by Mindaugas Jocbalis
There’s no denying that the refugee crisis has escalated in 2015, with equal interest in participatory media representation. YouTube video channels, social media pages, and political activism groups, have all increased in numbers evident in the digital sphere, according to Google Trends. Particular focus can be paid to volunteer and activist participatory media blogs europerefugeecrisis.com, refugeecrisisinhungary.wordpress.com and writersforcalaisrefugees.wordpress.com. It is worth noting that they are not run or contributed to by front-line refugees, aid workers or emergency services. So it is difficult to verify the factual accuracy of representations of the ongoing Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Somalian and Eritrean refugee crisis. What is evident, is the popularity of alternative media spheres, which have been revived since the decline of Indymedia (see previous article by Michael O’Regan). This makes it different from the continuous efforts by media portals to represent migrants, (see previous article by Isabel Marques da Silva) and also different to previous refugee crises, where the vestigal view was that traditional media had the ability to influence the majority.
Jones (2010, p. Xi) in a selection of articles by Hanne-Lovise Skartveit, defines the refugee, legally speaking, as ‘someone, resident in a country to which they have moved, who having proved their case for persecution in their homeland, has been granted asylum.’ Clearly, in the majority, people travelling to Europe from Syria, for example, cannot automatically be assumed to be refugees. However, due to traditional media representation of the meaning of the word, its common use, and strong assumptions about persecutions of those who do fail to submit to dictatorship or extremism, it is used more often.
Goodnow (p. xxxii) in view of participation in museum activities, presents the common view that ‘asylum seekers are seen to be engaged first and foremost in the process of gaining refugee status rather than participating in cultural maintenance or intervention’, whilst at the same time ‘museums may avoid the stories of asylum seekers because they are likely to raise more openly political issues’. This may explain, in part, the view that integration is not the primary aim of an asylum seeker, therefore threatening a series of cultural values that people associated with a specific nation, religion, or political views may hold. A series of extremist events in the 20th century may also contribute.
Liberal Democrat Voice is a political blog, which defines itself as ‘not paid for by trade unions or millionaires’ referring to the traditional left and right of a political spectrum. In an article by Lindsay (2015, libdemvoice.org), she refers to the social media hashtag #NotInMyName which appeared at the beginning of 2014 to signify the participatory input of European Muslims on social media (in the first instance, Twitter, later Instagram and Facebook) distancing themselves from recent terrorist attacks.
After all, it is nice to see Scherle (2014) from Deutche Welle reporting on Muslim teens stating that ISIS attacks are ‘NotInMyName’ (see below). But in the view of equality, integration and multiculturalism, doesn’t it justify phobia of Muslims, and isn’t it going to spur a culture of apologizing for the actions of criminals of common religion? Why is there a need for #NotInMyName, and has anything really changed in the past year in how Europe approaches the current refugee situation?
This hashtag has since been taken over as a sort of cliché-form cynicism or, alternatively, optimism, by activists. Lindsay presents a view supporting a stronger welcoming response to Syrian refugees, but lacks a critical analysis of the economic, humanitarian, social and integrational background to her ‘cry to action’ monologue.
This is far from Kapelner, (2015, refugeecrisisinhungary.wordpress.com) who goes on to assess religious, demographic, ethnographic, historical and humanitarian perspectives, and sounds more credible in supporting a stronger response to the crisis. Yet similar blogs exist on the other end of spectrum, such as refugeeresettlementwatch.wordpress.com, which presents emotional arguments for denying refugees’ access to Europe, and migrationwatchuk.org, which purportedly presents economic and numerical statistics to discourage migrants, not differentiating on refugees. The participatory element of this is that a member of the public sharing views can easily sign-up and contribute.
Even though there’s varying public and political opinion across the European Union, the key fear of xenophobic blogs and their members appears to be the discussion surrounding the empowerment of potential Islamic extremism, and a broader population of Muslims ignoring European freedoms, rule of social justice, and cultural values. The truth is that isolated incidents have happened intermittently, and as Goodnow put it, some communities are feared for, as they are not seen to be taking part in familiar cultural activities very often. However this has nothing to do with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the rules and regulation of which has been adopted by the European Union. Too often refugees are confused with migrants, and in a similar fashion, xenophobes rarely display the social solidarity which they aim to protect.
The concept of social solidarity is defined by Cammaerts et al (2007, p. 232) as morality of cooperation, the ability of individuals to identify with each other in a spirit of mutuality and reciprocity without individual advantage of compulsion’. There is a third negative dimension to this, namely the availability of Russian media channels, in particular Russia Today, giving voice to a dialogue that appears to be participatory and measured, while driving an underlying malevolent anti-western agenda. This is particularly evident with regard to the recent Russian invasions of Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria itself with unclear violent aims.
The problem is that there is no active ‘participation’ of refugees themselves in the digital sphere, because, of course, there can’t be. Even front-line photographs, videos and interviews are twisted to represent someone’s agenda. A number of blogs, including brown-moses.blogspot.co.uk, syrianperspective.com or syriadeeply.org deals only with various views on military or religious insurgence.
The key message here is that the wide availability of data on refugees, as reported on traditional Western, Russian, and Middle Eastern media channels, coupled with the even wider dispersion of agendas of social media groups, blogs and video logs, skews the majority intelligence. Any capacity to filter through this is managed in families, community groups, churches and schools. While the reader’s first impression may be that educational institutions like schools and universities ‘percept’ news more accurately than a YouTube vlogger, this may be entirely dependent on political, social or religious influences of the geographic region where they are situated. The vulnerability of citizens (particularly children) within the global situation prevents long-term understanding of social relations, and negatively influences development. After all, representations of development are in fact an effect of how development is viewed and there is no true ‘independent view’. The idea that existing participatory journalism is somehow closer to the action is nullified by inelegant means of gaining followers.
Will the one true representation of this decade of failed political activism discourse be the image of a dead child on a beach? Likely so
Follow the Follow the twitter feed #notinmyname
Hanne-Lovise Skartveit, H.L. and Goodnow, K. 2010. Changes in Museum Practice: new media, refugees and participation. New York : Berghahn Books
Lindsay, C. 2015. Not in my name: British diplomats who joked about refugee quotas disgrace this country. Liberal Democrat Voice [online] 3rd Sep. Available at libdemvoice.org. [Accessed 1st Oct 2015]
Scherle, A. 2014. #Notinmyname: young British Muslims use social media to protest against ‘Islamic State’. Deutche Welle [online]. 23rd Sep. Available at dw.com [Accesed 3rd Oct]
Kapelner, Z. 2015. Europe and What Really Threatens It. Refugee Crisis in Hungary WordPress blog [online]. 18th Sep. Available at: refugeecrisisinhungary.wordpress.com [Accessed 5th Oct]
Cammaerts, B., Carpentier, N. 2007. Reclaiming the Media: Communication Rights and Democratic Media Roles. Bristol: Intellect