The iconic image on social media: a rapid research response to the death of Aylan Kurdi
After a few weeks of super-intense work we are very excited to finally share the new report from the Visual Social Media Lab a project in collaboration with four universities in the UK aimed at developing cutting edge multi-disciplinary methodologies and tools to better understand the visual aspects of social media.
The new study focuses on the images framing one of the biggest issues of 2015 – the flight of Syrian refugees to Europe – made highly visible by the photographs of three-year old Aylan Kurdi lying face-down on a beach in Turkey and then picked up by a Turkish police officer following an unsuccessful attempt by his family to reach Greece in early September.
The report features contributions from the Visual Social Media Lab (including our very own Francesco D’Orazio), Google News Lab (Simon Rogers), Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University (Claire Wardle), WITNESS (Sam Gregory) and other leading researchers.
Twitter recently announced that #RefugeesWelcome was one of the most influential moments of 2015 on the platform. Francesco D’Orazio’s contribution, Journey of an Image, focuses on how the images of Aylan Kurdi spread on Twitter during the first 12 hours from one tweet in Turkey to over 20 million screens around the world.
The study shows how these images had a huge impact on language use, with users shifting from the term ‘migrants’ to ‘refugees’ overnight. It also shows how Twitter was instrumental in the distribution of these images, making the story go global and mainstream before the official international press published the first news article.
Findings from Google News Lab highlight a similar pattern around the increased use of the term ‘refugees’. It also shows how people were already searching for Aylan Kurdi before news started to spread via the international press.
However, the data also shows how it was the professional journalists, and not just simply the general Twitter audience, who activated the viral distribution of the images. Twitter’s ability to act as a catalyst connected emerging stories with relevant audiences, helped develop and connect those audiences on a global scale and made the story go mainstream before the international press had even started to officially cover it. But we should not forget that it was the journalists on the ground who broke the story on Twitter, and through the social platform put it in front of the right audience, facilitating a very effective and optimised diffusion dynamic.
Why did these images become meaningful? The report draws on the expertise of 15 contributors from the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, industry and nonprofit organisations to address this wider question from different angles, across four sections in the report:
- Social Media Responds – studies how the image spread on social media and what people searched for on Google. It looks at specific stories and image use.
- What Did the Image Do? – addresses media coverage of personal, political and artistic responses as well as different political responses in the UK and Norway.
- The Iconic Image on Social Media – uses longstanding visual traditions (the iconography of suffering, war and press photography) to understand the images.
- Showing/Not Showing the Image – includes a timely discussion on ethics, publishing decisions for graphic images as well as the changing role of platforms.
We will be publishing Francesco D’Orazio’s Journey of an Image on our blog in full tomorrow but you can already access the full report here
Here’s how the press is responding to the report:
For any questions do reach out to Francesco on Twitter at @abc3d or email him at email@example.com.