. We’re keeping comments on social media to filter spam. We’d love to hear what you thought and what else you’d like to see.