How does social media affect our understanding of migrants and refugees?

Published 23 August 2021 / By Anya Jhoti

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Social media has become integrated into our everyday lives as a site for friendships, entertainment, business, politics, and activism. Today, at least one in three people globally is on a social media platform. This has practical implications for migrants and refugees, offering empowering opportunities for representation but also surveillance concerns.

In addition, this shift has consequences on how the public’s understanding of migrants and refugees is formed, with social media platforms now shaping discourses and narratives around migration. As the majority of the British public do not have direct contact with migrants and refugees, the media can play a significant role in shaping our ideas of migrants and refugees. Through the curation of posts on social media, migrants and refugees are framed in particular ways. Hence, the difference between a refugee being depicted as a political actor versus a humanitarian subject depends on compositional and narrative choices.

Social media’s role in the public’s understanding of migrants and refugees deserves critical examination, with more and more people relying on it for news consumption. In fact, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 47% of people in the U.K in 2020 used social media as a source of news in the last week. Activism and politics has found an unusual home through Instagram stories and “swipe up” links to petitions and infographics.

Within the rise of social media platforms, we have witnessed a visual turn in our society. Through smartphones and online social media, information online has become increasingly visual. Images can be taken instantaneously, edited, and uploaded online to be publicly viewed and commented on. With over 1 billion users, Instagram is a key social media platform used by the public worldwide. Whilst print, TV and radio’s representations of migrants and refugees have been examined by critical media scholars, social media platforms are under researched and Instagram in particular has received insufficient exploration by scholars.

The refugee sector on Instagram

The refugee sector has responded to the rise of social media, using social media platforms to campaign, fundraise and raise awareness of their work. Importantly, as the refugee sector is viewed by the public as informed, authoritative actors on refugee issues, their social media content has significant power over the public’s understanding of migration.

In this context, who is included in a post by a refugee advocacy organisation and how the post is curated are politically loaded decisions. By representing refugees in a certain way, the public’s imagination of ‘Who is a refugee?’ is created. In turn, some people are visiblized and others invisibilized. Importantly, who we see as worthy and extend our empathy to is contingent on the individual fitting in the neat box of “refugee-ness”. This box is created over time by everyday communication and representational choices, in a large part, by the refugee sector.

Implications for practitioners

Social media platforms mould public conceptualisations of migrants and refugees through the discourses communicated online. The processes occurring online should be realised by practitioners and migration scholars alike.

In addition, visual social media platforms such as Instagram should be treated with reflexivity by practitioners. Images allow for meaning to be interpreted largely with the viewer, who bring in their pre-existing understandings and biases. Consequently, the meaning communicated about migrants or refugees cannot be entirely known by the producer of the post.

Social media represents opportunities to challenge stereotypical representations of refugees as the passive victim. It allows innovative communication strategies that would not occur offline. For example, by involving the viewer in an Instagram post through specific graphic design choices, refugee organisations can engage and inform the public on key refugee issues. Moreover, by taking advantage of the affordances of social media platforms, refugee voices can be seen and heard with autonomy over their story. Refugees and viewers can interact as equal political actors and, in turn, solidarity rather than pity is garnered.

Social media users’ interaction with the posts again determine what is communicated about migrants and refugees. In this way, the everyday actions of liking, commenting and sharing posts are political. By choosing to like, comment or share a certain post, the framing of refugees in the post gains power on the platform. This in itself represents an opportunity to resist the border regime. By liking and sharing posts that show the diversity and complexity of ‘the refugee experience’ the dominant conceptualisation of the refugee as a mute victim is contested.

It is clear social media platforms are no longer just a site to keep in touch with friends and share funny posts but are a site for discourse contestation, political debate and news consumption. Taken seriously by practitioners, this offers an opportunity for new communication practices which can transform the public’s understanding of migrants and refugees.

Anya Jhoti recently completed an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford.

mobile phone with social media app