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Tragic boy Aylan's image saw 'refugee' word outstrip 'migrant' in tweets - study

Published 15/12/2015

The migration debate language changed after the image of tragic infant Aylan Kurdi appeared on 20 million screens in 12 hours, a study found
The migration debate language changed after the image of tragic infant Aylan Kurdi appeared on 20 million screens in 12 hours, a study found

The shocking image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach transformed the language of the European migration debate as it appeared on 20 millions screens around the world in just 12 hours, according to new social media analysis.

Researchers at Sheffield University have analysed nearly three million posts which appeared in the wake of the first publication of the terrible photograph in September.

The team said initial postings by a handful of journalists soon went viral with 53,000 tweets per hour - a social media storm which saw a transformation of the language around what was happening in Europe, with uses of the word "refugee" suddenly outstripping "migrant".

Farida Vis, director of Sheffield University's Visual Social Media Lab, said: "As soon as we saw the image and the response we felt that something extraordinary was happening.

Dr Vis said: "We wanted to measure the impact these images have had on the wider public debate about the status of migrants and refugees. Our analysis clearly shows that this story not only engaged a global audience, but that it changed the way social media users talked about the issue of immigration."

She said: " We show how a handful of tweets by journalists on the ground grew into a staggering 53,000 tweets per hour as interest in the story went viral."

Dr Vis and her team used data provided and analysed by the lab's private sector partner, Pulsar.

Francesco D'Orazio, vice-president of product and research at Pulsar, said: "For most of 2015, the use of the words migrants and refugees was head to head in public conversation, accounting for pretty much the same volume over nine months - 5.2 million tweets versus 5.3 million tweets.

"From September 2 onward this radically flipped. The numbers swing dramatically towards a clear focus on refugees - 2.9 million tweets and 6.5 million tweets."

Dr D'Orazio added: "Twitter's ability to act as a catalyst has connected emerging stories and relevant people, helping to develop and connect those audiences on a global scale and make a story go mainstream before the international press has even started to officially cover it.

"But we shouldn't forget that it was the journalists on the ground that broke the story on Twitter and through the social platform put it in front of the right audience."

Google's News Lab data journalism team in California analysed millions of searches around the death of Aylan, also known as Alan, to show how, when and where the world started searching and what they were looking for.

Simon Rogers, data editor at Google's News Lab, said the earliest identifiable search interest in Aylan's case actually came before the significant volume of tweets, as people started to search for background on the case. Immediately afterwards, it spread across the globe.

Dr Claire Wardle, research director at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and one of the report's authors, said: "2015 was the year the Syrian refugee crisis hit the European consciousness, but it's easy to forget that this was not the case before the Aylan Kurdi image.

"In April, over 700 refugees and migrants lost their lives when their boat capsized off Lampedusa. After one day of coverage, the story disappeared, despite the tragic loss of life.

"The photo of Aylan Kurdi galvanised the public in a way that hours of broadcasts and thousands of column inches wasn't able to do. It has created a frame through which subsequent coverage has been positioned and compared."

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