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Q&A: Mihailidis on Using Digital Media to Tell Migrant Stories

Associate Professor Paul Mihailidis, co-director of the Emerson Engagement Lab and graduate program director of the MA program in Civic Media: Art and Practice, recently released “Digital Crossroads: Civic Media & Migration,” about “the role of digital media in engagement between and among migrants and host communities.”

The report was co-authored with associate professor and Engagement Lab founder Eric Gordon and Engagement Lab research project coordinator Liat Racin in partnership with the Salzburg Global Seminar (which Mihailidis directs), and was funded by the German Institute for Cultural Relations.

Emerson College Today asked Mihailidis about his findings and the ways in which they’re relevant to current political realties surrounding migrants, refugees, and government attempts to bar their entry.

Emerson College Today: Your research emphasizes personal narratives over wide-angle statistics when talking about migrant populations. In an era of “alternative facts,” what can NGOs do to make the stories resonant and credible to a wide audience, and how do they counteract competing narratives that might directly contradict their own stories (i.e., refugee as terrorist)?

Mihailidis: I think the NGOs need to find ways to work with communities, which oftentimes the media is not so concerned about. NGOs oftentimes have access to individuals and groups that media don’t. Because of this, they can find ways to highlight issues and individuals in dynamic ways.

What NGOs struggle with is the capacity to do this type of storytelling. They are often underresourced and understaffed, and as a result they have access but lack the tools to create compelling content. This lack of capacity also leads to a lack of abilities and competencies to be able to tell effective stories in the digital age, where information travels fast and often emerges in disorganized ways.

ECT: We hear a lot about media “bubbles.” How can digital storytellers pop those bubbles and reach new audiences?

M: The filter bubble is a very apt concept that applies to what we see in digital media today. Many pundits and researchers alike now see the recent surge in polarization and partisanship related to the homophilous networks that people spend time in online. This is also what may be perpetuating some of the unhelpful stereotypes of migrant and refugee communities, and the xenophobic sentiments that emerge.

In our report, we highlight the role of mainstream media in legitimating such rumors based on their need to tell “big” stories, [which] reduces a complex topic like migration to a clear and big-picture narrative. What the organizations we talked to for our report were focusing on was going beyond large narratives to focus on the human elements of migration, and by doing so they found ways to connect the issues with faces and bring the plight of these individuals to communities that are assisting them. This involved both a need to tell vibrant and personal stories but also find ways to make stories about dialog and connection, and not simply dissemination.

ECT: What groups or individuals, for good or ill, are using civic media the most successfully today vis-à-vis migration?

M: In our report, we detail the work of many organizations that are designing technologies and facilitations that are supporting the transition of refugee and migrant communities into new receiving communities. Some of the strongest examples of this are see[n] by agile and small organizations.

The 19 Million Project brought together storytellers and artists to use narrative and art to help communicate the plight of refugees. Me/We Syria was a project that taught digital literacy and media-making skills to refugees in camps and allowed them to tell their own stories with easy-to-access tech. Migrant Voice is another group that builds effective personal narratives of refugees and takes those stories to provide access points for receiving communities.

Larger organizations like the IOM and LinkedIn are also doing really interesting storytelling work that may not be very large, but it’s meaningful and creates a way for communities to use tech as a means for expression and dialogue.

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