Research paper Melodie Zöllner

Refugees in the digital age – the distorted truth of identity formation on digital media


Refugees in the digital age:
The (distorted) truth of identity formation on digital media

Melodie Zöllner             
Honours Research Exchange HKU-UU

Almost twenty years ago, Blagovest Sendov stated in his article that the new information and communication technologies would influence human life and economy so profoundly that we would all become learners again, “both as individuals and members of (real or virtual) learning communities”, with these developments leading us to “a global knowledge space” that would provide the ground where global wisdom could grow (1997, p. 415). Living twenty years later, we can say that this “global knowledge space”, referring to the internet as a global information source, has indeed come closer. But to what extend can we say that all the information on the internet, accessible everywhere in the world, really contains the objective truth and therefore really contributes to “global knowledge”? Are we able to filter subjectivity? And if not, what is the danger of this? What power do digital media nowadays have in our perception of the world?

With the growing popularity of digital media, its power has increased enormously. Digitalization has become a keyword in the policies of companies and educational institutions in recent years and has started to function as the symbol of progress in our “digital age”. While gaining great importance in our daily lives, internet access has almost become equal to crucial resources such as food. For one population group in particular internet access has become such a crucial resource; refugees. Even though this group is living in great precarity, its possession of iPhones has not stayed unnoticed in the news. Why does this group of people, possessing such little money, decide to spend relatively that much money on a cellphone? Lately, their digital media usage has been criticized a lot in the news, referring to it as a waste of money that could better be spend on “real” crucial resources, such as food and clothes. This raises the question what the real value of internet access is for these refugees. What do they actually use it for and why?

In 2015 Melissa Wall, Madeline Otis Campbell and Dana Janbek researched the ways Syrian refugees living in a large refugee camp in Jordan used cell phones to cope with information precarity. According to their findings, they stated that cell phone use was identified by the refugees as a “crucial resource akin to food, as a lens for understanding their experiences of information instability.” This citation confirms the degree of importance that communication with the outer world through calling and internet has for refugees. The refugees indicated that they generally experienced a lack of information in the following five ways: technological and social access to information, the prevalence of irrelevant, sometimes dangerous information, lack of their own image control, surveillance by the state, and disrupted social support.  So not only did they experience information precarity on specific important political topics, but even more on a social level in the controlling of their image. Controlling the display of an image or identity is especially important for a sensitive population such as refugees, knowing that in particular the remarkable cases are highlighted in the media, putting refugees often in the spotlight in a time of “refugee crisis”. Unfortunately this spotlight, often making use of stereotyping, can have negative consequences for the ones being displayed in this light. As stated before, articles on digital media are hardly ever completely objective, highlighting mostly remarkable cases instead of normal cases,  and therefore often displaying the identity of refugees in a different way than they would display themselves.

Despite this insecure situation, it will be hard to restrain this subjectivity in a time when internet usage is only gaining importance. Therefore it is important to research what value digital media can have for refugees, but also what dangers digital media can bring. And subsequently, more attention should be payed to these concerns in order to figure out how to cope with them. In this essay I won’t be trying to find solutions for this problem of subjectivity and attention seeking on digital media, but I will lay down some facts and visions on the difference in the way refugees construct their (digital) identity and the way their identity is constructed through the internet. In this way I hope to create more awareness about this dangerous situation in which now more than ever, with the Brexit in our minds, digital media can influence our perception of the world.

The positive value of digital media for refugees

To start off, it is important to look at the positive impact that digital media can have on the social life of refugees. Refugees, who form a rather isolated population, can make use of digital media to connect with the outer world. Having left their home country and often many family members and friends, the possibility to contact them but also to make contact with people in their new hometown is extremely important to them. Multiple researchers have analyzed the ways in which digital media are being used to enhance family ties among transnational populations, and have found optimistic results. Thomas and Lim (2010) for example have found that it enhances the well-being of the refugees “in terms of their levels of communication and intimacy with communities in their home countries and even within their diasporic communities”. In the same way according to Johnson (2013) “mobile phones contribute to helping transnational migrants navigate their new urban homes and produce new networks of social connections”. Through these new networks of social connections refugees also “link-up” or create new social networks with others, whereby they transform transnational social spaces. In this way they can experience a feeling of togetherness and feel stronger as a group. Furthermore, smartphones give them a sense of security in their new, unknown environment (Wall et al, 2015). Being able to search crucial information on the internet and contact anyone in dangerous situations gives these refugees a feeling of safety, but at the same time also a feeling of independence. For example, because of the smartphones, refugees are no longer dependent on people-traffickers. They can simply use GPS and google maps to find their way to other countries. And at the same time many Facebook Pages keep them up to date about easy ways to cross the borders and warn them for fraudsters between the traffickers. At the end of this dangerous journey the smartphones give them the possibility to let their family know that they safely reached their destination (Kastelijn, 2015).
Through the process of making connections with the outer world, refugees also construct their identity. As they are being put so often in a wrong spotlight in the media, digital media give them a platform to express themselves, to control their image and to show their real identity to the world.

Portraying refugees on digital media

Despite all these positive findings of digital media usage, the overall viewpoint on refugees on the internet is rather negative. Refugees are often put in bad light by the enlarging of every small trifle in the refugee camps in the news. An important cause for this is the pressure journalists feel to find as much news as possible in order to compete with the news in other journals. Therefore many journalists are willing to do everything to find footage to make a new headline, even if this entails using misleading pictures. Unfortunately this deception happens a lot. Small fights in the refugee camps get enlarged in articles into stories about refugees attacking each other violently, stoking up fear and hate towards this population. Defending refugees in these situations is crucial, but very difficult. Frightened citizens jump to conclusions very easily without verifying such articles. In this way negative opinions towards refugees are being based on wrong information, causing dangerous hatred without proper reason. The most perfect example of the danger of these false prejudices is the disastrous Brexit that only happened one week ago. This referendum, partly based on xenophobia, might have been pushed in this direction by an enormous amount of negative stereotypes and myths spread by politicians and subsequently adopted and exaggerated in the media. Digital newspaper The Week showed for example that a survey conducted on behalf of the British Red Cross found that “the words people most associate with media coverage of refugees and asylum seekers are “illegal immigrants” and “scroungers”” (2015). Popular myths, like “Britain is a refugee magnet”, “asylum seekers are a drain on the economy and the welfare system” or even “the number of refugees in Britain is soaring”, can easily be refuted.

To give an example of the measure in which these statements are exaggerated; in 2015 out of the four million refugees fled from Syria, Britain had only welcomed just under 5000 (Ashworth-Hayes, 2016), even though Turkey, for example, had opened its doors to 1.8 million refugees despite having a GDP per capita roughly four times less than that of Britain (The Week, 2015). Britain, a refugee magnet? I wouldn’t say so.

Moreover, the myth that refugees or asylum seekers bring the economy and welfare system down can be completely refuted by the fact that in general immigrants are younger and significantly more educated than the average person born inside the UK. According to digital newspaper Newstatesman, most studies even suggest that migration is a boost rather than a drain to the British economy. “This implies that much public anger about immigration is a proxy for broader concerns – about housing, unemployment, the health service, a sense of alienation and loss of identity” (Wigmore, 2016).

Finally, the overall thought that the number of refugees in Britain is soaring does not correspond with the actual numbers. Britain’s Refugee Council reported in The Guardian that  numbers have actually dropped by 76,439 refugees since 2012, compared to a rise from 70 to 86 percent in developing countries in the past decade (The Week, 2015).

Unfortunately such false claims can be spread over the media very easily, reaching millions of people within hours by shared messages on numerous platforms. According to the psychological mere-exposure effect which explains that repeated exposure to a stimulus leads to a positive evaluation of the stimulus, the over-exposure of such exaggerated statements on digital media can be very dangerous. This effect is clearly visible in the revelation by think tank British future in 2012 that half of the Britons believed that more than ten percent of the population were refugees. One in 20 people even believed that the majority of the British population were refugees, even though the true figure was less than one percent (The Week, 2015). While typing the search term “Brexit racism” I already get 2,54 million results, which already might have multiplied many times at the moment you are reading this. Of course this search term isn’t chosen by coincidence. Even though the decision of leaving the European Union is only partly based on arguments regarding the refugee crisis, the attention to these arguments for the Brexit has actually led to an increase in racist attacks across the country. When the amount of attention on a certain population in the media leads to such distorted believes and actions, alarm bells should start ringing regarding the power of digital media.

The role of the mediator

On the other hand, this attention to refugees in the news and the highlighting of their bad living conditions have encouraged many people to set up refugee organizations. Already in a small city like Utrecht every month new initiatives rise up, trying to get in contact with the refugees by supplying provisions like clothes and food, but also to provide Dutch classes or simply spend some time with the people to help them integrate with the Dutch society. These organizations often get in contact with the refugees through digital media, but also speak “In the name of” these refugees through digital media. In this way they function as mediators between refugees and the outer world to bring their needs and wishes forward. Of course the rise of all these initiatives is a great development and their positive attention to the refugees is much appreciated. But we also need to be careful while saying this. Even though these organizations claim to give voice to the wishes of the refugees by speaking in name of them, it is important to question to what extend this voice truly corresponds with the voice of the refugees. And even more important, we should question if we can even talk of a voice of the refugees. Can the voice of individuals living in a similar situation, and therefore in this case being called refugees, be generalized in one voice?

While reviewing the Spectres of Marx, Jacques Derrida also poses himself this kind of questions. The ideas of Marx about a spectre that is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism, have inspired many people for decades. But this famous sentence revolves about the idea that “the voice of the people” will finally rise.

« L’esprit de révolution couvrait de son nuage ce sommet où grondait cette voix du peuple qui ressemble à la voix de Dieu ; une majesté étrange se dégageait de cette titanique hottée de gravats. C’était un tas d’ordures et c’était le Sinaï. Comme nous l’avons dit plus haut, elle attaquait au nom de la Révolution, quoi ? La Révolution. (Derrida, 1993, P. 157) »

Marx even describes the voice of the people that emerges from this spirit or spectre of the revolution as a voice resembling to the voice of God. This spirit attacks in name of the revolution. Thus it attacks in the name of many individuals, which might make you question the heterogeneity of their voice. It is therefore not a coincidence that Derrida speaks of “spectres” instead of “spectre, when talking about Marx’s spirit(s) that covers the voice of all these individuals. What does this have to do with the case of the refugees, you could ask yourself. In a certain way we could link this spirit, that attacks the revolution while speaking in name of this disadvantaged population, to the mediating organizations that try to give the refugees a voice, by speaking in name of them. If the voice of the people resembles the voice of God, this voice should be good as God is good. But what is good exactly? And who decides what voice is the ‘good’ voice, resembling that of God? In the same way, the mediating organization try to do ‘good’ for the refugees by speaking in name of them. But who’s opinion and thoughts, judged as the right thoughts, do they really bring forward?

We should keep in mind that people are always consciously or unconsciously influenced by others. Referring to Emmanuel Levinas, we could say that every encounter leaves a “trace of the other” on someone (1963). Therefore other voices always shine through someone’s voice, and while giving voice to the other, the own voice plus the voice of others might shine through the voice that is supposed to be carried forward. This is clearly visible in the media. Interviews with refugees are almost always adjusted, maybe citing two or three sentences of the refugee and complementing the rest of the article with sentences influenced by own believes and other dominant believes that have influenced the writer’s thoughts. While everyone seems to have a voice on the internet, the dominant voice is still very orchestrated and steering, shining through subjectively in many thoughts laid out on the digital media.

A rare initiative that goes against the stream is digital platform The Publisher. “The publisher is an independent, nonprofit digital platform for stories and artistic work made by refugees.” ( Through their website they give refugees a platform where they can show their work (poetry, art, story, food and film) to the world. They already distinguish themselves from other refugee organizations by focusing on positive qualities and talents of the refugees, but even more by aiming to provide honest information by first hand sources, without any interference of the platform or any adjustments to the works of the refugees. In this way they aim to “inform the public better and start a positive and clear conversation.” (

Even though The Publisher does an amazing and inspiring job, it is unfortunate to see that even in this positive case there is still need of a mediating party. The level of dependency on mediating initiatives is very high, due to the insecure situation of the refugees. Having arrived in a new country without knowing the culture nor the language, mediating parties are needed to protect this population, to help them integrate into society, and to transfer their wishes and thoughts. This level of dependency might influence the freedom with which the mediators interpret their words in their articles on the internet.

Nevertheless, the fact that initiatives like The Publisher can grow in the Netherlands and open debates, is already very fortunate compared to the situation in a place like Hong Kong. Refugees here depend largely on aid from refugee organizations as asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not allowed to work and therefore have to survive on food coupons with an amount of approximately 150 to 190 dollars a month, while living in one of the world’s most expensive cities with room rents starting from 400 dollars a month (Regan, 2016). Because of this situation the dependence on aiding organizations to survive and being heard, like Christian Action, is extremely high. It is then again surprising to see that the name of one of the biggest refugee organizations in Hong Kong refers to a rather western religion. As a representative of this organization explained during our visit in Hong Kong, this isn’t a coincidence. By standing up for the refugees, this postcolonial organization goes against the Chinese government which demands courage. Even though Hong Kong is a very multicultural city, people from Chinese origin generally do not really mix with other cultural minorities, showing overall less compassion with the refugees than people with other cultural backgrounds living in the same city.

As the dependence of refugees on mediating organizations stays high throughout the world, and the power of digital media keeps rising, solving the problem of subjectivity in the representation of refugees will stay a difficult case. As the refugee crisis continues, refugees will stay in the spotlight of the media, suffering from their vulnerable situation. But digital media do not only harm refugees as we have seen. Through these media, refugees also get the chance to express themselves, to connect with others and to control their image. But to tackle the dangerous side of digital media, awareness needs to be raised on the problem of subjectivity and stereotyping. Verification of the accuracy of articles on the internet has to be encouraged, and most importantly, refugees need to be supported to gain confidence and independence, in order to be able to fight back against the growing xenophobia in the world.


Derrida, J. (1993). Spectres de Marx: L’État de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale. Paris: Éditions Galilée.

Johnson, M. C. (2013) Culture’s calling: mobile phones, gender, and the making of an African migrant village in Lisbon. Anthropological Quarterly. 86(1): 163–190.

Levinas, E. (1963). La Trace de l’autre (The trace of the other) (A. Lingis, Trans.). Tijdschrift voor Philosophie, 605-623.

Sendov, W. (1997) Towards global wisdom in the era of digitalization and communication. Prospects, vol. 27, no. 3, 415-426.

Thomas M. & Lim, S. S. (2010) On maids, mobile phones and social capital—ICT use by female migrant workers in Singapore and its policy implications. In: Katz J (ed.) Mobile Communication and Social Policy. Trenton, NJ: Transaction, 175–190.

Wall, M., Otis Campbell, M., Janbek, D. (2015). Syrian refugees and information precarity. New Media & Society. doi:10.1177/1461444815591967.

Internet sources

About us. The Publisher. Retrieved from!about-us/c1208.

Ashworth-Hayes, S. (2016, March 4). Has the UK only taken in 216 Syrian refugees? Full Fact. Retrieved from

Kasteleijn, N. (2015, August 29). De smartphone, het nieuwe ‘wapen’ van de moderne vluchteling. NOS. Retrieved from

Refugees in Britain: the facts behind the headlines. (2015, September 3). The Week. Retrieved from

Regan, H. (2016, June 22). Asylum seekers struggle to survive in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Vision First. Retrieved from

Wigmore, T. (2016, June 16). How will Brexit affect the refugee crisis? Newstatesman. Retrieved from



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