From ‘villains’ to ‘heroes’, by IOM – perceptions about migration in the public sphere

by Isabel Marques da Silva


The 21st century’s (big) enthusiasm about the potential of new media for fast and generalised social change is not without conceptual basis, and has been underpinned by its theoretically established features: ubiquity, interactivity, recombination, and networking (Leah Lievrouw, 2011, p. 15). But recent research shows that online activism and advocacy are not a contemporary magic wand with super catalytic powers for mobilisation and civic engagement. The ‘click activism’ shortcomings are well documented in the article about the “Save Darfur Cause” on Facebook, (1 billion members, 100,000 USD in donations) where Kevin Lewis, Kurt Gray and Jens Meierhenrich (2014, p.7) state that “Facebook is less useful a mobilization tool than a marketing tool (…) it largely failed to transform these initial acts of movement participation into “a deep and sustained commitment to the work” (Land, 2009, p.220)”.

But halfway between marketing (of trends/concepts) and mobilisation (for action/participation), I argue that new media can have a ‘transitional’ role in what concerns discussion in the public sphere. An example is the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) use of new media to influence perceptions about migration, specifically in Europe, with internal campaigns, but also in association with external partners.

In her article Changing Public Perceptions of Immigration, IOM deputy-director general, Laura Thompson, explains that “the media has a key role to play in influencing attitudes to migration. Hardly a day goes by without migration hitting the headlines somewhere in the world. Too often, however, the media tends to focus on the negative aspects of migration. One recent study of 58,000 migration news stories, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford, found that the most common word used to describe immigrants was “illegal”, even though by far the majority of migrants enter and reside legally.

IOM created the “Migrant Heroes” campaign (distributed on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flicker) to “change the lens through which people view migrants” sharing positive stories and profiles on the matter, that will “culminate in the presentation of 10 prominent and compelling Migrant Heroes stories at the IOM Council in November 2015”, where three new Goodwill Ambassadors will be elected. The agency also associated with the British NGO MAX,(Movement Against Xenophobia) which has translated some of the stories, in posters scattered in the streets.


IOM has also created the website Migrants Contribute, and is preparing an oral history of migration with the project The Migrant’s Path, part of the Missing Migrants Project, to “reveal a deeper narrative about migration via human stories”.

Moreover, it’s become associated with the 5th Olleh International Smartphone Film Festival to “promote positive perceptions of migrants”, with a special Migrant Heroes Prize. The prize was awarded, on the 9th September 2015, to the film ‘Why Not’, shot by IOM Syria staff, about an internally displaced person who created a business that’s helped hundreds of fellow citizens.

Subjects or protagonists? – the participatory element

A common thread in IOM campaigns is that they give voice to the people who are the ‘subjects’ of the campaign, in the sense that they become ‘protagonists’ of their own storytelling and construction of perceptions. That is more effective and productive in terms of plurality and transformative power, conducting to the “peak” described by Lievrouw (2011, p.2) where new media forms and practices “permit social groups with diverse interests to build and sustain communities, gain visibility and voice, present alternative or marginal views, produce and share their own do-it-yourself information sources, and resist, talk back, or otherwise confront dominant media culture, politics and power”.

That confrontation can be more, or less, subversive and recuperated (or not) by traditional media. Among the stories about resilience, pride and sacrifice, creative sarcasm can also play an ‘explosive’ role in the discussion, as in the case of the Syrian refugee Mahmoud Bitar’s video, which was tracked by BBC Trending (‘Don’t come to Sweden… or think carefully about it’).

It is not a magic touch, but more a seeding effort, considering that changing beliefs and promoting action depends also on sociological, psychological, economic, political and cultural determinants; even within the so-called Global North, where material access to social media tools is more secure. New media have the potential to ignite, to create a spark that will be nurtured by complimentary, as well as conventional, mobilising tools.

Even in academia, among students of Communication for Development, there is a sense that the role of social media is indeed complementary to the grassroots approach. Nevertheless, its developing momentum and dissemination capacities can’t be ignored, as mentioned in The Guardian’s article “Social media without grassroots action not enough for a winning campaign”.

This is not a sprint, but a marathon-length process: “The potential for social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere change measured in years and decades rather than in weeks and months” (Clay Shirky, 2010, p. 2) and “political freedom has to be accompanied by a civil society literate enough and densely connected enough to discuss the issues presented to the public” (idem, p. 4).

The fact that IOM resorted to this interplay of new media campaigns, stressing strongly the participatory component, maybe gives some hints about how its uses can evolve in the mainstream organisational field.


Lewis, K., Gray, K., Meierhenrich, J. 2014. The Structure of Online Activism in Sociological Science 1:1-9

Lievrouw, L. 2011. Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge: Polity

Shirky, C. 2010. The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change in Foreign Affairs 90: 28-I

Tags: , , , , ,

1 comment

  1. Hi Isabel

    There are many sources stating that Facebook can in fact as a useful mobilization tool, defying a view by Lewis et al. Sanson (Gnovis journal, Volume 8, No. 3, 2008) marks the 2008 presidential campaign backed by new media engagement, citing Facebook as identifying the right consumers for information. So Facebook as a social medium for participatory discussion can act to employ a large set of potential recipients of such ‘marketing’ messages. Same can be said about migration, and especially in light with migration in the hotspots of EU, Australia, USA, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Middle East and other destinations. Facebook may act as an advisory communication tool. However its role in changing perspectives is highly debated.

    In argument that large amounts of information can alter views, is a counterargument that platforms such as Facebook direct relevant communication to relevant groups. ‘Migrant Heroes’ or MAX is no exception. In fact from personal perspective, I’ve noticed more migrant hero posters on the streets of London rather than social media. In fact, Cammaerts and Carpentier (2007, p. 11) stated that ‘problems of selection and distribution information’ exist and ‘question of whose information will be offered illustrations the difficulties hidden behind the notion of information. So information whether migration is a positive or negative notion will be directed to different people.

    Still, I agree, potential target audience has no defined limit of expansion, granted that available funds, distribution of earnings and dissemination of messages between ‘Friends’ and ‘Pages’ of different socio-economic, demographical or geographical observance can be interlinked. One issue with factuality and representation on information in migration can be culture jamming again referring and reinterpreting that information to own little spheres of key stakeholders. This is something to do with viewing migrant as ‘protagonist’ of oncoming culture adoption or change or ‘antagonist’ against established values. So much so that actants culture jam any positive messages and direct them to voters, protesters, activists, governmental organizations or their representatives. Only alternative is reverse culture jamming (Lievrouw, 2011, p. 91).

    So changing believes is not easy. But complementing and adding to information network asserts some role in mobilization.

    Sources: Sanson, A. 2008. Facebook and Youth Mobilization in The 2008 Presidential Election Gnovis Journal (online) Summer Volume 8, No. 3. Available at:
    Cammaerts, B., Carpentier, N. 2007. Reclaiming the Media: Communication Rights and Democratic Media Roles. Bristol: Intellect
    Lievrouw, L. 2011. Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge: Polity