An image is worth a thousand words. This saying has proven dramatically true with the death of Aylan K.. You quite certainly know his story: at the beginning of September 2015, this 3-year-old Syrian boy drowned while trying to flee with his family from Syria. The picture of his dead body on a Turkish shore was widely published, both through online social networks and on many (though not all) mainstream media all over the world.
The photo of this tragedy has caused a strong reaction all over the world, apparently bringing a U-turn in EU refugee policies. On 30th August – a couple of days before Aylan K.’s death – Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a coordinated European reaction to the migrant issue, along France’s Hollande and other European leaders. This reaction has followed the discovery in Austria of a lorry with dozens of dead migrants. While Aylan K.’s death occurred after Merkel’s declaration, it is likely that it has reinforced its words and the engagement, especially among ordinary citizens, who spontaneously organised welcome points at the train stations or car convoys to fetch the refugees.
It has seemingly changed the positions of other politicians, such as Italy Northern League leader Matteo Salvini. He has gone from asking his party members to occupy any space used for “supposed refugees” to expressing his availability to host a refugee “who escapes from war” in his two-room apartment (see link, in Italian).
It remains to be seen whether these changes will last in time… But I have the feeling that both the news about the lorry in Austria and the Aylan K. picture have had an effect and a virality which was way stronger than dozens of courageous TV war documentaries, hundreds of impressive pictures from war-torn areas, and thousands of dramatic words in correspondences, both online and offline. So how did these two events within a week succeed where other ones over months or years have failed? Here are some possible answers and personal considerations.
Firstly these two events didn’t take place in a war zone. They happened in Europe and on a Turkish shore in a pretty well-known tourist area. This has probably increased the sense of proximity with the victims, thus affecting reaction and involvement.
Behavioural scientists have been analysing these decision mechanisms. They have identified a few aspects which trigger the reactions of people. One is called In-group Effect: we tend to feel more responsible for those who are near us, both as members of a group we feel we are part of (family, friends, fellow nationals, sports team supporters, etc.) or geographically near, which could be the case of the Austrian lorry victims. Another aspect causing people’s engagement is the fact that single, recognisable victims are more likely to cause emotions – and get help – than a wide quantity of undistinguished ones. Therefore one casualty with a name and a face will probably cause a wider reaction than the statistical data of thousands of deaths. The so-called Identifiable Victim Effect, thus, is likely to have been the reason behind such a strong response for Aylan K.’s picture. Moreover there could have been also a bit of the In-group Effect, as the child was dressed with ‘European-style’ clothing.
Research lead by Arvid Erlandsson, Fredrik Björklund, Martin Bäckström from Lund University in 2013, (Sweden) analysed the emotions underlying these mechanisms, suggesting how they could be used for money raising initiatives – but also in other forms of activism – either person-to-person or through media. So a child sponsorship is based on the Identifiable Victim Effect, whereas identifying a set of persons as part of one’s own social group employs the In-group Effect. They have also focused on a third mechanism which they call the Proportion Dominance Effect: aid is more likely to come if the victims are identified as part of a smaller rather than a bigger group. So, for example, it is likelier for a family of 5 people to get help if they have been identified as being part of a group of 10 rather than of a group of 200 persons.
It’s probably too early to say whether this picture will become part of the list of images which have changed history, or if it will have long-term consequences.
What I am pretty sure of is that Aylan K.’s picture’s case will not be easily forgotten – and his tragic death has hopefully served to give a better life to thousands of other refugees.