Exploring the Challenges of Digital Media for Humanitarian Activism in the Western World From Hashtags to Mobilization

Através das redes sociais, é possível unir o mundo por uma ou mais causas | Fonte: metamorworks de Getty Images Pro via Canva
Exploring the Challenges of Digital Media for Humanitarian Activism in the Western World 5

Digital media technology started to emerge in the early 2000s in the form of smartphones, interactive websites, and social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and Whatsapp. The ensuing technological sea change has fundamentally transformed the global media landscape, multiplying and diversifying the type of actors, voices and images that either participate and influence global politics (Kaempf, 2018). Leah Lievrouw argues that “this changing landscape has created unprecedented opportunities for expression and interaction, specially among activists, artists, and other political and cultural groups who found new media to be inexpensive, powerful tools for challenging the givens of mainstream or popular culture (2011, pp. 1-2)”. To be more precise, digital media has brought about an unprecedented multitude of information and visual perspectives on global politics. We are living now in a visual age like never before (Kaempf, 2018).

In IR study, for instance, such a changing landscape provided by digital media opened up a free and public space for critical thinking. This also enabled the critical scholarship to explore discursive and technological mechanisms in the construction of a more reflexive critique concerning humanitarian issues in the visual and digital age. In examining the boundaries and chains that link digital media with the unprecedented multitude of information and the creation of knowledge through visual perspectives on global politics, critical approaches paved the way to assessments about the need of digital activism to challenge the power of mediation within the visual politics of human suffering.

To understand the critical thinking about digital media and IR, it is crucial to perceive how social movements are able to make use of discursive and technological mechanisms to cover issues that are not of interest (or the main focus) to the traditional media. Knowing that reality is defined by perception (which in a Foucauldian sense means that who controls perception, controls reality), social movements embedded digital mechanisms in their attempts to establish what Mitzi Waltz refers to as “counter-narratives.” Waltz explains that “like all forms of communication, the alternative and activist media provide a counter-narrative to that put forward by mainstream media, but that narrative might be expressed in many different ways, depending on the era (2005, p. 4)”.  When it comes to the digital era riddled with hashtags and multiple cyber campaigns, the social movements were able to cultivate a fertile ground for challenging the perception of reality that is constructed for us by those who historically control the power of mediation.

Due to its complexity and diversity of activities, the so-called digital activism is studied within a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, political science, media and communication studies, as well as art and design studies. The field comprises a rich and, at the same time, disparate body of knowledge with diverse epistemologies and focal points. Political science and sociological inquiries, for example, focus on mobilization, opportunity structures, framing and information diffusion processes, particularly the role of networks (Kaun & Uldam; 2018). Borrowing from these inquiries that some IR critical approaches originally designed their perspectives about issues involving the visuality of pain and human suffering, namely humanitarianism, human rights, digital media and humanitarian activism.

It is also worth reminding that, as Raymond Duvall and Latha Varadarajan suggested, “what differentiates IR critical theory, besides the fact that its approaches range from modernist to post-structural forms, is the commitment to the cause of challenging the naturalness of the existing world order and the acceptability of its dominant relations of power (2003, p. 81)”. Bearing this assumption mind, it would make sense to argue that IR critical approaches recognize that the digital tools permit, as Leah Lievrouw appointed, “(…) social groups with interests to build communities, gain visibility and voice, resist, and confront dominant media culture, politics, and power (2011, p. 2)”.

From the standpoint and interests of research in topics surrounding political science and sociology, digital activism allows us to see how groups and communities of users have been empowered to become active political participants, through their access to digital tools, and the creation of networks of knowledge and participation where know-how is disseminated (Mora, 2014). However, digital activism does not necessarily define political participation of a critical and reflexive audience at a high level. So far, it did not seem as if the digital media for humanitarian activism had reached high levels of political engagement in Western societies. In Europe and United States, for example, humanitarian campaigns calling for a stronger civic engagement in ongoing conversations about forced migrations reached only a limited audience. Demonstrations and campaigns against the Western police states and their repressive border-controls are still works in progress when it comes to gathering higher amounts of participants and sympathizers.

As further explored throughout this article, collective actions with popular participation questioning the policies of securitization and calling for a more humane treatment of refugees and migrants are constantly taking place in the United States and Europe, but at a micro level. These collective actions are promoted on social networks through hashtags, cyber campaigns and other mechanisms. These actions are, therefore, scheduled and coordinated online by civil society groups and social movements which decided to take advantage of digital platforms and technologies in a variety of ways, thus cultivating a fertile ground for the alternative media to grow.

Alternative media, the literature seems to suggest, are those media that are decidedly not something else. They are not mainstream, and may be produced by agents and organizations that are not guided by commercial interests. They are dedicated to the promotion of a critical consciousness and the imagination of alternative potentialities (Anderson, 2015). In terms of humanitarianism to relieve pain and human suffering of others, alternative media have the task to dismantle the general consensus in our society that it is okay for the governments to undertake the excessive use of force against vulnerable groups. For this, the alternative media should be able to mitigate the phenomenon referred to as “the seduction of the mass media)”. This is the first challenge of digital activism for humanitarian purposes that I would like to point out.

The seduction of the mass media

Mitzi Waltz comes into the argument that “if most people depend on the mass media to provide a link with society in general, a huge number of media consumers are certain to feel let down – or worse – on a regular basis (2005, p. 7)”. The media critic Norman Solomon believes that “television provides a wide variety of homogenized offerings. Its major networks embody a consummate multiplicity of ‘sameness,’ with truncated imagination and consolidated ownership (in Waltz, 2005, p. 7)”. He added: “these days there is a captivatingly unadventurous cable channel for virtually every niche market. By catering to a wider audience than ever, the mass media offer a very narrow spectrum of views and content”. In Solomon’s opinion, “diverse readers and viewers are valued primarily as ‘niche markets’ at whom specifically tailored advertisements can be targeted (Idem, 2005, p. 7)”. Having this in mind, it is imperative for the alternative media to mitigate this process by using the digital tools to coordinate their moves and inspire a change at the level of consciousness.

This means appealing to broad and inclusive audiences. By using technology to create knowledge within a certain context, as well as to provide the channels for building the relationships and connections which this knowledge can flow, the main activist functions of digital media for humanitarian purposes are documenting and broadcasting. The first encompasses the desire to “tell the story”, to inform and transmit some ideas about the social movement in process. The second function takes the form of using digital communication systems to share information about protests, meetings, human rights violation, crises and evolution of movement actions (Mora, 2014). In general terms, if digital activism is to inspire change at the level of humanitarian awareness, documenting and broadcasting are the mainstays for the development of a culture of political participation, civic engagement and civil mobilization.

By documenting and broadcasting, the alternative media is also likely to cut through the noise of the contemporary media environment. As such, they must subvert the technologies and channels that make up that environment. But they must do so actively as a “pluralistic vanguard” of ideological civil resistance (Anderson, 2015). In doing so, the digital media would successfully be working hand-in-hand with the traditional forms of activism, operating as an important mechanism for organizing and coordinating public meetings. 

The important characteristic of information that is transmitted through digital activism is that it is not transmitted by the traditional media; not filtered, not edited, and not accompanied by a well-written script of a professional journalist. Information is produced by raw footage of video of text that is potentially broadcast live to the world. It is subject to interpretation and misinterpretation (Sivitanides & Shah, 2011). It is about showing the consequences of the banalization of violence against stigmatized groups, without filter and edition. Breaking free the general consensus about the excessive use of force against minorities means providing dramatic information with visual representations of human suffering without editing or censorship.

The dramatic and connotative mode of communications that images of suffering released by the alternative media depicts the most intimate (not to say tragic) moments of fellow human beings. Analytically assessing through social psychological lenses, this might feel heretical, even heartless. But in everyday settings, the emotional and moral education embedded in the dramatic images of others suffering tend to remain beyond critical assessment (Kotilainen, 2016). Being seduced by the mass media can be a comfortable way for members of societies to avoid seeing the pain and suffering of others. To mitigate such a condition and make society step out of the comfort zone by bearing witness over human suffering, the alternative media must develop a sense of presence. This means expanding visibility and awareness through tagging content and data mining techniques. As a result, more viewers will witness events unfolding no matter where and when human suffering takes place.

In simple terms, there must be balance that depicts human suffering without appealing to disturbing shock images, but that can still make the audience sense the pain of others, as if we the viewers were on the spot of the victims. For this, text-over-image of suffering followed by hashtags can be a smart alternative to reach out more viewers. The more viewers having access to images of suffering through hashtag, the higher is the probability of reaching multiple publics, including the ones seduced by the mass media. In media studies, this is called digital optimism. This approach does not intend to dismantle the seduction of the mass media (which is nearly impossible), but rather take action through digital means in the way that the message would spread to the general public, so more people will feel they can change apathy to optimism.

One of the principles of digital optimism is that technology is “socially constructed”. In other words, this means that users construct the value and meaning of technology by how they use it, choosing an entertainment platform such as YouTube and using it to transmit alternative political content. The optimistic view, then, proposes a more just and egalitarian future, along with a means of achieving this future that empowers the ordinary user (or viewer) to create meaning (Sivitanides & Shah, 2011). In this context, digital activism emerges within social structures. Both the character and form of media technologies are also shaped by social practices, while they in turn shape the possibilities for self-expression, political participation and activism (Kaun & Uldam, 2018). It turns out that digital media for humanitarian activism is developed by a process of social construction, a model of active resistance in response to inaction and impassive receptivity.

Thierry Balzacq is convinced that “the audience is best described as being often poised in a receptive mode (2011, p. 2)”. Just take as clear examples the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border and the deaths of migrants at the Mediterranean Sea. In both contexts the receptive mode of the American and European societies could be defined by the lack of interest in contesting and confronting the governments to look for possibilities of handling the migration issue according to a less securitized framed. It is not wrong to argue, then, that most people in Western societies do not seem to be strong-minded to join campaigns or seek information in independent channels of communication about the excessive use of force undertaken by their authorities against minority and vulnerable groups in humanitarian contexts.

Thousands of more Europeans and Americans could become members of non-profit organizations that provide emergency relief capacities to people in context of human suffering. They could also partake in demonstrations calling for the protection of refugee rights, or at least signing online petitions, discussing humanitarian issues with friends and family, or sharing humanitarian appeals on  their social media. In IR history, changes only occurred in the humanitarian spectrum when hundreds and thousands of citizens became more engaged in a common cause. The more people are involved in digital activism for social problems and humanitarian purposes, more possibilities of overcoming human suffering and repression will flourish.

To achieve this goal, digital activists should continue to allow large groups of individuals to easily link to one another, exchange content and coordinate acts, thus increasing the ability to create an effective political movement. Most digital activists, for example, select commercial applications such as Blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and others alike to do their work. It is through these apps that network infrastructure is defined. The visibility element within these apps reveals to be the reason for political and social change campaigns (Sivitanides & Shah, 2011). Technologies mediated activism and they became vehicles to, among other things, gather information and denounce atrocities or abuses in situations that encompass natural disasters, social justice protests and strikes, civil wars or election processes (Mora, 2014).

Overcoming the seduction of the mass media requires social reconstruction. Properly speaking, social reconstruction depends on radical application of both science and technology. Digital activism has been able, thereby, to expose the gross miscarriages of justice that characterize contemporary IR. The potential of alternative media is not wholly in their capacity to emancipate critical thought through content alone. It is in direct political practice that they are able to rise above the noise of an already saturated media field. This practice must take the form of alternative production as well as participation in social movements (Anderson, 2015). According to Leah Lievrouw, “participation makes people active agents in the process of meaning-making, and new media promote participation in this fundamentally constructive and interactive sense (2011, p. 14)”. In her conclusion, “participation can be seen as the point at which an individual’s knowledge, or capacity to act, is actually transformed into communicative action (2011, p. 14)”

There are numerous ways of participating online by tweeting, texting, posting, messaging, uploading, commenting and linking media content. However, digital activism serves to encourage participation offline as well. Considering this assumption that the next challenge of digital media for humanitarian activism is posed. Even though it became easier for any individual to participate in digital activism due to the variety of alternative mechanisms and independent channels available to them, Western societies continued to be seduced by the narrow spectrum of views and content of the mass media. There are, in fact, multiple reasons for this, and some of them are worthy of attention.

Limitations on political participation

As a matter of fact, digital media was not necessarily made for activism. The fundamental problem is that social media governance, both in terms of code-as-law and the rule of policies and user terms, is driven by necessary commercial considerations, namely monetization. Companies must appeal to broad classes of users and advertisers, which both could help activists and lead to policy changes that constrain them. Social media operators were not designed to cater to activist users, and change in rules and architectures can have negative, unintended consequences for activists (Youmans & York, 2012). The first limitation in this context consists of the prohibitions on anonymity. In most cases, anonymity in digital activism is helpful, once it does not compromise the integrity of activists. Anonymity in digital activism might be crucial for the individual security of activists, and for the social movement as a whole.

For some social and humanitarian causes, remaining in anonymity means not having to expose personal identities and whereabouts. Because of the many dangers that online media may represent for activists, such as sabotage, hate threats, cyber-and physical attacks and other hazards alike, the condition of anonymity is useful for activists to navigate in a safer digital environment. Consequently, this facilitates participation, protecting the person and his or her humanitarian message. In addition to this, anonymity of the victims of violence and excessive use of force also encourage them to give a more honest reporting immediately after having a traumatic experience.

However, content filtering, social network mining, mobile-phone tracking and even computer network attack capabilities are being developed by Western firms and put into the hands of policymakers. These digital tools are often used to limit democratic participation, identify dissidents and infiltrate the networks of adversaries (Kaempf, 2018). As profit-seeking entities, all the companies that develop and control social media platforms must retain and gain users, develop new revenue streams, and avoid liabilities and bad publicity. When state power also comes to bear on them, the utility of social media to activists could decline. Prohibitions on anonymity and certain content types, and greater infiltration by government agents can definitely lessen social media’s utility. States and the private sector are allied against online anonymity because it impairs governance and monetization (Youmans & York, 2012).

Humanitarian issues reveal the tensions and contradictions of global capitalism, and it is the charge of activist media to challenge media power. For this, digital activism is critical by its nature, once it offers alternatives to the repressive messages of the mainstream media, giving voices to the voiceless and productive power to the powerless. The critical media provided by digital activism is anti-hegemonic, thought provoking, multi-dimensional, as well as engaged in the interests of the dominated (Anderson, 2015). To achieve these conditions, anonymity appears to be an important tool. Furthermore, in addition to the prohibitions on anonymity, another limitation on participation within the digital media is the so-called algorithmic logic.

Although digital media has certainly diversified the global mediascape, the processes through which images and information arrive on our screens, and through which they enter into our minds, are far less diverse than some commentators usually suggest. Looking behind the screens of our computers, phones and tablets reveals some technological processes and political dynamics that limit which visual representations and information could appear on our screens (Kaempf, 2018). Leah Lievrouw reminds us, for example, the term Googlezon, which was popularized in 2004 when media scholars predicted that Google and Amazon would personalize news and information to individual spectators. Therefore, in a brief explanation about this term, Leah Lievrouw summarizes that “Googlezon is a protean force that dominates all aspects of entertainment and culture by harvesting content from traditional media outlets, serving it back to individual consumers in algorithmically selected packages minutely tailored to their tastes and interests (2011, p. 119)”.

In relation to Google, for example, if two people, at the same time, use the same search engine to search for the very same word, such as “Syria,” they tend to get different search results. Google uses fifty seven different signals to generate personally tailored information, ranging from the user’s location, the type of device and browser used, and the user’s digital footprint and browsing history. This algorithmic logic can also be found on Facebook newsfeed. Asked by a journalist about this matter, Mark Zuckerberg answered that “a squirrel dying in front of your house might be more relevant to your interests than people dying in Africa (Kaempf, 2018)”. Crudely put, we are living in a digital era where most of the available information is intentionally tailored.

In a digital era where everyone can have a voice, not everyone can be heard. The world is incredibly noisy, and it is the challenge of alternative media (the contributors to that noise) to find a way of rising above, they should explore the mains at their disposal to circumnavigate it, to communicate through alternative channels in active, engaged way (Anderson, 2015). That is why civil society groups coordinate collective actions in public spaces. This is a way to show the rest of the audience what they probably do not see online due to the algorithmic logic and its tailored information. As a consequence, this may even lead those people who do not belong to social and humanitarian causes to look beyond the things that the digital media want them to see.

The user no longer decides what is relevant, important, uncomfortable, or challenging to his or her worldview. With algorithms deciding what we get to see and what not, digital technology has moved us further away, rather than closer, to the idea of generating a diversity of views about world politics (Kaempf, 2018). Aiming to change this scenario, social movements and civil society groups engaged in humanitarian causes shape interactions offline within activists’ collective actions spaces. By creating a strong connection to the movement’s network, usually in the form of social media, civil society groups put into action their commitment to human rights protection through coordinated collective actions in public spaces where ordinary people get to see their message. From an activist perspective, public spaces are places of social interaction where people have the opportunity to participate in political life.

The favored initial tool for activism is the creation of entry points to the movement’s social network. Through captivating pictures followed by well-thought contents and hashtags, digital activists schedule and coordinate their actions. This fact also may help to prove that, in some regards, the dynamics of digital activism remain similar to that of traditional methods, which depend heavily on relationships building to attract new participants (Mora, 2014). The reality is that digital technology came to be used by those actors who always upheld the power of mediation. This leads us to believe that digital media puts forth authority and limitations on popular participation, and it is likely to be working for the maintenance of the status-quo. We should recognize that digital media reinforce political hierarchies, but also use the digital tools to empower people and contest the distribution of political power.

On and offline mobilizations

The more acquainted with participatory tasks and tools available in the web ecology spectrum (e.g. making connection, tagging photos and videos, sharing information and expressing opinions), the more likely an individual can become more engaged in online activities. Nonetheless, it is still unclear how this stops being just the more comfortable, effortless, and even lazy, asynchronous “dicktivism” or “slacktivism” go beyond the awareness stage and translate into synchronous, face-to-face, time and space bounded sophisticated ways of mobilization, demonstration, protest or social auditing actions (Mora, 2014). Apparently, one interesting example about this transition from online to offline mobilization concerns the online humanitarian campaign #DontLookAway, followed by the installation of cages around American cities with figures mimicking migrant children lying in the custody of US immigration officials. These fake cages were installed in the beginning of 2020 by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a non-profit organization that provides free and low-cost legal services to thousands of undeserved immigrant children, families, and refugees in the US.

Facing the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border, where migrant children are kept in cages since 2019, RAICES first launched the campaign on social media platforms in 2020. Afterwards, RAICES tweeted images showing cages around American cities with mannequins under blankets playing recordings of those children detained under US custody. This act was important for the activists to show how deplorable the situation at the border is. In doing so, RAICES reinforced its messages released on social media, appealing to visual representations of the situation as an alternative way to make the American citizens reflect about the humanitarian crisis.

By addressing a statement to the press, the chief advocacy officer for RAICES, Erika Andriola, said that “these horrors at the border are often ignored by the public and politicians. We are asking people to not look away from the terrors enacted in your name“. Placing cages with fake children under a discomforting situation around American cities means to tell the story about what is happening at the border. It is about showing the human pain happening under our eyes. It is intended to make us feel uncomfortable by demanding us a transition from empathy to action.

The Professor of Family Medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the Global Health Initiative, Ranit Mishori, contended that “in the detention centers, migrant children have no access to blankets, bed, clean water, personal hygiene products, and even age-appropriate food and conditions (2020, p. 202)”. She highlights that “the deaths of at least seven children have been attributed to substandard conditions in immigration detention that were associated with dysregulation of circadian rhythms, scabies, and infectious disease outbreaks (2020, p. 202)”.

These pictures of fake children in cages went viral on social media. RAICES placed signs in the cages that read “#DontLookAway.” People who re-posted the images with this hashtag on digital platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook seemed engaged to discuss about the crisis at the border. Since then, #DontLookAway can easily be found in protests signs and banners across demonstrations against the immigration system in the US. In peaceful protests, nationwide movements have been using this hashtag to mobilize civil society against the mistreatment of thousands of migrant families that are being detained in camps with little access to medical services.

Moreover, in Western Europe, some civil society groups also use hashtag campaigns to mobilize efforts against the immigration system. Hashtags like #Refugeeswelcome and #nooneisillegal are often seen on banners in demonstrations and campaigns promoted by people committed to supporting refugees on their integration into European societies. Other hashtags associated with the situation at the Mediterranean Sea, such as #FromSeaToCities and #Leavenoonebehind are promoted online and also present in demonstrations demanding Europeans authorities to develop initiatives and policies of safe passage to end death at sea.

Trought digital media hashtags and protests help the digital activism
Photo credit: Hagen Kopp

These demonstrations taking place across Europe demand local transformations towards more just societies based on corridors of solidarity; societies that are particularly marked by on and offline mobilization against all forms of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism.

For many commentators, the rise of digital media constitutes a process of democratization. Everyone with a smartphone and internet connection can disseminate news. The ensuing dynamics hold the potential to offer balanced views of world politics. We could now get clearer, better and objective insights into world politics (Kaempf, 2018).

In conclusion, group actions – no matter whether activists organize face-to-face, over the phone, or via social networking site – are all faced with challenges. For all these challenges, technology is not the answer, but it should be used as a tool to change the way issues are confronted, making some tasks easier and others more challenging (Sivitanides & Shah, 2011). Therefore, the activist media are ideal laboratory experiments for the process of emancipating consciousness in the collective subject. For an activist media, we observe both education and action, emancipation and resistance (Anderson, 2015).

However, like all other revolutions, it is individual acts, some continuations of existing order, other discontinuous and innovative, that when combined create change. In this digital world, where individuals have more capacity to learn, communicate, contribute and collaborate than ever before, the ability of these individual acts of digital activism also have more potential than ever before to create a real change (Sivitanides & Shah, 2011).

For this to happen, we should become more media-literate and more interested in the transition from online to offline mobilization. We must also be well-aware of the political dynamics inherent to the power of mediation that determine what we get to see and know and which we do not and how this happens to shape our political imagination concerning humanitarian problems.


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Sobre o Autor

Doutor em Relações Internacionais pela Universidade de Lisboa

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