It is a reality of human behavior that people usually relate better to stories than to facts and reasoned analysis. Stories have the power to motivate, compel, and persuade – to create a movement or call people to action. Social media has become a space for the sharing of stories, and indeed much of the online conversation about refugees is through this medium. Which stories people choose to share should be of interest to anyone concerned about the plight of refugees; as these choices elucidate points of interest, allude to how perceptions might be shaped, and open an opportunity to influence hearts and minds.
This Forum post will consider the refugee stories that are shared on twitter. Analyzing common narratives from the popular stories, this post hopes to give a flavor of the kind of content that is capturing the public imagination, and explain why anyone working to improve the lives of refugees should care about these stories.
A note on methodology
The dataset of tweets analyzed in the post were collected as part of a project to assess attitudes towards refugees on twitter in the UK. With the kind support of Demos, in particular researcher Leah Selig Chauhan, tweets containing the key words “refugee” or “migrant” were collected from the freely accessible twitter API. All relevant tweets sent globally between November 19th 2016 and December 5th 2016 were collected, with a total collection size of 808,991 tweets. From those tweets that were geo-located in the UK, a random sample of 1000 tweets was taken. This sample gives an unbiased representation of tweets sent in the UK; though we note that this is not necessarily representative of “British citizens”, rather anyone tweeting from inside the UK. The observations in this post were made post-hoc, and serve more as a springboard to further investigation than a robust assessment of the comparative popularity of the stories.
Rags to riches – refugees who excel
Many of the stories feature individuals who have excelled in some way (usually in their host country); reaching the pinnacle of an athletic, academic or professional pursuit, against all odds. Consider the following examples from our dataset:
This young Syrian refugee wants to be the next big soccer star. https://t.co/VQheH330p2—
AJ+ (@ajplus) November 13, 2016
Figure 1 – A video telling the story of a young Syrian refugee who wants to be a soccer star
The story depicted in the tweet in Figure 1 appears multiple times in the dataset. The attached video tells of a 7-year-old Syrian refugee resettled in Germany who demonstrates exceptional skills in football. The story of a Syrian goal-keeper rebuilding his career in England was also popular. In both stories the subject possesses an impressive talent. The fact that the talent is football may be of further cultural relevance, given the popularity of the sport in the UK.
The next example in Figure 2 tells the story of the first Somali-American lawmaker in the USA, who is also a refugee. The tweet emphasizes her other “demographic disadvantages” (such as being Muslim and a mother of three), highlighting the fact that she made it against all odds. In this case the subject of the story has achieved great professional success.
She's a former refugee, a Muslim, a mom of three and now, the first Somali-American lawmaker in the United States… twitter.com/i/web/status/7…—
(@NPR) November 10, 2016
– Tweet telling the story of a former refugee who is now a US lawmaker
The example in Figure 3 shares the story of Nicolaus Pevsner, a refugee who settled in the UK and became the author of a series of iconic architectural guides to the UK (the Pevsner Architectural Guides). This man made an outstanding academic and cultural contribution to the host country where he settled.
C20 Society (@C20Society) November 20, 2016
– Tweet telling the story of a refugee who famously chronicled British architectural achievements
In all these examples, the subject of the story is admirable and has integrated successfully into their new lives in the host country. Another factor that the stories share is that their subjects have worked exceptionally hard to reach success. This element is further illustrated in the story of a refugee from Sierra Leone, resettled in the UK, who tells of his experience as part of the Arsenal FC photography community project. His article is a first hand account of how much he enjoyed the program, and how he is now mentoring the next group of participants in the project, entitled “Refugee from Sierra Leone to Arsenal Emirates Stadium.” He also highlights the financial hardship he faces living in the UK, and how difficult it is for him to pursue his dream of becoming a photographer. Perhaps this element of grit and hard work is what made this story particularly attractive to UK tweeters, as the feat itself of participating in the workshop is not as exceptional as the achievements in the other stories.
“From … to …” – coming from hardship to a town near you
Many of the popular stories emphasize the notion of coming from difficult circumstances faraway to a local space in the UK. Stories in the dataset such as “From Aleppo to Belfast” or “From Syria to Suffolk” tell stories of refugees who have recently resettled in the UK. The stories contrast the war-torn situation the refugees have come from with a pleasant and peaceful life in the UK. Both stories mention that the subject is learning English in order to better integrate with their communities, though this is by no means the focal point of the stories.
We note that with all the stories considered so far the refugees have been resettled in a Western country, most often the UK. This makes sense given we are considering UK tweeters. It is probable that the (cultural) proximity of the final location to a UK tweeter’s home environment makes the story more relatable. This may be why stories that highlight a small location, such as Suffolk or Belfast, are popular – it could be your city.
Stories of Atrocities and Terror
By far the most popular story in the dataset, accounting for just less than a tenth of all tweets, was a first hand account of a brutal attack on a refugee school in Greece (Figure 4). The account describes in detail how the school was attacked with petrol bombs by the neo-nazi group “Golden Dawn,” and how the police did not intervene but rather protected the assailants. This tweet was particularly compelling to UK tweeters – perhaps due both to the familiarity of the story-teller (seemingly a British volunteer) and the sheer horror of the story.
My sister, currently helping run a refugee school in Greece, has asked me to pass this on. The Nazis are literally… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…—
John (@JM_Underwood) November 21, 2016
– Tweet sharing first hand account of an attack on a refugee school in Greece
Not just the refugees of today
While the most mentioned refugee group was Syrian refugees, we note that the stories in the dataset did not refer only to refugees of recent crises. Some, such as the story of Pevsner, referred to refugees of World War Two or other historic conflicts. In the dataset we see a juxtaposition of past refugees already integrated into society with incoming refugees who are currently faced with the challenge of integrating. One could speculate that seeing such stories in the context of a conversation about refugees might soften people’s attitudes towards receiving them.
So why should we care about these stories?
We should care about these stories because they show us the kind of content that is capturing the imagination of the British public. In turn, these stories also have the ability to shape people’s perceptions. By recognizing the elements that make stories about refugees “shareable,” pro-refugee content can be made more attractive in a strategic and evidence-based way. For example, based on our analysis we could generate the following list of suggestions for writing “catchy” stories about refugees:
- Relate it to the local or the familiar – make sure the story refers to something readers can relate to such as a nearby town or popular hobby
- Choose a talented subject – success stories of people thriving in their host country are popular
- Make it a first hand account
The lessons learned from the stories could go beyond just tips for shareable content; they could even give us ideas about how to help refugees integrate in the UK. For example, from this dataset football has emerged as an activity that makes a refugee story of interest to UK tweeters; perhaps football workshops with local children could help refugee children relate to and engage with their peers.
Research by the TENT foundation found that ¼ of Britons had changed their attitude towards refugees in the last 6 months, with half becoming more sympathetic and half becoming less sympathetic to their plight. The most common factors listed by people as making refugees more sympathetic were reading news stories (68%), photos of refugees who perished during flight (64%), and imagining themselves in a refugees situation (49%). This underscores the potential of online content and news stories to change hearts and minds with regards to refugees. Stories such as those found in our dataset could help the public imagine themselves in the situation of a refugee, and eventually improve attitudes towards refugees.
UK government policy has become increasingly hostile towards refugees. The UK has opted out of the EU’s voluntary burden-sharing scheme for refugees, and has only pledged to take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 (Germany, for example received 315,000 asylum applications just in 2015). The UK government has also recently halted its program to resettle 3000 lone child refugees, having received only 350 of the 3000. Changing the hearts and minds of the population will be important to promote good policy with respects to both resettlement and humanitarian support.
These stories are just a selection from one dataset from one social media platform during one particular time period; and as such the observations made are not yet generalizable. However, they do highlight the potential value in a more in depth analysis of the stories shared in refugee conversations online. Further analysis of the characteristics of refugee stories could be revealing: what kind of refugees feature in the stories? Where have they come from and where are they going? What have they done? Why is this story of interest to UK tweeters? Such an analysis could indicate which narratives resonate with the public, and help define strategies to change hearts and minds with respects to incoming refugees.
Karissa Singh is the founder of UK social media campaign Post Ref Racism, and is currently studying a masters in Public Administration, specialising in Human Rights, at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
 AJ+ Verified account, “This Young Syrian Refugee Wants to Be the next Big Soccer Star.pic.twitter.com/VQheH330p2,” microblog, @ajplus, (November 13, 2016), https://twitter.com/ajplus/status/797940867658977280/video/1.
 NPR Verified account, “She’s a Former Refugee, a Muslim, a Mom of Three and Now, the First Somali-American Lawmaker in the United States Http://N.pr/2fVzNnB Pic.twitter.com/1syHxTFFZQ,” microblog, @web, (November 10, 2016), https://twitter.com/i/web/status/796856837241008130.
 “The Refugee Who Opened Our Eyes to the Manmade Beauty of Britain,” The Guardian, November 19, 2016, sec. Opinion, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/19/refugee-britain-nikolaus-pevsner-guide?CMP=share_btn_tw.
 C20 Society, “Nicolaus Pevsner: The Refugee Who Opened Our Eyes to the Manmade Beauty of Britain Http://Bit.ly/2fcX3rB Pic.twitter.com/Bn9kAT1Sqq,” microblog, @C20Society, (November 20, 2016), https://twitter.com/C20Society/status/800350491653730304/photo/1.
 “Refugee from Sierra Leone to Arsenal Emirates Stadium.,” Refugees In Media and Broadcast, November 14, 2016, http://www.refmb.net/refugee-from-sierra-leone-to-arsenal-stadium/.
 Kelly-Leigh Cooper, “From Aleppo to Belfast: A Refugee’s Story,” BBC News, November 4, 2016, sec. Northern Ireland, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-37859093.
 Gemma Mitchell, “Ipswich Life Is ‘beautiful’ for Young Syrian Refugee Humam,” Ipswich Star, accessed January 12, 2017, http://www.ipswichstar.co.uk/news/ipswich_life_is_beautiful_for_young_syrian_refugee_humam_1_4771264.
 Society, “Nicolaus Pevsner.”
 TENT Foundation, “PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF THE REFUGEE CRISIS – UK,” November 2015, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55462dd8e4b0a65de4f3a087/t/570686f622482ed0f69daf8f/1460045574113/TENT_2015Nov_CountryReport-UK.pdf.
 Alan Travis Home affairs editor and Diane Taylor, “PM Accused of Closing Door on Child Refugees as ‘Dubs’ Scheme Ends,” The Guardian, February 8, 2017, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/08/dubs-scheme-lone-child-refugees-uk-closed-down.