There’s a page on Facebook that explores people’s stories like no other. The wall is covered with pictures; There’s the eccentric old lady, the man with pain behind his eyes, and the children trussed up in their Sunday best. At first glance, the page might seem like another street style blog or the portfolio of a portrait photographer. Look closer and you’ll see that the wildly popular page has over 17 million followers, draws comments from the likes of Obama, and boasts an engaged and (mostly) respectful community. Delve even closer and you’ll find one of the most powerful displays of storytelling, and indeed human vulnerability, on the internet. With a cool 15 million more followers than the official page for the United Nations, Humans of New York seems to be striking a chord with the scrolling masses.
With a lens that had been firmly focused on the people of the New York City sidewalk, it wasn’t until Stanton turned his camera to the refugee crisis that I realised the power he held in his hands. The sad fact is that statistics don’t mean much to the average person anymore; the UN estimates there are 6.5 million people displaced in Syria, while 3 million refugees have already fled. Even the way we talk about refugees is in mass- living in camps, struggling at borders, and arriving in boatloads on Lesvos. What Stanton did was give the gift of individuality. His photos and stories meant that faces started emerging out of the horde; faces that showed pain, eyes that cried tears, hands that clutched at family members and feet that ran from the horrors of a very real war.
On Sept the 2nd, at 6:30 am, two Turkish locals came across a little body lying face down in the sand; A Turkish press photographer took a picture of the body. The photo spread like wildfire across new sources, Facebook, and Twitter with data showing it spread to 20 million screens in just 24 hours. Charities like The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, reported a 15-fold increase in donations. The hashtag #kiyiyavuraninsanlik (which translates as ‘Humanity washed ashore’) was used over 200,000 times. In my opinion, the most interesting thing that happened during this time was discovered by Google’s News Lab data journalism team. Using data provided, the team were able to identify a sudden and unexpected shift in the way people were using language around the issue of migration on social media- people started using the term ‘refugees’ rather than the term ‘migrants’ on social media.
The reality is that thousands of refugees had done the same boat crossing. They had paid people smugglers, gotten into leaky vessels, and clung to each other as their boat struggled against waves, storms, and overcrowding. Hundreds of people had also lost their lives. Thousands of news articles have been written about the crisis. It was little Aylan Kurdi, whose picture covered our social media pages, that was credited as the boy who “changed everything.” Mothers remarked how his little body reminded them of their children tucked up safely in their cots. Others mentioned how it pulled their heartstrings because they finally had a face to all the suffering that was splashed across the news. Whatever it made people feel, Aylan Kurdi was more than a body; he was a story that jerked at the very core of human nature.
Like all good stories, people love a happy ending. Good dethroning evil using the tools of democracy and free speech. In countries where free speech in the media isn’t an option, new media has seemingly stepped up to the task. Armed with VPN’s and pseudonyms, the bloggers of the Arab Spring uprising across the middle east, have since been credited (either rightly, or wrongly so) as being at the frontline of the protests, demonstrations, and spread of information. The social platforms were not only being used to organize and live stream the protests, but bloggers across the area harnessed these new sources of media to spread the deeper story- data showed that social media use in Arab countries doubled during the uprisings. By breaking through the regime’s handle on traditional media sources, bloggers were able to spread the story, make it personal, and in doing so, put fuel on the fire that leads to social change.
What started at the keyboard, ended in the street; Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in the landmark Tahrir Square in protest against the then president Hosni Mubarak. Over the next couple of weeks, millions of people took to the street to raise their voices against the oppression and poverty that had accompanied Mubarak’s 30-year rule. After 17 days of protests, Mubarak stepped down and the there was huge celebrations with activists proclaiming the rise of a new Egypt – which, let’s face it, didn’t happen. Regardless of its success, looking at the role of citizen journalism and social media during the Arab Spring has revealed something very interesting. Said best by Tomchak of BBC Trending “ Social media is a place for political, cultural and social change… and it is also one of the newest weapons in war.”
There’s no doubt that social media is changing the way the world interacts with social justice causes. Whether it’s just ‘slacktivism’ or true change, the last ten years have shown that it can be used as a tool that is powerful enough to unseat presidents, raise millions, and even change language and perception around a cause. Storytelling has always been a part of our lives. It is used to entertain, to caution, to spread news, and to connect with one another. They are the solution to the curiosity we have about one another, even when we don’t say a word to each other on the street. With social media comes the ability to disseminate stories further and quicker than ever before. We hear the stories as they happen and favor people’s accounts over the journalist standing in front of a new story. The Snapchat of the attack is shared millions of times while few tune into the news.
Whether it’s the story of 30-years of governmental corruption and its subsequent ‘end’, a photo that communicates the devastating story of the desperation of the refugee crisis, or individual snippets that give us an insight of the stories of normal people we pass every day on the street, I believe that social change won’t come from facts, figures, and information. It will come from stories. We will always be okay if we keep telling each other stories, and social media is the tool that will facilitate that.