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Lene Hansen: Social media and International Politics in the Information Age

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

Lene Hansen, Professor of the University of Copenhagen

Lene Hansen is professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. She is the author of Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War (Routledge, 2006) and co-author (with Barry Buzan) of The Evolution of International Security Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Her current research focuses on visual international politics, gender and security, critical security studies, discourse analysis and foreign policy, as well as critical methods and world politics.

Social media and International Politics in the Information Age

1. In your article “Images, Emotions and International Politics:The Death of Alan Kurdi”, you mention that images can connect the emotions of individuals to the larger collective emotions of communities. Do you think images are controllable in their function? To what extent do they have unpredictable impacts?

The death of Alan Kurdi - the three year old Kurdish-Syrian boy, who drowned in early September, 2015 - tells us that images are both controllable and uncontrollable. The photos of Kurdi were made to be important by a wide range of media and users of media, and politicians throughout Europe and North America were called upon to respond.

In the article you mention, which I co-authored with Rebecca Adler-Nissen and Katrine Emilie Andersen, we trace the process through which the photographs of Alan Kurdi became an instant iconic image. The photo of Kurdi, lying on the beach, was first circulated through social media, then quickly picked up by mainstream news media. In another article called “The Visual International Politics of the European Refugee Crisis: Tragedy, humanitarianism, borders” just published in the journal Cooperation and Conflict, which also deals with the way that the European refugee crisis has been visualized, we examine on-line news stories in 14 European newspapers. Here we found that they used a photo of Kurdi being picked up by Turkish policeman, rather than the one of Kurdi alone on the beach. On social media, within days many people where adding their own images of Kurdi, for example by making drawings showing him as an angel.

The photos of Kurdi had an impact in that some countries, the US and the UK for instance promised to take more refugees fleeing the war in Syria. The EU also agreed to a plan for the redistribution of refugees within the EU. But the photo of Kurdi was also pointed to when Turkey and the EU made an agreement in March 2016, which effectively closed the migration route from Turkey to the Greek islands. The impact of the photos on European migration policy was thus complex.

It is hard to predict beforehand exactly which images have such an impact as those of Kurdi. Impact depends not just on what is shown within an image, but on there being citizens, media and politicians who draw our attention to it. We have also found in our recent article in Cooperation and Conflict that there was some continuity in the policy discourses that were put forth in respond to Kurdi if we compare with the policy discourses from 2013 to 2015: there was a recurring concern with controlling the border of the EU as well as with the humanitarian tragedies of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

2. Is there an accidental nature to iconic images like Kurdi’s?

Most iconic photographs have an accidental nature to them in the sense that there needs to be someone present at the scene with a camera. There are far more cameras around today than 20 years ago as cell phones have the capacity to take photographs and record videos. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis a year ago became known to the world through the video recorded by someone passing by. The term “citizen journalism” has been coined to express how citizens capture such situations, especially when there are no professional photojournalists present. Still, even if far more events can be documented visually today, it would be problematic to assume that we have images of everything. For example, violence can happen in the private sphere where there is no one to capture what is going on, as feminist researchers have pointed out.

3. You mentioned that social media plays an important role in Kurdi’s case, do you think international communication will be more dominant in the future?

Looking to the case of Kurdi, it is hard not to say yes. Social media played such a prominent role in circulating the original photo as well as the many images that redrew and recreated that photo. It is also hard not to image that those companies that produce technologies through which images can be produced and circulated will not continue to explore how we can have more communication. What is important about images is also that they can communicate across linguistic borders in ways that words cannot. That said, “international communication” is a complex political terrain. We have social media and citizen journalists expanding who and what can be communicated, but we also have governments who follow such developments and who attempt to control what images can be seen and also how one should interpret the images that one does see.

4. What is the relationship between images, emotions, and international politics? To what extent the emotions conveyed by images may drive the formulation of foreign policy, or that the formulation of foreign policy may accelerate the dissemination of emotions conveyed by images?

The saying that “an image says more than a thousand words” is a good illustration of how images can speak to our emotions in powerful ways. There are, as we lay out in more detail in the article on the Kurdi photos, multiple ways that emotions can be studied. One body of research examines emotions as responses that happens (or not) at the level of the individual psyche. Another body of research examines emotions as social, more specifically as emotional responses constituted in discourse. We add to this second body of research. We highlight the emotional responses that took place as citizens on social media and politicians addressing the public spoke about how they had been touched by the photographs of Kurdi. We found that a range of emotions were described – pity as well as anger for example – and they were “bundled” in a call for preventing other children from drowning like Kurdi. We use the concept of “emotional potentiality” to highlight that some images have the capacity to invoke emotions and that emotional responses can generate calls for foreign policies to be put in place. This “potential” needs however to be brought out by citizens, journalists, and politicians who speak and/or act emotionally in public, by crying for example. The connection between images, emotions and foreign policy is thus, in short, established by actors and a

Interviewer: Deng Yuelin

Interview date: June 3, 2021



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