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The immigrants ‘crisis’ and the limits of Facebook

RazvanNicolescu18 May 2015

Photomontage realised by Vento Rebelle and posted on their Facebook page on the 20 April 2015.

Photomontage realised by Vento Ribelle and posted on their Facebook page on the 20 April 2015 and shared by left-wing individuals in Grano.

This post is prompted by the continuous tragedy represented by the immigration from North Africa on the shores of south Europe. Data shows that over 23,000 people have died since the turn of the millennium in attempting to reach Europe, most of whom drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. This is about 50% more than the official estimations.

The most dangerous route is the one between North Africa and South Italy (mainly the Isle of Lampedusa) estimated to have seen almost 8,000 deaths in this time interval, followed by the Eastern Mediterranean route (between Greece and Turkey), and the West Mediterranean one (between Canary Islands and Spain).

In Italian media, the most common term used to describe this phenomenon is ‘tragedy’, and the Mediterranean Sea is deplored as a ‘cemetery’ or ‘battle camp’. The Italian authorities are undertaking the enormous effort to save the lives of immigrants and direct them to the overpopulated reception centres. Very recenlty the Italian Navy saved 4,000 migrants from the Strait of Sicily and one migrant woman gave birth to a baby girl on an Italian warship. In 2014 the operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ operated by the Italian authorities cost 144 mil EUR and was estimated to save more than 150,000 people in 421 sea interventions. According to the Italian officials, the number of people in Italian reception centres is currently almost 70,000, out of which 14,000 are unaccompanied children.

Since I started fieldwork in April 2013, the issue of immigration on the southern Italian shores was a central concern in Italian media. This was equally reflected on Facebook: each time a tragedy happened people used to share news and moving photos from mainstream journals on the platform. Most people who posted personal comments were deploring the existing situation and accused the larger international context of not taking appropriate action. The political left accused the immorality of Western world that did nothing to reduce poverty, inequality, and stop the numerous conflicts in Africa and Middle East, while the political right accused Europe of virtually leaving the southern countries of the continent alone in their fight to stop the death toll caused by illegal immigration.

Some directed their criticisms towards European Union and officials who did not recognize this as a European crisis and left some of the most impoverished countries, such as Italy, Spain, and Greece to solve it by themselves. Others accused the politicization of the crisis, as they saw that most political interventions, especially those from outside Italy, do not focus on the reasons of this crisis, but on ways to reduce immigration and requests for asylum.

But overall, most people in Grano had a profound sense of helplessness when confronted with the press reports on the never-ending tragedies. The general sense was that this was a humanitarian crisis that nobody really had control over; Italian authorities were simply obligated to react promptly and save lives.

This is one example when public social media mirrors the mainstream media. Both average people in Grano and leading editors in national journals share the sense that their voices are not heard by policy makers and that there is little will from the international community to solve some of the issues that cause migration in the first place.

In this context, the problem raised by this post is the inefficiency of social media to really influence the international agendas in the short term. The fact that people can act extremely fast on social media gave many the idea that their governments and international players should also act more promptly than they used to. And when they see this is not happening, many are disillusioned. They see that higher political forces simply disregard their concerns as expressed on social media.

Many people in Grano contrast this to the efficiency of some transnational agencies and influential social activists that use social media to sustain and promote their respective projects, whether these are political or humanitarian. The frustration comes from the fact that a media that is announced as being global and effective in nature, proves to be extremely limited and ineffective for most people.

This is reflected in one of the findings of the Global Social Media Impact Study that argues that most of the time, rather than representing global forms of socialization and information, social media is extremely local and specific.

In Grano, Facebook encompasses a strong emphasis on the local through photography of local sea and landscape, food, and traditions, and opens to broader issues through memes with moral implications, anecdotal content, and criticisms of the (usually) national politics. In this equation, the wave of people seeking a better life in Europe is seen as a ‘crisis’ and social media reflects the inertia of conventional media and European society at large.

Note: This seems to be the biggest social and humanitarian problem in contemporary Europe; it seems to be a response to the process of self-closure that sociologists and historians have remarked Europe has undergone in the last century. In this sense, it is a revolution. One main difference to the anti-governmental movements in recent years is that the migrants’ revolution is not promoted on social media, maybe because it does not have leaders, but there are common people who want to tell us something. The first step is to listen to them.

Why we still need an Anthropology of Europe

DanielMiller1 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Razvan Nicolescu)

Cake – Grano style

Cake – Grano style (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of visiting other field sites is exposure to the incredible contrasts between them. Although Italy and England are both part of the European Union there is almost nothing in common between our respective sites. Both Leeglade (our UK fieldsite) and Grano (our Italian fieldsite) are approximately 16,000 in population. But Leeglade is in every respect a village. There is just one small high street of basic shops. By contrast Grano is clearly a town with many different streets full of shops, probably hundreds of shops in total. There is no manufacturing in Leeglade, while artisanal work is common in Grano.

Most people in Grano live in extended families and own land. Indeed most people in Grano are self-sufficient in home grown olive oil. We have never met a landowner in Leeglade and almost everyone lives in nuclear families or on their own. Furthermore many people in Grano also own empty properties they envisage one day will be occupied by their children, this too is unknown in Leeglade.

Perhaps the biggest contrast is an economic activity and what the money is used for. The owners of most shops in Grano work in their own premises. Shops seem to exist more as places to establish the social position of the owner and an opportunity for them to socialise, rather than as a mechanism for the maximisation of profits. Indeed most things that go on here, including online activity, are really ways to facilitate offline social networking. Partly as a result most people’s incomes are considerably lower than those of the inhabitants of Leeglade. Although in Grano property prices are low, transport and food are cheap so one needs much less to live. By contrast, most of the clothing shops in Grano consist only of extremely expensive clothes, that one would have imagined as well beyond the means of the people who live there. In Leeglade property prices are very high and there are no clothing shops at all.

In Grano people will rarely spend money on a drink outside of the home, saving for items such as very expensive sunglasses and accessories. One reason is that in the summer especially the whole town socialises in the public squares. In Grano between 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the afternoon you can hear a pin drop. The shops are closed and no one is moving around the town. In Leeglade this is prime working time. In Grano people are very often invited to somebody else’s house for dinner. In Leeglade people spend a good deal on drinking and entertainment outside of the home, but it is very rare for them to have another person from the village invited to dinner inside the home.

Overall we would suggest that the degree of differences between the two sites are pretty much as they might have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. Some things were once in common but have disappeared. A 90 year-old in Leeglade recalls how, as a child, he saw men literally doff their cap when a carriage with local landowners passed by. The same might have been true in Grano. Today both sites are witnessing an increase in home-based IT work.  But in general a person from Grano would find almost everything about Leeglade astonishing and inexplicable. People in Leeglade would find Grano wonderful as a tourist destination but would have no idea how people live like that whole year. Though the view each has of the other has changed dramatically. Not so long ago people who were studying English were considered to be gaining an entry to a land of bowler hats and conformity, perhaps the most formal place in Europe. Today adverts in Grano for English classes portray England as the land of quirky individualism, the most informal place in Europe, in contrast to the strong social conformity of Grano.

One of the main reasons for insisting upon an ‘Anthropology of Europe’ is that when we experience these differences we also realise the importance of anthropology as a critique of other disciplines with their tendency to extrapolate into universals of human behaviour. The writings of economists and psychologists are likely to fit much more easily with the norms of Leeglade than of Grano, probably because so much of that academic writing takes place in places such as the UK and the US, amounting to a kind of academic imperialism of human norms. Indeed Razvan regards an important contribution of his work as a critique of assumptions in political economy.

We don’t want to make the same mistake in our understanding of social media. Having our nine sites means we are much less likely to privilege any one place as the basis for claims about cognitive or economic imperatives that pertain to overly abstract notions of ‘the Internet’ or even Facebook. Here we can see generalisations at the level of Europe are problematic, but as other blogposts have shown the differences between our two Chinese sites may be even more striking. Sometimes people think that anthropology is just being obtuse or ‘difficult’ because we eschew easy generalisation, and seem to be deliberately siting ourselves as flies in the academic ointments that are proffered to our understanding the world. But comparing our sites we would say quite the opposite. We do not choose to be difficult and relativist. We simply acknowledge the world as we know it to be, and refuse the dishonesty and blindness that wants to wish away these realities because they make academic life harder and make anthropology less popular than ‘science’. We will still strive for generality, theory and analysis, but we do not apologise for the fact that we are really going to struggle to achieve these things, because the integrity of our discipline says that this has to incorporate and not exile the diversity that simply is our contemporary world.