I first saw the picture of three-year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi on Bodrum beach on September the 2nd on Twitter. It felt like getting punched in the stomach.
But while I was shocked by it, I didn’t realise how impactful it was going to be until the next day, when the same image started to pop up in my Facebook newsfeed.
While on Twitter I read the news headlines carrying the picture and reporting the tragedy, on Facebook it was easier to stumble upon the social context of that picture: the comments of the people who were seeing the image and were debating immigration.
And that’s when I noticed that the comments seemed to have a different tone from the conversation we had been seeing in the press and social media until then. A lot more people now seemed to be talking about “refugees” rather than “migrants”.
The shift, if that was the case, could have been significant: a “migrant” is someone who’s got a choice (and according to some, often an “economical” reason to move) while a “refugee” is someone who has no choice but to flee his country to survive. The term that the politicians, the media and the people would end up adopting to talk about the issue would have had massive implications in terms of humanitarian aid and policy making.
So was public opinion changing as a result of exposure to the picture of Aylan Kurdi on Bodrum beach? We turned to Twitter Full Archive Search to find out.
The answer is in the chart above. While for most of 2015 “migrants” and “refugees” are head to head in public opinion accounting for pretty much the same volume of conversation (5.2M vs 5.3M), from September the 2nd onward public opinion radically flips towards “refugees” (2.9M vs 6.5M) and at the moment of writing, almost one month after the pictures were published, the new ratio remains constant.
I think I’ve never presented a one-slide deck before but this one chart was definitely enough to spark a great discussion last night at Social Data London x Twitter UK.
This first data snapshot is part of a larger study we are conducting at the Visual Social Media Lab on the images of Aylan Kurdi. This rapid response project – involving researchers from the lab as well as elsewhere – seeks to explore the role of social media in the contemporary creation of iconic images and how they impact public opinion. For more details on the study head over to the Visual Social Media Lab site, we aim to release early findings in October.