Arm­chair ac­tivism or shift­ing tide?

Face­book pro­file photos turn rain­bow


You may have no­ticed your Face­book friends get­ting con­sid­er­ably more colour­ful.

More than 26 mil­lion Face­book pro­file photos have taken on a rain­bow hue in the days since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Fri­day that mar­riage is a right guar­an­teed un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion re­gard­less of a per­son's sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

Peo­ple have been cov­er­ing their pro­file photos with the Face­book-supplied over­lay that uses the best-known sym­bol of the les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der rights move­ment: The rain­bow.

Call it arm­chair ac­tivism. Call it a mark of a shift­ing tide in public opin­ion. The rain­bows are the latest sign of the im­por­tant place so­cial media has taken in our lives, when it comes to self-ex­pres­sion, pol­i­tics and pri­vacy.

Rain­bow-tinted celebri­ties have popped up all around, and not just Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, Leonardo DiCaprio and "Fifty Shades of Grey'' au­thor E.L. James are among those that have used the fil­ter.

Les­lie Gabel-Brett, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and public af­fairs at Lambda Le­gal, a na­tional non­profit that fo­cuses on le­gal is­sues af­fect­ing the LGBT com­mu­nity, said the over­lay is "fun'' and "ef­fec­tive.'' But she said it's also im­por­tant for peo­ple know there are other ways to show sup­port.

"There's more to be done from vot­ing, mak­ing do­na­tions, to speak­ing to your fam­i­lies, neigh­bours and co­work­ers,'' she said.

While the peo­ple who've used the over­lay is a frac­tion of Face­book's 1.4 bil­lion users world­wide, the num­ber is far big­ger than the last mass pro­file photo change on the site. In 2013, some 3 mil­lion Face­book users changed their photos to show a pink-on-red equal sign in sup­port of gay mar­riage. Four years ear­lier, in what might have been the first large-scale pro­file-photo ac­tivism, Twit­ter users turned their photo green to sup­port pro-democ­racy protesters in Iran.

Michelle Zu­bi­ate Fer­chaw, a mother of two who lives in Ana­heim Hills, Cal­i­for­nia, found out about the Supreme Court de­ci­sion on Face­book, she "cried tears of re­lief and of joy.'' Many of her "equally joy­ous'' Face­book friends were turn­ing rain­bow, so she did the same.

"It was a great op­por­tu­nity to join the cel­e­bra­tion,'' she wrote in a Face­book mes­sage.

To get the Face­book-sup­pled fil­ter, users click on some­one else's rain­bow pic­ture. Or they go to the "Celebrate Pride'' page Face­book set up.

The rain­bows didn't come with­out con­tro­versy. Not long af­ter the rain­bows ap­peared, so did ques­tions about whether Face­book was track­ing peo­ple who changed their photos and what it was go­ing to do with the in­for­ma­tion. Face­book quickly shot those down.

"We haven't ex­per­i­mented with any­thing, and other than count­ing how peo­ple used it, we aren't us­ing the data for any­thing else,'' wrote Alex Schultz, a vice-pres­i­dent at Face­book, in a post.

Face­book also said it is not us­ing the fil­ters for ad tar­get­ing nor does it plan to do so.

Face­book said the fact that the fil­ter popped up on the same day as the Supreme Court de­ci­sion was not planned any more than the Supreme Court planned to is­sue its rul­ing the Fri­day be­fore gay pride pa­rades in San Fran­cisco, New York and else­where.

The fil­ter was cre­ated last week by two Face­book sum­mer in­terns, Austin Freel, 21, and Scott Buck­felder, 33. They said they wanted to help other Face­book em­ploy­ees "show their spirit'' for Pride Week, which fell on the last week of June in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area.

The fil­ter was pop­u­lar among em­ploy­ees, so Face­book rolled it out to reg­u­lar users.

Since then, oth­ers also have turned to rain­bow as well. Ride­hail­ing app Uber, for ex­am­ple, added tiny rain­bows to the cars on its map. And on Wed­nes­day, Bey­once posted a video of her­self danc­ing in var­i­ous rain­bow­col­ored out­fits with the hash­tag "lovewins.''

Counter-fil­ters also have popped up, with some users in Rus­sia over­lay­ing their pro­files with the coun­try's flag in­stead of a rain­bow. In the U.S., the web­site Right Wing News cre­ated a tool that lets peo­ple place a fil­ter of the Amer­i­can flag over their pro­file photos.

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