In this study we will examine how the internet and social media in particular can be used to affect our reality and create real world phenomena. The example that we will focus upon will be that of migratory flows and how the internet can be used for their incentivisation, coordination and guidance. To achieve that we will first refer to the theories behind how a migratory movement is created before going into detail about how these theories merge with modern technologies and the internet to accomplish such a result.
Our study of the theory of migration will focus on the creation of organic migratory flows, id est migratory flows that are generated and sustained by themselves (in other words “by migrants for migrants”) and not on migratory movements created by external means as is, for example, Counsellor Merkel’s open invitation to EU in 2015. The reason for this is to show and explain how a network of migrants can organically be set up from scratch with the goal of aiding people who are virtually strangers to each other reach their country of destination and how modern technologies can facilitate that. The politics and policies of professional politicians on the other hand, even though they can very well create real world effects, can also lack these organic elements that a sociological study focuses on, since they are usually the product of personal ideology in an attempt to sustain or increase one’s popularity with the aim of furthering one’s political career.
As such, despite the fact that many examples of our study will be from the 2015 Syrian migratory movement, our focus will be set on how this movement is internally organised (and potentially manipulated) through social media and not on whose politics and policies are affecting it (since the study of that would fall wildy outside the spectrum of this paper).
Migration and Social Capital
Before attempting to see real life examples of how modern technologies have affected migratory movements we must first understand how said movements are created and sustained in the absence of these.
Given an example from nature, it can be said that human migratory movements are generated the same way that an ant colony makes a decision on what to forage for its sustenance. As a single or a group of worker ants will deviate from the beaten path and will attempt to explore new areas for potential food sources so will a single or a group of “pioneer” migrants decide to journey to a new country which could provide the things they seek (e.g. better financial opportunities, safety, freedom, respect for fundamental human rights, etc.).
Returning to the ant example, when the above mentioned ants locate a new, tastier and healthier resource they will carry it back home so their siblings can examine it for themselves and judge if this new source of nutrition is worth the travel to the area that it was discovered and if lines of worker ants should be mobilised to acquire more of it. Likewise, when the “pioneer” migrants finally manage to settle in a new country which satisfies their needs in a better fashion than their country of origin and when, subsequently, news of their successful journey reaches their country of origin then more of their compatriots will decide to move to this new location in order to partake in all the things that it has to offer, thus organically generating a migratory flow.
The example of worker ants was not chosen to denigrate or dehumanise those in search of a better life someplace else but in order to show the natural mechanisms behind occurrences like these and how, through the actions of a few daring individuals and the new information that they relay back, thousands of loosely connected souls can collectively decide to take similar action.
Even though migrations and colonisation efforts are not something exclusive to modernity it is the first time that movements like these are mainly generated through independent, individual decisions with collective results without any collective deliberations. In ancient Athens for example, the matter of creating a new colony was put to popular vote as well as who will be sent there. In other cases, migration was chosen collectively as an immediate response to natural catastrophes or serious threats. The Goths did not decide one by one, as individuals, to abandon their homes above the Black Sea and seek better fortune southwards, within the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Rather, they were forcefully uprooted by the invading Huns as a community. Their migratory movement was not the result of the decision made by a few “pioneers” who relayed the success of their journey back home inspiring others to come in contact with them and undertake it as well. It was a decision that was deliberated and decided upon collectively all at once by the local communities or was made by the local leader(s).
According to MacDonald’s “chain migration” modern migrant networks are created by spearheading migrants who are the first to make the journey and thus establish a path for others to follow. New migrants will come in contact with these “veterans” and will follow in their footsteps since the costs, risks and dangers of this path which lays ahead of them are already known, making it a safer option. This creates a self-sustaining system in which migrants will choose to migrate in places where they have established contacts even if the cost-benefit ratio of this journey has been greatly diminished since the time of the first migrants to travel there. It is these contacts that make the creation of a migration network possible and feed into its system. With that in mind, we understand why according to Tilly “the effective units of migration were (and are) neither individuals nor households but sets of people linked by acquaintance, kinship, and work experience” (Tilly,1990) since successful “pioneers” who exist in a vacuum can hardly influence or aid anyone else to follow their path.
Talk of the establishment of migrant networks and the key role they provide in migratory flows goes hand in hand with talk of social capital. Social capital is “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (Bourdieu,1985) and is the explanation behind the effectiveness of migrant networks. Social capital refers to the links that tie a network of people together and the resources that it has at its disposal (or is able to generate if it needs to) so as to aid its members achieve their goals. In the case of migrant networks it’s not so much the material resources that the network can provide (e.g. money, housing, etc.) but rather, the information and experience it has collectively acquired. If we take that now into the age of social media, we can begin to grasp the strength and bounty of resources collected and offered by modern, online, migrant networks, housed within social media platforms in the form of pages/groups.
Social capital is therefore necessary in the process of data pooling and information sharing within migrant networks through social media. It should be emphasised that even though the mere existence of an online social media network does not automatically mean the existence of social capital, it does give the individual however the opportunity to explore and partake in its collective resources, experience and contacts. The basis for the creation of these networks and for the aggregation of social capital lies in bonds generated by common origin, kinship and friendship (Massey et al,1998) as well as “bridges” among different migrant groups which allow a two-way flow of new data between them. “Bridges” such as these are vital in the creation of a fuller image of the destination country while they also play part in the discovery of new possible migration destinations through the experiences shared by “pioneer” migrants who have already settled there.
As social media platforms were originally created to bring people together, it is of little surprise that migrants who have reached their destination make use of their features in order to come in contact with their “pioneer” compatriots in order to ask for further advice. This results in the creation of new information “bridges” between the newly arrived migrants and the “veterans” who have already found a way to settle in their destination country. These “bridges” have the potential of evolving into strong ties and can even spawn brand new networks of information sharing and data pooling.
One example of this has been recorded by Dekker and Engbersen during an interview with a Ukrainian migrant in the Netherlands who experienced the following: “When I first arrived in the Netherlands, I also went looking on the internet. There are some sites from people who migrated here. People have a lot of questions and pose them there. I tried to figure out some things that were new to me here in the Netherlands so at first I went to those sites a lot. […] There is a Dutch website made by a Russian lady who has lived in the Netherlands for a long time. Many people visit this site.” (Dekker and Engbersen, 2012). This is a prime example on how perfect strangers in a new country can come together through social media so as to form networks and share information while creating “bridges” and new bonds in the process, all on the basis of common origin.
The information shared through these networks has been proven so potent that it can bypass national efforts to curb the flow of human trafficking and illegal migration by constantly supplying their users with “backstage” information, crucial to their journeys. Such information includes things such as the acquisition of legal resident status, potential jobs (both legal and illegal) and employers in the destination country, how and where to find accommodation and optimal border crossing points for those who wish to enter the country illegally.
As we will see in the case of the “Road to Germany” map later on, the existence of such networks and online groups/pages, the data they have pooled and the info circulation they have established can alter the travelling migrants’ behaviour so they can adapt to overcome new obstacles along their way. They are also incentivising new people to migrate thus feeding into this self-sustaining system. It should also be stressed that these unofficial/“backstage” information sources are of immense value especially to irregular migrants who, due to their legal status, cannot consult official state sources and structures. In the light of this, it is evident why many prospective migrants as well as migrants who have already reached their destination seek information through such channels.
“There [Orkut group – Brasileiros na Holanda] you find an exchange of information on your rights, the consulate, the language. Everything. Schools. (Miguel, 36, migrated from Brazil to the Netherlands in 2009 to work)” (Dekker and Engbersen, 2012).
“I know there is an online group Brasileiros na Holanda. Sometimes people ask there where they can stay or where they can go. They are discreet in a way. Interviewer: How? Well, they do not ask whether I am legal for example. (Letícia, 46, migrated from Brazil to the Netherlands in 1989 as a dancer)” (Dekker and Engbersen, 2012).
Overall, it can be said that social media can spawn and host migrant networks which in turn create data pools and information flows necessary for the decision making process of a prospective, travelling and/or already landed migrant. Through the information shared among these networks, migrants can make more informed decisions regarding their journey, country of destination and settling process by having a better understanding of the opportunities that await them as well as the risks involved and how to effectively deal with them.
Having examined the social science behind these migrant networks, we will now proceed to examine how the above mentioned theories merge with modern technologies and social media in order to produce organised migrant flows, like the ones we have been experiencing for the past 6 and a half years.
The convergence of technology and migrant flows
Smartphones have evolved into an essential tool for migrants who wish to travel through other countries while keeping their chances of detection by the local authorities to a minimum. Younger, digitally literate migrants use their smartphones in order to document their travel and use the data they have collected in order to pass information on to other migrants on matters such as which are the best routes to follow in order to cross borders undetected and how to avoid and/or deal with local authorities.
Smartphone ownership and digital literacy appear to be important factors to the speed and quality of a modern migrant’s journey. Syrians, being the most well-equipped and digitally literate migrants, are able to utilise smartphone technology and the internet so as to increase their chances of a successful journey. African, Bangladesh, Iraqi and Afghan migrants on the other hand, are neither so well-equipped nor do they possess a high level of digital literacy which makes their journeys slower and tougher by comparison. Usually, migrants from poor countries will pool their collective resources so as to acquire a lower quality smartphone as a group. They will then proceed to explore together its capabilities, making use of free Wi-Fi networks since they cannot afford any commercial data plans.
Smartphones and social media are also used by migrants in order to follow news concerning their journeys or their countries of origin.They prefer alternative news sources such as information shared by their family, personal contacts, activists, NGOs and veteran migrants to state news sources. Their news flow is heavily dominated by WhatsApp which is used for the circulation of various links sent by their relatives and friends. More mainstream sites which are subject to stricter surveillance like Twitter and Facebook are not used as often. It appears that WhatsApp messenger is the dominant application used by migrants due to the fact that its messages are not monitored as heavily as those sent via Facebook or Twitter. It is being primarily used as an information exchange tool among migrants in order to exchange pictures of travelling routes, news and data necessary for their journey. Through the use of WhatsApp and similar messaging applications migrants can create vast networks which allow the constant flow of up to date data and information. This is possible through the creation of a chain of information in which migrants who are farther ahead in their journey share their experiences with those still behind so they can inform them about what actions they should follow or avoid.
Of course, travelling migrants are not the only ones who have discovered the power of these technologies. Smartphone technology and the internet are also utilised by trafficking groups in order to come in contact with potential clients and guide them on how they can purchase and make use of their services. Their Facebook pages openly advertise trafficking services as well as the option to gain fake travelling documents. They also provide full details on how they will be able to help their clients pass through borders successfully (e.g. smuggling routes, means of sea and land transportation) as well as their business contact information.
Facebook is also home to autonomous migrant groups/pages which have created pools of data in order to help other migrants successfully reach their destination. The data collected and shared in these groups provides everything from pictures and videos of safe routes to exact GPS coordinates. These groups/pages are able to pool data by hosting online discussions about matters most vital to the travelling migrants. These include, but are not limited to, news about the situation back home, information about asylum seeking procedures in European countries, the locations of safe travelling routes, day to day experiences and challenges, etc. The quality and quantity of the data and information shared in these groups has allowed those following them to complete their journeys independently thus creating a dent in the traffickers’ business model who have as a result lowered their prices as much as 50% in order to maintain their client base (Brunwasser, 2015).
The Road to Germany
One example of the potency of the kind of data circulated in these pages is the “Road to Germany” map.
According to 53 migrant interviewees in Paris, this map which depicts step by step the journey from Izmir, Turkey to Germany is a well-known and highly used resource in the migrant world. Despite its simplicity, it provides a fully detailed guide on the cost of every step of the journey, the currency used, the means of transportation needed and the names of every place a potential migrant will have to pass through to get into Germany.
The creators of this map went even into the painstaking detail of writing the names of the destinations in such a fashion so as to make sure that those consulting the map would be able to pronounce them as closely as possible to their local phonetic pronunciation, thus maximizing their chances of getting to the right place with minimum communication problems. It should also be mentioned that the places depicted on the map are not random destinations, but rather capital cities and border towns vital for the successful and speedy crossing of borders.
The images used on the map are simple yet effective at helping its users understand the action that they must seek so as to advance closer to the end of their journey. These images were most likely produced for or added on the map with the use of image editing PC software which yet again shows how much thought and effort went into it. Even the stick figures at the end of the map can tell us a lot about it since they were most likely added on a physical/printed copy of the map which was later scanned into digital form. Resultantly, it can be said that this map has been used repeatedly in both physical and digital form and is the product of the data collected and distributed among many autonomous migrants, online migrant groups and even professional traffickers as well as various other information sources. It serves as an example of how the collective data pools of the migrant and trafficking networks can be sourced and used to produce effective solutions and guidelines for migrants, bypassing local authorities as well as government and national efforts to curb their flow.
In conclusion we can now understand how social media can bring migrants together and facilitate the creation of vast, online, migrant networks. These networks, based upon bonds of kinship and common origin, begin to pool data and individual experiences while sharing this information freely with all their members. Modern technology plays a crucial role in this as it provides both the technical means and the platform for the recording and the distribution of this information. Through membership in online messaging apps and group pages, migrants can create information chains which share and update information in real time as those farther ahead in the chain relay their experiences to its newest links. The data collected and shared allows those partaking in the information chain to reach their destination while simultaneously adding to its collective data pools. This in turn creates a self-sustaining system which aids those migrating in their journey while also incentivising prospective migrants to become parts of the information chain and begin travelling as well.
All things considered, it is now clear how social media and the accompanying smartphone technology has played (and continues to do so) a vital role in 21st century migration. Through their use, all of the above mentioned social theories were put into action, if not on overdrive, creating migrant networks and huge migratory flows. Social media platforms played a key role as hosts to these networks allowing them to create pages, groups and even market their illicit businesses. Resultantly, it would not be unfair or far fetched to claim that if so desired, there are a myriad of ways that social media could be utilised for the guidance of a migratory flow as well as its intensity.
Political Scientist, Negotiator
Affiliate of HICD Denmark
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