nation: Syria

On September 2, the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach circulated internationally on social media. Amid discussions of whether or not it was ethical to post, tweet, and share such a heart-wrenching image, The New York Times rightly noted that the powerful image has spurred international public attention to a crisis that has been ongoing for years. As Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali said:

“Once again, it is not the sheer size of the catastrophe—millions upon millions forced by war and desperation to leave their homes—but a single tragedy that has clarified the moment.”

The conflict in Syria has lasted almost five years now. With more than half the population forced to leave, the United Nations reported that the Syrian conflict now represents the largest displacement crisis in the world. Over 12 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. And almost half of those displaced are children. Like Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked Arab Spring (and, coincidentally, the current civil war in Syria), the image of Aylan, too, has the capacity to change the world. Bouazizi was not the first person to set himself alight in protest, just as Aylan was not the first child to wash ashore on Mediterranean beaches.

Indeed, those who have been following the refugee crisis over the past four years have viewed countless tragic images. But there is — for the moment, at least — something significant about this particular photograph. It could be because the image is deceptively peaceful, failing to reflect the violence that pushed his parents to flee or the family’s terrifying experience at sea that ultimately led to the deaths of Aylan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan. It may also be because of his clothing: red shirt, blue shorts, and Velcro sneakers. He could be anyone’s son, brother, nephew.

Aylan’s image has galvanized attention from around the world, especially the West. The public’s concern and outrage after the photo circulated on social media has already had a significant impact on the refugee crisis. This single tragedy has become the symbol of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. The image and subsequent public outcry has led to an increase in charitable donations, impacted election campaigns, and prompted the public to demand more of their governments, resulting in Western nations around the world pledging to increase the number of refugees they will take.

Although it is unfortunate that it takes something as tragic as the body of a boy lying alone on a beach to solidify public resolve, it is also an important reminder that we are, as Goffman suggested, “dangerous giants.” We have the capacity to enact change on a level that is difficult to imagine as an individual.

The graph below shows Twitter activity both before and after the photo of Aylan went viral. Tweet volume about Syria has more than doubled since the world was shown the image.  Tweets welcoming refugees from the region showed and even larger increase. And, although tweets with Aylan’s name appear to have been short-lived, perhaps the international attention they produced can be harnessed as people are forced to learn more about why this tragedy occurred and pledge support.

When we georeference and map tweets containing the hashtags #RefugeesWelcome and #AylanKurdi, we can also see how this unfolded around the world. Twitter is a crude measure of impact.  Yet, just as Barnard and Shoumali suggested, a single tragedy amidst a conflict that has led to the deaths of so many seems to have helped to capture the attention of the world. See the snapshot of Twitter activity around the world using the hashtags #AylanKurdi (green) and #RefugeesWelcome (blue) two days after the photograph went viral (below):

So, can an image of a child change the world? Typically, no. But, a powerful image under the right conditions might have an impact no one could have predicted.

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Tara Leigh Tober and Tristan Bridges are sociologists at the College at Brockport (SUNY). You can follow them on at @tristanbphd and @tobertara.

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

On Thursday Syria’s internet was shut down.

This is a serious situation with literal life and death implications.  Much of this story has yet to play out. Right now, I want to take a moment to explore one aspect of what this all means. Namely, I want to explore the question: why did the internet shut off now? To do so, I turn to Derrick Bell’s interest convergence theory.

Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence is a canonical statement on race relations. Bell famously argues that whites promote racial justice only when doing so converges with their own interests. The key example is the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education case, in which racial integration in schools served the larger U.S. message within the Cold War of human rights, freedom, and equality.

Although many scholars critique the strong version of Bell’s argument for its failure to incorporate agency among blacks, the root of the argument is quite useful in explaining power relations. In short, interest convergence theory tells us that the will of the powerful wades towards the direction of self-interest. When these interests converge with those of the less powerful, the less powerful are better able to achieve their will.

To a degree, I think this framework helps us understand the decision of the Syrian government to shut down communication channels. Syrian rebels utilized digital communication channels to both organize among themselves, and share their experiences — often in real time — with the outside world. This was instrumental in their cause both on the ground and internationally. The real question then, is why did the government maintain these channels for so long? This question is particularly blaring in light of extreme government atrocities, including mass killings of innocent citizens — including children. Moreover, why did the government decide to cut off these channels now?

Internet and communication blackouts are not unique among the Arab uprisings. Egypt and Libyan governments both shut down communication during their respective battles. The Syrian government, however, is unique in its deft use of digital technologies to quash protests, locate dissidents, and suppress the movement. In short, the interests of the powerful (i.e. the government) converged with the less powerful (i.e. the rebels). In addition to appearing somehow less oppressive to the international community, we see here a possible reason for maintaining Internet capabilities despite their strategic importance in the rebel movement.

However, we may speculate that the costs got too high for the government. We may speculate that in light a persistent rebel force, culminating in massive protests in Damascus — so large that the major airport had to be shut down — it no longer served governmental interests to maintain digital connectivity. The interests of the powerful and the less powerful no longer converged.

Certainly, there are other factors in play. This is a minuscule fraction of the story. With that said, this framework suggests that perhaps today’s act by the Syrian government was one of desperation. They were forced to give up a key oppressive resource (digital communication capabilities). This resource was no longer adequately effective for keep the uprising at bay. Now, they must all battle in the dark.


Jenny Davis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University, where she studies the intersection of culture and identity. You can follow her twitter feed at @Jup83.