European refugees and Twitter

The political parties, professions and media that were registered as the most active in the Twitter storm #DiaMundialdelosRefugiados were those from the centre left.

Aurora Labio Román Martín Francisco Núñez
27 September 2016

Candles next to an image of Aylan Kurdi, during a gathering to condemn the death of migrants on their way to Europe, in Barcelona, September, 2015.Emilio Morenatti/Press Association. All rights reserved.On September 2, 2015 the image of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish shore made global headlines. The event created public outrage and brought to the forefront the cruel reality that has become known as ‘the refugee crisis’. The exodus of Syrian refugees began many months before, but Aylan’s death caused an international political reaction and citizen protest began to emerge.

The ‘crisis’ exposed the inability of European policy-makers to offer a viable solution that guarantees the basic human rights of thousands of people, additionally failing to fulfil Europe’s obligations under the basic precepts outlined in the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as first created in 1957 and amended in 1967.

But citizens mobilised and made their protests visible by using social media platforms, like Twitter, to spark numerous actions of spontaneous solidarity with the refugees. We saw the extent to which activists increasingly rely on the new information and communication technologies which play a decisive role in the proposals and imaginaries of social movements and civil society.

As José Tascón (2012) has said, ‘social media and the Internet form part of the communications framework in which the perceived justice of a crisis is verified and becomes a platform for the debate and exchange of ideas and opinions on the perceived reality as unjust’.

Constructing an uncomfortable European reality

The media’s focus on the so-called refugee crisis has unfortunately centered on framing migration as a human drama or as a political problem for Europe, without making a more profound analysis of the causes of the exodus or the responsibility of the international community itself.

In an article published at the end of 2015, Didier Fassin pointed out how the European authorities vacillate between the need to control borders and the need to protect refugees, at least officially. The result is that we again experience a practice that is common to the way many issues are handled by the European Union, whereby a discourse of concern aimed at public opinion is maintained but masks the reality that refugees are excluded and marginalized.

Of course we can observe that there are varying levels of implication in the response from different EU countries, ranging from a greater willingness to help refugees in Germany and Sweden to the minimum contributions offered by other countries such as the United Kingdom, France or Spain.

Nevertheless, we have observed an increased scrutiny of the asylum process and policies of treatment and consideration of refugees that are more than questionable from the point of view of human rights and dignity. In a monograph published by the magazine Pueblos in 2016, there were references to the confiscation of personal belongings in some areas in Germany or to Finland’s request that asylum seekers work for free. The color-coded identification of houses that shelter refugees in Middlesborough, deserves a special mention. Some have christened this action, “British apartheid”.

Meanwhile, the barriers erected in Poland, Hungary and Greece have served as walls of containment to deter entry to the Schengen territory, which would allow the free movement of citizens throughout several European countries. So Europe has erected another Iron Curtain for the twenty-first century, which this time leaves thousands of people abandoned to their own fates in the middle of chaos, war and misery.

The latest gesture in this vein was the signing of an agreement between Turkey and the EU on March 18, 2016, which according to Javier Galparoso, made Turkey both “policeman and refugee camp” at the same time as it allowed for “the violation of the principle of not turning back refugees as stipulated by the Geneva Convention”.

Online activism and civic action: digital solidarity

Activists’ use of the new information and communication technologies plays a more and more decisive role in the proposals and collective imaginations of social movements and civil society. The model of organizing in networks, based on the way that the society of information is structured, has become a model of reference for social movements and networks that resist and oppose neoliberal globalization.

The increase in access to information and the possibility of producing one’s own information modifies the way political intervention is done at the same time that a plurality of cybernetic formats increases the potential for discourses, previously absent, to emerge. 

Thus the new concept “cyberactivism” arises, understood as the ensemble of information technologies which make faster communication within movements possible while at the same time facilitating the dissemination of information to a wider audience, generating a digital democracy that relies on the new technologies to reinforce social and political participation.

The technological revolution has resulted in the creation of a digital citizen that finds in the Internet new, decentralized ways to mobilize, to the degree that we could call a kind of “post-modern protest”. Citizens making demands share lifestyles and the ways in which they carry out and express their mobilizations more than they do the issues they are vindicating. The objective in many cases is to perhaps call attention to issues, and make them visible, rather than aspiring to achieve social change.

This signifies a change in a model based on the participation of the user. The Internet and its derivations in our technologies provides a platform for citizens to express their solidarity and opinions, making them active elements who participate in the production of content and information.

These possibilities of interaction allow the construction of opinion in the digital environment, which in the context of political communication results in the creation of various terms, the most common of which are; politics 2.0, electronic democracy, digital democracy, virtual politics, cyberdemocracy, and digital solidarity.

In future article, we want to explore how digital solidarity, as a new form of social participation, has the capacity to influence the political agenda. For the moment, we concentrate on the digital response via Twitter expressing solidarity with the refugees.

World Refugee Day

To analyze influence, we chose the hashtag #DiaMundialdelosRefugiados (World Refugee Day) which was a trending topic in first position for 11 hours and 15 minutes on 20 June 2016, making it the longest lasting HT to keep that position that day. The tool we used for calculating the variables was Audiense (formerly SocialBro). The analyzed sample contained 1967 tweets.

The first data that captured our attention was that next to the HT #DiaMundialdelosRefugiados, other related HTs began to appear such as #pocavergüenza (shameless) and #refugioporderecho (refugee by law). The use of these HTs makes clear what the community of people participating in the event wanted to say.

Analysis of keywords contained in the analyzed tweets ­– refugees, slip through, people, Europe, Turkey, shame – gave us a clear thermometer of the sentiment of repudiation towards the several solutions that have been put forth as political options. With respect to gender, there is no clear predominance of one sex over another, but rather there is a clear sign of parity. The topic of refugees moves both men and women equally.

The sentiments that the analyzed tweets generated in the cases where it was possible to categorize them, were positive. They expressed support and solidarity with refugees and were negative when they addressed existing refugee policy. 

Greece was in second place after Spain in the countries referenced. This was curious, given that this was an analysis of Spanish HTs. But this might be explained by the expat community of Spanish volunteers who are in that country, helping the Syrian refugees who are landing there. As for the profiles of the various people who participated, we can confirm that curiously enough, the political parties, professions and media that were registered as the most active in the Twitter storm #DiaMundialdelosRefugiados were those from the centre left.

As we stated above, this data provides only a small glimpse into refugee and online solidarity. There is also the question as to whether digital solidarity is a substitute for real solidarity or if there is room for both, without discarding the possibility that digital solidarity could be a tool for sparking real solidarity.



FASSIN, D. (2015): “La economía moral del asilo. Reflexiones críticas sobre la ´crisis de los refugiados´de 2015 en Europa, en Revista de Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares, Vol. LXX, nº 2, pp. 277-290.

GALPAROSO, J. (2016): “Europa, al borde del precipicio, en Revista Pueblos, nº 69, disponible enhttp://www.revistapueblos.org/?p=20733

HOWARD, P. (2011): The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

SAMPEDRO, V. (2005): 13M: Multitudes Online, Madrid, La Catarata.

TASCÓN, M. Y QUINTANA, Y.   (2012): Ciberactivismo.   Las   nuevas revoluciones de las multitudes conectadas, Madrid, La Catarata.

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