Slacktivism, no more: “Sanctifying” Digital Humanitarianism in a Hypermediated Refugee Crisis

In the global media coverage of the present refugee crisis in Europe, digital activism has yet again received a bad name. All too familiar charges of slacktivism or armchair activism are brought upon those who use technology to help refugees from afar. The Atlantic’s Heather Horn ridiculed digital humanitarianism by facetiously asking “Displaced by civil war? There’s an app for that. Scratch that: there are several dozen apps for that. Which one would you like?” Horn also rehashed the popular cliché of the technology community coding their way out of the refugee crisis, accusing the community of evading “real” crisis relief on one hand and foolishly trusting technology to be able to improve refugees’ lives on the other hand. Similarly skeptical of digital humanitarianism, Benton & Genie, the authors of a Migration Policy Institute report on the role of technology in refugee assistance, claim that there is not always an app for that. They blame the accelerated speed of digital humanitarianism for undesirable outcomes: a high failure rate of well-intentioned apps, a duplication and redundancy of navigation and orientation apps, and a lack of coordination efforts with governments and humanitarian organizations.

These criticisms view digital humanitarianism as marginal, at best, to the crisis relief that plays out in the trenches – on the shores of Greece and Italy, for instance, where approximately 800,000 refugees in 2015 alone disembarked from hazardous boat trips on their way via the Western Balkans to northern countries of the European Union. Moreover, digital humanitarianism seems to function outside of a sacred space that humanitarian organizations have long carved out for themselves. In Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism, Michael Barnett and  Janice Gross Stein¹ argue that organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières or Amnesty International have discursively sanctified humanitarianism as an inviolable zone of moral action. Humanitarianism, and the space it creates, often has a faith-like significance in humanitarians’ lives: its rhetoric commends the principles of acting selflessly, alleviating suffering, and saving lives – often to the point of risking one’s life or of martyrdom. The language of this humanitarian space, so Barnett and Stein argue, emphasizes the purity of the mission, the justness of the cause, and the sacredness of the obligation to act. It relies on displaying modern liberal principles as transcendent and sacrosanct, while establishing a common humanity that transcends the here and now.

This sanctification then creates a humanitarian space that is pure and separate from the profane, the political, and the digital, as it seems. Nevertheless, digital humanitarianism’s strength is exactly this creation of a common humanity that binds people together in times of crisis and transcends the here and now. Its immense potential lies in its hypermediation – a practice through which people, technological devices, and physical spaces interact with and transform each other repeatedly and outside the bounds of traditional environments and workings. It is important to understand the networks of digital humanitarianism that lead to meaningful relationships between refugees, humanitarian organizations, media, and publics. These networks (1) merge humanitarianism with the digital media technologies the refugees already are using, hence shaping unprecedented communication and aid networks; (2) create stability and security in the lives of uprooted refugees; (3) empower refugees to write themselves into the narratives told about them, giving them agency in shaping their fate; (4) establish affective connections with mainstream publics that influence mindsets and add a human element to the media coverage of the crisis; and (5) shape people into new humanitarian “saints” that inspire others.

refugees-beach-phonesAs has been documented for a while, the physical and the digital go hand in hand on refugees’ journeys as they rely heavily on mobile digital technologies as lifelines for finding relatives, food, shelter, and medical facilities. Many use virtual road maps or messaging services, and WhatsApp seems to be a clear frontrunner. WhatsApp groups for various purposes in various geographic areas have been able to bridge large distances between people. Both refugees and humanitarian organizations use WhatsApp to warn others about potential obstacles and closed borders, to report successes, or to offer general support. These digital networks have also become channels of humanitarian outreach. One example is The Hellenic Red Cross whose workers created a WhatsApp call hotline for refugees, allowing people with poor literacy skills to send voice recordings.

Somewhat paradoxical to social media’s reputation of being momentary and unreliable, these types of digital networks create stability and security in the lives of uprooted refugees. The London-based non-governmental organization Techfugees has recognized this potential of providing stability through technology and has been coordinating international tech communities to build app solutions to the needs of refugees in Europe. Founded in 2015 as a small Facebook group, their Facebook page now allows viewers to subscribe to their regular newsletter, share ideas and resources on their Hackpad, join their Slack group, or submit new refugee tech projects. At international conferences and “hackathons,” refugees and software developers co-create innovative solutions, while coordinating with existing projects of United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Red Cross, or the Red Crescent. In addition to navigation, integration, and education apps, some of the outcomes involved mobile Wi-Fi carriers in the Balkans and the development of online IDs.

Digital humanitarianism also enables refugees to write themselves into the story that is being told about them and the crisis and thus claim agency in shaping the plot of their own narratives. My ethnographic research in a refugee camp in Southern Germany has revealed that many refugees use their digital devices, especially WhatsApp, as a witness of the atrocities in Syria and as a journal of memorable milestones during their journey. These refugees are aware that their stories count as digital evidence in this hypermediated moment: they are highly motivated to document and publish their own affective testimonies on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

ideas-travelsFor instance, a student from Damascus nicknamed Ideas created a Facebook journal entitled “Ideas travels: a Whatsapp odyssey in the Balkans.” He made himself a character in his own narrative that unfolds day-by-day and experience-by-experience. On June 14th, 2015, he lists an inventory of his only possessions: a pair of unclean socks, a razor, and his cellphone. He adds a picture of these items being spread out on a table. On June 18th, he posts a picture of refugees hiding in a forest holding sticks, ready to defend themselves against the Serbian mafia. On June 20th, 2015, he reposts a video of the Syrian refugee Whatsapp group that features a large group of Syrians walking through Serbia denouncing the Assad regime’s atrocities. Ideas participates in this narrative at the same time as a refugee, humanitarian, and political activist – victim and agent – as he writes: “Do something positive on World Refugee Day and share this vid!”

Digital humanitarianism also combats widespread stigmatization and fear of refugees by establishing affective connections between European mainstream publics and refugees, hence fulfilling one of the most important requirement for humanitarianism: to witness, stand in solidarity, and speak for those who cannot speak (See Barnett & Stein¹). The BBC’s Media Action: Transforming Lives Through Media Around the World is such a platform. It posted a research report on refugees’ communication needs at different points on their journey and a 3-minute-long video entitled “Your Phone is Now a Refugee’s Phone,” which is a simulated reality of a refugee on a boat crossing from Turkey to Greece. This video’s powerful affective impact relies on transporting the viewer onto a boat from Turkey to Greece in order to become part of the developing story. It creates an your-phone-is-now-a-refugee-phoneembodied experience for the viewers to become a refugee, capitalizing on mobile phones and apps being an integral part of viewers’ physical, mental, and digital lives. The video begins by asking viewers to watch it vertically on a mobile phone and then reproduces the Messages, Maps, and WhatsApp apps on an iPhone interface. In a simulated text message exchange, a refugee and “Dad” discuss lost GPS coordinates, with sounds of waves, a boat motor, and children crying in the background. Then, the screen gets wet and the camera takes pictures of terrified refugees in life vests, braving rough grey seas, wind, and rain, some in the water, some getting pulled out of the water onto the boat. A WhatsApp text exchange between a refugee and smugglers discloses the problem of who can be trusted, when the screen breaks and the battery dies. The final text messages state that this refugee crisis in unlike any before: it is the first in a digital age. The video ends with a black screen and a loud vibrating noise, displaying “Communication is aid.”

noujeen-on-the-beachIn this hypermediated environment, these affective connections with mainstream publics often take unexpected turns,  shaping people into humanitarian “saints.” One highly publicized example is Nujeen Mustaffa, a young Syrian woman who has cerebral palsy and was only 16 when she fled Syria in a wheelchair in 2015. She arrived on Lesbos, Greece, with her sister in a rubber dinghy, where she started to catch the global media’s attention with her positivity about her future plans: in an interview on the Serbian-Hungarian border she explains that she dreams of being an astronaut, finding an alien, and meeting Queen Elizabeth. After being placed in a Slovenian holding camp, she finally reached Essen, Germany, where she was reunited with her brother and currently awaits asylum. Most of the headlines illuminate the inspirational nature of her story: her determination, courage, and heroism: “a teen’s story of hope” who “trekked 20 days in a wheelchair getting to Europe.” The affect of this narrative to move the public is established through (1) her status as a victim or the Syrian civil war; (2) her identity as female, under-aged, and as a person with a disability; (3) her very modern aspirations of having a career and a better life; and (4) her determination to overcome hardship and fear.

noujain-on-john-oliverThe media coverage of Nujeen’s story moved Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver to play her interview in the episode Migrants and Refugees, published on September 28th, 2015. Oliver brought awareness to the refugee crisis by satirizing the political rhetoric of spreading fear of refugees and of reducing them to terrorists. He emphasized that any country would be lucky to have Nujeen. He was amazed that she learned English by watching NBC’s Days of Our Lives, one of the longest-running American soap operas with over 13,000 episodes. He revealed a surprise sketch including the Days of Our Lives actors Alison Sweeney and James Scott, who play Nujeen’s favorite characters: EJ, who was killed off in the show, and his love, Sami. The sketch starts with EJ ringing Sami’s doorbell and, after a long embrace, telling her the details of his resurrection. The conversation then goes as follows:

  • EJ: Coming back from the dead, that’s not hard. You know what’s hard? Getting from Syria to Germany.
    Sami: Oh god, have you seen what those migrants are going through?
    EJ: It’s insane. A thousand dollars to bribe your way onto a rubber dinghy and that’s how you get across the Mediterranean?
    Sami: And when you make it to the border they offer you a form to make an appointment five years from now.
    EJ: And then, if you are lucky, you get to navigate a barrage of bigotry and hatred from some asshole majors in Hungary. You know, there are some amazing people coming through that border. I read about this incredible 16-year-old girl from Kobani, called Nujeen Mustaffa. Sami: Nujeen Mustaffa?
    EJ: Nujeen Mustaffa! [[The actor turns to the camera with a bright smile]] 
    Sami: Is she our kind of people?
    EJ: She’s our kind of people! Maybe we’ll get to meet her one day.

An overjoyed Nujeen thanked the actors via Twitter, YouTube, and via a video message on ABC News, adding at the end: “I have something to say to the victims of the wars around the world. You are stronger and braver than you think. Fight for what you want and I am sure that you will get it.”

nujeen-bookRecently, Nujeen published a memoir of her journey, entitled Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair, with the goal to add a human face to the Syrian refugee crisis and to inspire others. As advertised on the cover, she co-wrote her book with British journalist Christina Lamb, the bestselling co-author of I Am Malala. This reference links Nujeen’s story to that of Malala Yousafzai, a 19-year-old who grew up in northwest Pakistan where she stood up for female education banned by the local Taliban. Because of her activism, she was shot three times in 2012 by the Taliban, once in her head. Her asMalala Yousafzaisassination attempt generated global outrage and support for Malala. After a long recovery period, her advocacy has since grown internationally and her acclamations are impressive: the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, recipient of the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, honorary Canadian citizenship, and the Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize, among others. Both young women have become visionaries for younger generations, which is underlined by an additional quote by Malala on the cover of Nujeen’s book: “Nujeen inspires me to dream without limits. She is our hero. Everyone must read her story.” Here, disadvantaged young women are fighting for their own and others’ better futures by conquering fear, danger, hardships, and death. This very contemporary story plot has a high potential for inspiring others in a Western audience to make a better life for themselves.

These inspirational stories are a product of this contemporary hypermediated moment and there are many more. The UNHCR used Nujeen’s story, along with several other inspirational refugee stories, to create the Refugee Emojis Keyboard and to offer “a common language for people to understand the global refugee crisis.” When used in text messages, each refugee emoji depicts an avatar of the refugee that, when sent, comes with a short description of the inspirational nature of a specific refugee’s story. Further examrefugeeemojisples are Subhi, who is gay and was persecuted by the Syrian government and now works for an organization that supports LGBTI refugees and that helped him resettle in the US; Awad, who carried his 80-year-old frail mother on his back for 15 days before the UNHCR transported the family to safe refugee camps in South Sudan; Hany, who is blind and uses photography to escape conflict and chaos; and Alaa, who fled carrying only his violin and a few belongings and now performs live concerts and recorded his own album.

We can think about these stories as unfolding on the ground in real time but also as materializing transmedia while accumulating emotionality in each iteration: in Nujeen’s case, her story is remediated through spoken word, images, print, and videos in global news networks; through political satire on a comedy show; through the acting of two popular American soap opera stars; through emojis in text messages; and through the genre of inspirational literature. To use Zizi Papacharissi’s² words, each of these platforms is a digital layer that adds sentiment to the story. Every digital layer has a reflexivity that allows the audiences to feel their way into the story “as an organically generated digital manifestation of who we are, and who we might like to be.” Sentiment towards refugees accumulates and creates what Papacharissi calls affective publics that are sustained and mobilized by these accumulations of sentiment, even long after the initial events that called them into being.

If Barnett and Stein¹ are right in that relieving the suffering of distant and vulnerable strangers is the fundamental obligation of all humanitarian organizations and is at the core of the sanctity and inviolability of the humanitarian space, then digital humanitarianism exceeds this expectation by far. It is very much part of the sacrosanct humanitarian space. In addition to its obvious outcomes of combating the explosive rhetoric against refugees and raising moral support for refugees, it creates affective publics and sanctifies heroes as saints to inspire the general public and to change negative public mindsets of refugees. In this hypermediated refugee crisis, the refugees, humanitarian organizations, the apps, the local and global populations, and the social media platforms give each other agency and create mediated feelings of connectedness to a common humanity that exceed the conventional workings of slacktivism.


¹Barnett, M., & Stein, J. (2012). Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism. Oxford University Press; p. 26.
²Papacharissi, Z. (2014). Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics (1 edition). Oxford ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press; p. 311.



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