Starting 2015, the migrant crisis has been actively researched and looked up by people all around the world: Numbers represent image search interest relative to the highest point on the chart in the past 5 years and worldwide, for the term refugee crisis. To understand the impact that a piece of social content can have, I have picked one specific post: The image of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, dead on a see in Bodrum after a journey gone wrong.
The image was first released on Twitter on the 2nd September 2015, when a Turkish journalist called Nilüfer Demir took a series of photos of the body, which went viral on social media. Their circulation provoked a shock, and a strong interest around the issue of the refugee crisis.
12 hours after the image was posted, it was tweeted more than 30,000 times and appeared on the news feeds of 20 million people. A high number of hashtags emerged. Below are a couple of the most used ones:
When researching and analysing these hashtags across Facebook and Twitter, I found that a sentiment of responsibility was born in Europe and in the US around the topic of the refugee crisis – It was still a new phenomenon and this was the start of a long and very intense conversation, which is still deeply implemented and showcased on social media. To understand the actual impact that the image had on the refugee topic in general, I turned to google trends, and generated a comparative topic analysis between the search terms “Aylan Kurdi” (in blue) and “Refugee” (in red). To ensure the results were accurate, I made sure to separate news search data, image search data and YouTube search data. All three graphs tell us the same thing:As the famous post was released on the 2nd September 2015, the impact it had on people’s behaviours is made very clear: We cannot deny the correlation between the conversation around the picture of the child on the beach and the rise in the interest of the refugee crisis in general. The viral post stimulated a certain curiosity, a considerable interest around the topic and the term over time (this also excludes other terms such as migrant crisis, etc.).
What happens on Facebook
With google trend pointing me to a certain direction, I tried to dig even deeper and looked at what was happening on social media. This time, the objective was not just to analyse the impact that one post can have on the ‘outside world’, but the role that social media really has on the refugee crisis. In order to do that, I studied and analysed data from Facebook public groups, examined it and understood it in order to draw conclusions.
The study suggested that migrants are usually not easy to reach, as they tend to stay away from big NGOs and organizations and would rather stay closer to those safe spaces which are more trusted, close to the ground, available to quickly answer inquiries and able to provide practical help.
Facebook has proven to be one of the most popular platforms amongst refugees, followed by Twitter, WhatsApp and Snapchat (WhatsApp and snapchat being encrypted, and therefore safer to use when on the go). Large memberships and high activity is found on numerous Facebook groups addressed to helping migrants, giving them tips and updates on the situation in different areas. While navigating on these groups, I realized that important information was given out, covering a large range of topics from health to legal, news and event, or even simply putting people in contact with each other to create a community which would provide psychological support. When it comes to Syrian migrants, for example, the majority of Facebook groups serve as ‘forums’ for refugees, used to exchange knowledge about asylum processes in Europe, US and Canada (mainly), to share experiences and advice such as which routes to take, what to do, what not to do, etc. Facebook’s benefits compared to other platforms mainly lies in the way it connects users with friends and relatives that could be miles away. However, one of Facebook’s main downsides is related to the way it consumes battery on the go: I very often observed posts in which advice are given on how uninstalling the Facebook app can save between 15% and 25% of the battery life, which is extremely precious in those situations.
Since there are numerous refugee crisis happening in the word, and for the soul purpose of this study, I have decided to focus on the Syrian crisis – one that’s been going on for years. Below is a list of some of the most popular groups dedicated to Syrian migrants fleeing their homes to go to Europe. The findings are the result of a mixture of research, and social media exploration. Unfortunately, and due to the Facebook dramatic data access restriction in response to the Cambridge Analytics scandal (March 2018), no automatic data could be extracted from Facebook public groups. Instead, I took the time to manually explore the data and insert it in the following table.
Numerous Facebook groups, especially closed groups, have hundreds of new posts a day, sometimes over 200. Open groups, however have less interactions and less followers. This is mainly due to the fact that safety is important for migrants, for them to be able to post in all security, and knowing that their message is going to reach the right people, as opposed to organizations that might be against refugees entering a certain country. They always strive to keep their identities a secret. There is a clear anxiety around constant surveillance either by traditional institutions such as governments and legal groups, or by actual members belonging to other groups, which leads them to hide their identities online and on social platforms by either using names that are not theirs, or avatars. Facebook groups must therefore be a safe space to ask questions, share experiences, and make contacts that could potentially be the key to a successful journey. They are sometimes described as an ‘ebay’, a one-stop-shop for migrants going from the Middle East and Africa to Europe.
That is the reason why the interpretation of their behaviours on social media is more indicative rather than conclusive. It is hard to know what exactly happens behind the barrier of a closed Facebook groups. I however managed to get access to one group through a helpful refugee: Travellers platform (كراجات المشنططين). This group acts as an important factor to show the lives of those who have made it, and also as a vital survival tool for those who are still either at their starting point, or in the middle of their journey, providing everything from welfare and travel advice, including GPS coordinates, health advice, etc. Below is a part of the group description (Translated from Arabic):[…] We hope that those who have the experience will not give up on the ones that are on the road right now, and we hope that we can help people make it safely to their destination […]. As an example, one of the members of that close group asks: “I am in Iraq now, but I want to leave – where is best, Sweden, Germany or Britain?” From there, maps of the best and most efficient ways and advice are shared, stopping points along the way, borders, shelters, help, etc. Below is another conversation that took place on the same group: “Guys we’re taking on water. Please help quickly!” Within a couple of minutes, a reply comes in: “I have called the coastguard, help is on the way”.
The analysis also showed that refugees tend to show much less interest to national and state-funded groups created by organizations, NGOs, formal institutions that have the objective of helping them, western reporters and relief centers. Instead, they are more engaged with other groups that are created by individuals having the same values, and having lived a similar experience.