Why You can Never Stop Tweeting Support for Refugees: The News, The Fear, The Refugee who Sees You

Refugee advocates have some tireless tweeters in their ranks. The hashtag #refugees already numbered in the hundreds at 7:30 a.m. (EDT) today. And that all seems fitting given that 25.9 million refugees live in the world (as of 2018), “the highest ever seen” according to our friends at UNHCR.

When I saw that huge number early this week, I wondered whether Twitter advocacy makes any meaningful impact on refugee lives. I’ve read several blog posts offering a “take” on this question, and the approach is almost unanimous: They frame it up as a debate about the impact of “slacktivism.” The term sort of gives away their argument in the end.

But I want researched answers. Do we have actual input on this question of impact, that is based on evidence by people trained to discern it? The answer, thank goodness, is yes.

I’ve just spent a week looking at great research done by folks asking similar questions about refugees and social media. The results, I have to say, are a little embarrassing for the “slacktivist” critics, at least in the case of refugee advocacy.

As it turns out, if you are tweeting support for refugees (or doing really anything on social media that advocates for them), you are making such an impact that you can never stop. Here’s why:

Your Tweets Shape News Coverage and Policy Change on the Ground

News time and political time on refugees directly relates to Twitter activity about them. The less time Twitter gives to refugees, the less time news outlets give.

The level and intensity of news coverage and political debate on refugees correlates with activity on Twitter.  A comparative study focused on May to December 2015, for example, showed such a strong correlation, the  researchers described the news  as “a mediator between the actual refugee situation and the reaction to it on Twitter.” And then there is the data on the hashtags #migrantcrisis and #refugeeswelcome, which shows how these forms of Twitter discourse infiltrated offline discourse at the highest political level, largely because of their surge in use online.

Building off these studies, it seems that tweets about refugees are part of a circle of exposure where refugee advocates complete the gap in two places. The news and politicians want to talk about what concerns the people. But social media is increasingly the gauge for determining that concern. So, if you stop tweeting about refugees, the news is more likely to move on to another story and another issue, even while refugee numbers rise. Keep on tweeting to keep up the exposure.

Your Tweets Calm Online Spikes in Anger and Anxiety toward all Refugees

A dangerous level of negative sentiment thrives otherwise.

“Sentiment” studies on Twitter are very popular right now, and the reason is clear: emotions about offline events are a big driver of online social media activity. We see it especially in the case of terrorist attacks. People go online to vent their anger, fear, and anxiety after these events. Most often, they direct those sentiments at the same scapegoat—refugees as a collective.

Research is showing that this sentiment can be calmed. For example, there’s intriguing data from Twitter surrounding the Paris and Cologne attacks in 2015. Negative sentiment, measured in both English and German, spiked directly after each attack and was often pointed at refugees. But there were also periods of “calm” in the sentiment. They were longer in the German case and more fluctuated in the English, but both related to a counter-flow of fact-based information about refugees.

The takeaway here is that your tweets help direct anger to where it belongs after traumatizing events like terrorist attacks. You may not be the cure, but you take the temperature down.

Your Tweets Make Refugees Feel more Comfortable in their New Environment

You’re not just talking about refugees when you tweet your support; you’re talking to them.

Refugees see your tweets. A study at the Asylum Seekers Center in Amsterdam reveals that Twitter and other social media channels are major tools that refugees use to interact with their host country. It’s a big part of their early days navigating the monotonous daily life in an asylum center. They spend a lot of time on social media trying to learn a language, find support services, form new friendships, and generally navigate their new territory. The average time cited was seven hours a day.

Here’s where you come in: Many refugees in this study said that seeing refugee-positive social media played a big role in their sense of belonging. They frequently mentioned online interactions with host country natives on social media as part of their daily experience.  One interviewee, for example, talked about the “positive influence” and “emotional support” that exchanges within an intercultural Facebook community provided for him.

It adds some offline reality to the virtual, knowing that refugees may depend on social media for gauging what their experience will be like beyond the walls of an asylum center. Your tweets are a part of their experience.


You’re making an impact on the lives of refugees.

Research shows us that the cynics are simply wrong when it comes to the impact of online advocacy for refugees. If this is slacktivism, I hope it never stops.

The Social Diplomat is a series of posts showing how recent research on social media and development can help Twitter users connect the public to the work of the UN and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Tarah Van De Wiele

Dr. Tarah Van De Wiele is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania. She specializes in the sustainability market and movement. When she isn't writing, she's reading any book that is too long and needs a map of its fantasy world. She's also well-trained by her dogs.

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