This news landscape this summer has been shaped by the refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq etc. are trying to get to safety in Middle Eastern countries as well as Europe.
A lot of them are coming through Austria, where civil society has stepped up to take care of them – often employing social media to coordinate their efforts.
Hashtags: Solidarity or activism?
The use of activist hashtags on social media has gotten a bit of a bad rep, since it’s often just a show of support and not of action. The derogatory term for this is “slacktivism”.
The self-deluded idea that by liking, sharing, or retweeting something you are helping out.” – urbandictionary.com
It’s unsurprising then, that many assumed the hashtags of the refugee crisis were simply a case of slacktivism. It soon became clear though, that a lot of people were using Twitter to actually get involved. Using hashtags, they turned social media into an excellent organisational tool.
The idea of using social media to rally is not new. Social media has been crucial in the Arab Spring, allowing activists to communicate uncensored as well as reach other communities:
“In countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, rising action plans such as protests made up of thousands, have been organized through social media such Facebook and Twitter.” – Saleem Kassim
From slacktivism to activism: Hashtags as an organisational tool
In the current refugee crisis hashtags became crucial once refugees were finally allowed to take the trains from Hungary to Austria and on to Germany, who had temporarily opened her borders to them. Vienna’s main railway stations suddenly found themselves flooded with refugees coming in from Hungary.
Since the Austrian government wasn’t doing much to help, civil society stepped up. Volunteers flocked to Hauptbahnhof (Main Railway Station) and Westbahnhof (Western Railway Station) in Vienna.
In order to communicate what was needed at any given time, people took to Twitter and Facebook using the hashtags #westbahnhof and #hauptbahnhof, and later #keleti to rally in the Budapest train station that blocked refugees from leaving. The hashtags #trainofhope, #marchofhope, #nickelsdorf, #röszke and, of course, the ubiquitous #refugeeswelcome were also used to coordinate help in Hungary and Austria.
— Katrin Fallmann (@KatrinFallmann) September 2, 2015
The downside of activism hashtags: Information decay
The hashtags were a great way to deal with mass communication during the first few days. However, there are a few problem when activists rely solely on updates via Twitter. When there is a variety of hashtags in use, the hard facts spread out over the different hashtags and searching Twitter for just one of them can never give a full picture of the situation.
The other problem is that information quickly becomes outdated. Here’s an example: When I went to Westbahnhof on 1 September and asked what was needed, I was told that they urgently needed Arabic translators. I tweeted the information minutes after noon and within the hour a lot of translators arrived.
A lot of Arabic translators just arrived. Looks like we're covered. #Westbahnhof
— Andie Katschthaler (@thegrumpygirl) September 1, 2015
Anyone might have still retweeted my original tweet, making it seem like more translators were needed. That is how fast information on Twitter can degenerate and it’s also how conflicting information gets spread.
Train of Hope: Social media team keeps everyone up-to-date
Two weeks later the humanitarian efforts in Vienna have not abated, thanks to the volunteers getting organised. With the government still being mostly idle, the helpers have rallied and set up a loose adhoc-NGO called Train of Hope.
Train of Hope have set up a base at Hauptbahnhof where they coordinate helpers, translators, and donations. They’ve also put up a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. Information is being distributed centrally, and that has made all the difference.
Social media is still their chosen tool of communication. They even have a dedicated social media team working around the clock to keep everything updated and source help via Twitter and Facebook.
They still use the hashtags #trainofhope and #hbfvie, sometimes asking for specific donations in the middle of the night – and receiving help from insomniac social media users who then come by and drop off medications, food, blankets etc.
“Thanks to Facebook and Twitter it took us only two weeks to establish a community of people, who come by and help out, but also use their own existing networks and communities to help us solve the problems we’re facing every day. Without these tools we could never have built a microcosm so complex and effective.” – Train of Hope social media team.
Conclusion: Social media is a powerful tool – when used right
While social media as a decentralised coordination tool definitely has its pitfalls, it’s still an extremely powerful tool when rallying civilian help without attention from established institutions. Without social media the volunteers would never have been able to get organised so quickly in the first place, and Train of Hope would never have been established.
Furthermore, many traditional humanitarian organisations don’t use social media natively and can’t reach those using Twitter and Facebook who would be willing to help out. Meanwhile, an adhoc organisation like Train of Hope, which is primarily made up of social media-savvy people who know the power of hashtags, can effectively source donations and helpers even in the middle of the night.
If you want to help out in person, use the Train of Hope Facebook page to figure out what is needed. Those who want to help out financially from further away can do so via the Train of Hope Indiegogo campaign.