When the peak of the European migration crisis reached Hungary in the summer of 2015 and due to the measures of the Government hundreds of people were sleeping rough around the main train stations in Budapest for weeks, the people responded. Facebook groups with the intention to mobilize and coordinate people were quickly formed in mid-summer, and it was incredible to see how things unfolded.
In a matter of days the number of people in these Facebook groups increased to a few hundred, and as the crowd around the stations and in public parks grew, it rose to thousands. As the crisis unfolded in late summer, places of assembly of migrants were divided between different volunteer-based grassroots organizations that even through lacked any official or clear organizational structure and hierarchy managed to coordinate their work solely based on online interaction on social media: roles and shifts were assigned, meals, clothes, sleeping mats and bags, first aid and medicine as well as even hairdressers were available, volunteer groups in different cities around the country coordinated to monitor the movement of people and provide departure and arrival assistance, while others escorted people among the train stations within Budapest.
As coordination took place on Facebook active participation was open for everyone and was organized through an open-source schedule where volunteers could sign up for a particular task and time slot. The use of social media for mobilization and communication purposes allowed potential volunteers as well as people willing to donate with up-to-date information about the situation on the spot, including the number of helping hands needed, the specific tasks that had to be taken care of and the most urgently needed foods and other items.
It was unbelievable to see that while NGOs and UN organizations were just trying to get their heads around what was happening, complete strangers came together to devote their time and resources for a common cause of helping those in need. Although it is not an unknown phenomenon that social media can enable and facilitate bottom-up initiatives, it still left me thinking:
How come that in a country where xenophobia reached an all-time high at 53% and xenophilia (welcoming attitudes towards foreigners) practically disappeared (1%) thousands of volunteers organized themselves to help the asylum seekers entering the country?
How is it possible that in Hungary, where lack of trust in general and a very weak civil sphere have been characterizing the society for decades this cause could bring strangers behind social media profiles so close together that they organized themselves via Facebook posts?
Now, almost 3 years later, there is silence.
Now, when asylum-seekers are “tucked away” in container camps (so called transit zones) near the border with Serbia, where are these people? Where are the critical voices to oppose the government’s narrative about ‘invasion by Islam’, ‘the need to protect our nation against terrorism’ and the ‘need to stop migration’?
It was proven again that these instances of collectivity are too often unstable and temporary: just as quickly as people came together the “collective we” also fell apart. While social media as a platform was a useful tool for fueling enthusiasm and mobilizing people when there was an immediate need, it failed to turn this temporary collectivity into longer-term action or activism.
Probably it was the crisis that was too obvious and was too close for people to react, but now, even if you do not agree, it is much harder to see what could be done and results would be much less instant and visible. After all, what could be done against government propaganda? In a society where “migrant” has become a swearword and people tend to avoid this topic as it can generate such emotions and tension that disagreement may lead to the end of a friendship? At the moment it might feel hopeless as we sink deeper and deeper into fear and hatred. But how will it change? How could it change?
What can 1% possibly change?
- Poell, T.; van Dijck, J. 2018. ‘Social Media and new protest movements‘ in: Burgess, J., Marwick, A. & Poell, T. (eds.): SAGE Handbook of Social Media. London: Sage.