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How sad photos on our Instagram account mainly say something about ourselves

Irene Schoenmacker,
21 april 2022 - 13:52

The pathetic and heartbreaking war images we share on social media are more about our own emotions than the wars themselves. This is the conclusion of UvA PhD student Marloes Geboers.

In September 2015, the Syrian Kurdi family boarded an inflatable boat in Turkey that was supposed to take the family to the Greek island of Kos. But shortly after departure, the boat capsizes and mother and her two sons are killed. The images of Aylan, only three years old, lying on his stomach in the waves on a Turkish beach, are sent around the world.

“We can identify in a certain way with the image of Aylan”

In her dissertation, researcher Marloes Geboers, who will receive her PhD at the UvA on 21 April, investigated how we deal with suffering at a distance on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: bad events that take place far away. She took the Syrian war as a case for her research and analysed, among other things, the photos that were made of the tragedy of the Kurdi family.
Remarkably, Aylan is not the only one photographed that day in September. His brother Ghalib, five years old, was also a few hundred meters away. How is it, Geboers wanted to know, that the image of Aylan went viral within minutes, and that the photo of Ghalib is etched in no one's memory?
The answer is both simple and a bit uncomfortable, according to Geboers' dissertation: images that are popular on social media almost always have something recognisable. "We can identify with the image of Aylan in a certain way," says Geboers. “Ghalib was lying face up, while Aylan was lying on his stomach with his face down, as if he were sleeping. This is an attitude that we are familiar with because that is how children lie in bed. Artists edited the photo so that Aylan indeed appears to be sleeping in a bed. It is the recognisability that made this photo go viral.”


More likes
Social media works according to “a mechanism whose design is completely focused on popularity and generating attention”, says Geboers. The more people like and share Aylan's photo, the more image is distributed and thus viewed.
“That is also the intention of Facebook. In the end it is just a company, with commercial interests,” says Geboers. "As a result, Aylan's original news photo is increasingly prominent and other photos, such as his brother's, are being pushed aside. The peak of emotions only lasts for a moment, then it's time for other pathetic photos or images.”

“To earn our empathy, refugees seem to have certain characteristics”

At the same time, Geboers' dissertation shows that sharing such a photo also says something about the viewer himself: you not only show the image, but also how you relate to it as a Twitterer or Instagrammer. As a result, the suffering depicted shifts to the background and the emotion of the social media user becomes more and more central.
Emotion of the viewer
“I don't necessarily want to make a value judgment about that,” says Geboers, “because magnifying one's own emotions is also exactly why such a platform as Instagram or Facebook was founded. But it also ensures that the image in question, the drowned Aylan, disappears into the background. That way we don't really get around to telling the complex stories about, for example, the political message of this photo.”
The danger of this is that you will not get past this first wave of emotions if you read few other stories and spend a lot of time on social media, says Geboers. After all, your attention is constantly being swallowed by new photos that ask for likes or shares. Social media is built for a quick glance. That is why identification is so important, because a connection with the public has to be made quickly.”
AC Milan
In other words, Geboers writes in her dissertation, “it seems that to earn empathy, refugees must display certain character traits that indicate how they 'are like us', and only then can we muster empathy and solidarity.” An example is a photo of a Syrian girl holding up her house keys which bear the AC Milan football club logo. "Such an image has an enormous reach, especially among football fans, precisely because of the recognisability of the logo," says Geboers.
What people may not realsze is that the social media companies ultimately set the rules. "They only provide a few buttons with which you can express your emotion," says Geboers. “For example, Facebook does not have a fear button, and that was a  very conscious decision. An article that instills fear does not hold attention. People who are happy or angry stay longer on your platform, so you want to feed that as a company. Ultimately, we as users are a product and we are sold to advertisers. So on social media we see an incomplete picture of how we feel. That in itself is not a bad thing, as long as everyone is aware of this bias.”
Marloes Geboers will receive her PhD at the UvA on 21 April. A livestream of her PhD award ceremonty can be followed via this link.