Redefining a Refugee Crisis Through the Means of Social Media: Part I

The displacement of people and the need to find refuge has been an issue that has existed for thousands of years. A person could open any religious or historical text and find numerous examples within them telling the same story from various perspectives. The idea of violence, terrorism, war, and conflict displacing people from one end of the world to another is not a new concept. But in March 2011, a civil war broke out in Syria which has since then displaced over 13.5 million people ( While displacement and the search for refuge are common themes through all crises of the past, there is an element that has revolutionized and redefined how people respond to such a crisis. It has brought a new form of communication, a new means to finding one’s way, a new form of survival and story-telling, and that is social media.

Within the last decade, the birth of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth, have altered our daily lives and how we interact with others. People are able to connect over these platforms and can create an impact by posting a picture, “sharing” or “liking” a post, or even creating a message in 140 characters or less. These actions, while some would consider passive or harmless, have turned into news sources, platforms of journalism, new forms of marketing, and ways for people to learn new information. Ashlee Humphreys, in her book Social Media: Enduring Principles, discusses the the nature of Twitter and how it has revolutionized the idea of news delivery via social media, compares to traditional news delivery, and how people consume the information, “Scholars have found that the addition of Twitter as a tool for news delivery to the media ecology has taken over some tasks formerly allocated to traditional news organizations, but it has also made other functions of mainstream media such as their gatekeeping and fact checking more reliable.” (249) While the information can be hard to be noted as credibly at times, it is a streamline into the minds and voices of average people and how they experience their day-to-day life. But with that being said, they have also become outlets for powerful individuals, such as the President or the Pope, to relay messages and express themselves to “followers.” However, with these platforms and information that is shared, a message or image maybe posted and could become spreadable which would create an image of what an issue or movement would look like without giving it the full story, only a slice of it. That image could then create a stigma or a particular perception on a human or political situation such as that of the Syrian refugee crisis. Over the past several years, by sharing particular pieces of information, the media has molded a view of this crisis and has shaped a particular attitude towards these people.

After fleeing from Syria, the encounter of stigma is what has separated and divided refugees the most from integrating into a new country. There is a page on Facebook that has altered the perception and has allowed people to look at those that lived in Syria before the war. Brandon Stanton launched a page on Facebook back in 2010 that has over time accumulated roughly 18 million followers, Humans of New York. The site has shared the stories and images of a vast variety of citizens that inhabit the city of New York. As the years have passed, this arts and humanities page ventured outside of New York and shared the stories of others from around the world. In 2015, this project would take him to Syria and interview a handful of individuals that were impacted by the civil war and then share their stories on Facebook. He shared the story of an anonymous man and the life that he use to have before the civil war: his dedication to his education and his hope to change the world. He shares a narrative that rivals the stigma that has been created:

“I was determined to become a scientist through my own personal will. I graduated high school with the third highest scores in all of Syria. I worked construction in the evenings to pay for my school. Even as a teenager, I was being given construction sites to manage. I graduated from university at the top of my class. I was given a scholarship to pursue my PhD. I suffered for my dream. I gave everything. If I had 100 liras, I would spend it on a book. My ultimate goal was to become a great scientist and make a lasting contribution to humanity.” (Stanton)

This post and story include an image of the man, his children, his house, and the environment that he has lived in. There exists battered walls and a clearly shaky foundation. This observation was not a result of the country or culture he is rooted in, but the terror and destruction that has evolved over the last several years.  These posts have been shared, liked, and commented on. They have brought awareness and truth to the situation and how people respond to them. The interaction from the people who read this post, were educated on what it is like for a refugee to encounter stigma. More specifically, how that can be so threatening when they are trying to become a member of society as well as projecting their professions and education.

While Brandon Stanton’s, Humans of New York project has brought truth and awareness, there are other ways that social media has impacted how people view these individuals. An article that was published through CNN portrayed the image of an unknown father trying to sell pens to support his daughters after losing much of what they had due to the crisis. This received massive attention and was spread across the internet. People responded with much sympathy towards the situation. Eventually, by spreading this image and asking the general public, “Who is this man?” they got a response and were able to identify the man. “The social media campaign immediately made good on its promise to help Abdul, who fled from his home in Yarmouk, one of the most beleaguered places in Syria” (Abdelaziz). Afterwards, people then created hashtags such as #buypens to create awareness of what this man and people in similar situations are desperate to do to support their families after displacement. Eventually, somebody set up a crowdfunding page to raise money to assist the man and his family. This crowdfunding site would end up raising over $80,000. With much gratitude, he expressed and let it be known that with the money, he was able to provide for and send his children to school. He even shared the money with other refugees in similar situations. The power and impact of an image and a hashtag has proven to be life altering. In another instance, TIME published an article that discussed the power of photography, particularly that of the image of 2-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found washed ashore in the process of fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea. It created a great emotional response and was able to connect people with severity of the situation and how refugees are people just them. Peter Bouckaert discussed in the article his personal response to the image, “’It’s, sadly, a very well-composed image showing a little toddler that we can all identify with, with his little sneakers and shorts on,’ he tells TIME. ‘I think for a lot of the public, their first reaction is: ‘This could have been my child.” (Laurent) In another article posted to, this image is discussed and analyzed once more. It went into detail how that particular Google search of the image compares the Paris attacks of the same year. This image of the boy brought in a greater Google search as a result of its raw nature and emotionally triggering content. It discussed how social media has created a general persona of a refugee as a victim rather than a person, like you or I, forced to flee their home and the life they have created. Relating back to stigma, they are seen as poor or unfortunate, when they are merely displaced due to terrorism. The article also went further into detail how Twitter has been able to help analyze and figure out, what group of individuals is the main force behind the displacement of Syria citizens. The analysis studied 1,000 of the most retweeted tweets. They were then analyzed of their qualitative data. That data then concluded that those who were the most responsible were that of the Assad regime and Arab government. Twitter was also used by ISIS to convince refugees to not flee to the west. They used the hashtag #Refugees_To_Where. This campaign had two potential goals, to either scare the citizens from the West by sharing images of Syrians being beaten by European police, or to convince them that they were religious traitors for leaving their homeland.

Shannon Sawatzki
Hello friends, I'm Shannon. I enjoy writing, interpersonal communication, and peace studies topics. John Hughes films and classic rock are the backbone of my existence. I thrive off of matcha lattes, seeing a dog in the general vicinity, and day dreaming to the sultry sound of The 1975.

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